Tweeting for customer service, not marketing


Some businesses use Twitter for customer service in addition to marketing. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ricardo Gilkes, founder of D.C.-based housecleaning service Maids in Black, recently faced a new public relations dilemma, a product of the social-media age.

A customer running a well-trafficked music site tweeted his dissatisfaction with the maid service to his 12,228 followers.

“@maidsinblack unhappy. Paid u $200, nobody arrived, called, you promised they’d be here, nobody came, so we’re cleaning ourselves,” @indiefeed had tweeted.

Gilkes had to decide, should he respond?

Half an hour later, @maidsinblack did just that: “I can’t say how sorry we are. We will refund shortly and try to do a free cleaning as well. Calling now.”

Maids in Black’s public response follows the example of larger, more established businesses — Best Buy’s @Twelpforce, launched in 2009, is well known for responding directly to customers’ tweets, whether they are product malfunction complaints or return-policy questions. More locally, electric service provider Pepco adopted a similar approach with @PepcoConnect, a customer service account run by a Pepco public relations representative, responding to several specific customer concerns daily.

Because of Twitter’s searchability, a business’s “dirty laundry” is very visible — but so is its ability to respond to angry as well as satisfied customers, said Daria Steigman, founder of D.C.-based consulting company Social Biz Smarts.

Steigman suggested that small businesses respond to complaints online at least the first time for each customer but then to quickly take the conversation offline. For example, instead of resolving the issue completely via Twitter, request the dissatisfied customer send a direct message with contact information and immediately discuss the problem on the phone — this is both to contain the complaint and “humanize the brand,” reminding the customer that the business is responsive, Steigman said.

Even in the absence of complaints, all companies should be monitoring themselves online, she said. A failure to do so could result in a public relations dust-up like Motrin’s 2008 Web ad that offered relief to mothers who carry their babies around in slings and other carriers, hundreds of whom were offended and took to Twitter to complain and organize boycotts of the company before Motrin was able to respond on Twitter.

After the Motrin incident, “bigger companies are savvy of [these risks]. But smaller companies can be caught unawares,” Steigman said.

Gilkes acknowledged the potential costs of using Twitter as a main communication channel, even for a small business — he often spends more than an hour each workday tending to tweets, and he is constantly checking his phone throughout the week. (@indiefeed did not respond to a request for comment.)

After “a bad experience, people are going to talk about it. It helps us to hear the conversation,” he added. “For the most part, if you’re pretty responsive, you can allay people’s fears, apologize and offer a little gift.”

Gilkes has calculated that 10 to 15 percent of Maids in Black customers come from Twitter (he checks where the traffic to the service’s booking site comes from) — and he offers a 10 percent discount for first-time users booking through the social-media outlet.

But he thinks Twitter might be especially effective for his company because, in general, his clientele is young — it might not be as useful for businesses whose customers are less tech savvy.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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