July 22, 2008 -- You know the drill. Dial the phone number for the company you are hoping will solve your problem -- cable, phone, Internet, credit card rates. The list is endless.
You want a real live human so you have to figure out how to get past the recorded uninterested voice that says: "Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Spanish" -- while you start pressing 0 in an attempt to bypass the phone tree and get to someone who has the ability to solve your problem.
Millions of people call customer service every day, yet few are satisfied with the responses they get. What does a frustrated consumer need to do to get prompt help?
That's right, tweet. Twitter is the newest social networking Internet site that asks its 50,000 users only one question when they log on: "What are you doing? The trick is to respond in 140 characters or less, which keeps posts short and pithy.
When Tracey Lee Wallace logged on one Monday morning she was venting her frustration because her Comcast service was down -- no phone, no cable, no Internet, and she was dead in the water.
Wallace is a single mother who runs a Web design business and often works out of her home so she can tailor her activities around her children's schedule. When her 11-year-old son needed to stay home from school because he was sick she thought she could work from home.
Alas, her Comcast services were all out. "It was an extremely frustrating day. I called and worked my way through the phone jungle, told my story to three different people, was put on hold, then told they couldn't get to me before Thursday."
Frustrated, she logged on to Twitter from her BlackBerry and typed "Damn Internet down in my house. Arrrrrgh. Can't fix until Thursday. Shoot me."
Twitter kicked in. Wallace didn't know that Comcast had a digital detecting unit searching the Internet diligently looking for unhappy customers who needed help. Frank Eliason heads that unit for Comcast and saw her rant. "She clearly needed help. As soon as I saw her post I started tracking her down."
Eliason went to great lengths to find Wallace. He located her Web site, found who owned her domain name, tracked down her business partner, who then called Wallace and said Comcast was looking for her.
Wallace was astounded. "I didn't know there was a Frank Eliason. I called him, and he explained to me what he does. He surfs the Internet looking for people complaining just like me, finds out what the problem is, and he does his best to fix it and fix it fast." Wallace was up and running again by 5 p.m. that day.
So, is this the solution for everyone with a problem? Skip the phone and just log on to Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Linkedin and rant and rave? Probably not.
Consider the numbers: Comcast gets more than a million phone calls every day. Eliason and his small team of 10 help just a little more than a hundred people a day.
Comcast isn't the only company doing this. Space memorabilia collector Robert Pearlman ran into a problem with Apple and FedEx when he was trying to ship a time-sensitive item overnight. After a frustrating round of phone calls he logged on to Twitter and posted.
"Apple says talk to FedEx, FedEx says talk to Apple." Within minutes he had a response from a FedEx executive who solved his problem.
Pearlman was impressed. "I used to think of Twitter as an annoyance, and now I see it as a useful service for consumers."
Why can't companies get it right the first time when an angry consumer calls on the phone? Chris Bronk, with the Baker Institute, said the phone reps are overwhelmed and don't have that much clout.
"Everyone is complaining. Comcast is facing more complaints than they used to when they were just the cable company. Now they are the phone company, your Internet company, and they might even do your home security."
Companies, Bronk said, have to make savvy Internet users happy. "To get it right with the Twitter people is to get it right with the geeks. If the geeks are angry and go all over the Internet saying you are not good, it is going to hurt the corporations doing the selling."
Comcast's Frank Eliason saw a clear need to be part of Twitter. "It is important for companies to be where the conversation is -- conversations are happening all the time on e-mail and chat now."
Bronk agreed. "Especially in areas where a very small group has a strong comprehensive knowledge, companies out there selling in this area really run a risk of becoming yesterday's news."
The trick, said Bronk, is for companies to take what they learn from Twitter and expand on it. "If they can knock it out of the park for everybody and not just for those who are Internet-savvy, then they are really on to something. The key is to learn from this and figure out where they have bottlenecks and problems in providing customer support."
Tracey Wallace is now a devoted customer, thanks to the help she received after her post on Twitter. "I am totally loyal to Comcast -- they took care of me."