When a Stanley Cup broadcast suddenly went black in late April, many Comcast subscribers simply scooted to Twitter to find out why.
It was there — not on a phone system with multiple options — they discovered that a lightning storm in Atlanta had caused a power outage during the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins hockey playoff game, and that the transmission would be restored soon.
"I did a search on Twitter as soon as the game went off the air," says Dave Decker, 31, a Web developer in Pittsburgh who regularly tweets while watching sporting events. "The mystery was resolved in minutes. Before Twitter, it would have been a nightmare trying to find out what happened on the phone."
Comcast's deft use of Twitter underscores what is becoming a staple in modern-day customer service. Increasingly, corporate giants such as Comcast, PepsiCo, JetBlue Airways, Whole Foods Market and others are beefing up direct communications with customers through social-media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The popular communications technology has helped companies quickly and inexpensively respond to customer complaints, answer questions and tailor products and services. It has supplemented current customer services, easing the load on call centers and expensive mailers that most consumers abhor. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and online software services such as LiveOps, Salesforce.com and RightNow Technologies are all are being used to improve customer service, retain users and gain a competitive advantage.
"If you're trying to hide from your customers, don't use Twitter," says Demian Sellfors, CEO of Media Temple, a Web-hosting service. "We want to know what our customers think, both good and bad. That's a good thing."
As more companies effectively use social-media tools for customer care, it also is becoming easier to shift customer-relations resources to the U.S. and feed into the fledgling "homeshoring" trend. Home-based workers have become de rigueur among employers to take advantage of better technology, gain productivity from employees no longer tied to long commutes and leverage the expertise of local workers.
There are about 200,000 so-called homeshored jobs — most of them in the U.S. — and more than 300,000 are expected by 2012, says Stephen Loynd, program manager for contact center services research at market researcher IDC.
"The competitive landscape for customer care is subtly changing because of technology like Twitter," Loynd says.
Changing with their users
As Americans — especially younger ones — flock to Twitter, the companies that sell them goods and services are following them. Those companies view social-media services as the ideal vehicle to air comments, gripes and suggestions.
"It's where a lot of our younger customers are," says Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's global director of digital and social media. His position and title changed eight months ago, reflecting the changing face of customer service.
In this emerging world, Frank Eliason is something of a legend. For more than a year, he has helped pioneer the use of Twitter as a customer-service resource at Comcast."We can see in real time what our customers think, and learn from them," says Eliason, director of digital care at Comcast. He leads a team of 10 people for @comcastcares, which has nearly 24,000 followers.