Perspective

How Twitter transforms conversations between companies and customers

Whether the old saying “the customer is always right” is true or not no longer matters.

We now live in an age when a single Tweet can circumnavigate the globe in less than a minute; right or wrong, the customer can never be ignored. 

Smart companies like Apple understand the power of talking directly to their customers. That’s why the consumer electronics giant launched its dedicated Twitter support account last March. In the time since, has gained more than half a million followers, generated more than 150,000 likes and Retweets, and won the first-ever Twitter Award for Outstanding Customer Service.

Along with Twitter's silver and bronze award winners ( and , respectively), Apple's gold medal win indicates how profoundly Twitter has changed the conversation between companies and customers, to the benefit of both.

Apple's move to Twitter reduced average support response times from 17 hours to a matter of minutes. In addition, the company used Twitter to deliver proactive help to its users, including videos featuring helpful tips and tricks.  now allows customers to track packages via Twitter, resulting in 25,000 fewer phone calls. By publicly vowing to answer all queries on Twitter within 30 minutes, Société Générale redefined how big banks deliver customer service.

Offering good customer service via Twitter is an opportunity to showcase to the entire world how responsive your company is. Done poorly, however, it's an open invitation to have your faults exposed and your reputation shredded.

Going public

Before Twitter, customer service was almost uniformly awful, says Emily Yellin (), author of "Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us."

It originally evolved from the role of receptionist, she says. That person's job was to act as a firewall to shield the company from the public. Eventually companies were forced to create a department to deal with unhappy customers, whether they liked it or not.

"Everybody I've ever met has had at least one really bad customer service experience," says the Memphis-based journalist and author. 

Then Twitter came along. Suddenly, private grievances turned public. People began using Twitter to hold businesses accountable for providing a level of service that met their expectations. That's when some companies started to pay closer attention.

A March 2015 survey by Simply Measured found that the number of top brands launching dedicated customer service accounts on Twitter is growing nearly 20 percent per year.

"The fact that Twitter is instant and public has empowered customers in a way that had never existed before," Yellin says. "In the past when a call to a company went bad, customers would tell their family and maybe their coworkers, but nobody else. Now everybody can see those conversations.

In 2010, when her book was re-issued in paperback, Yellin added a new chapter: "Your Tweet Is Important to Us."

Greater expectations (and how to deal with them)

But adding Twitter as a conduit for grief also changes expectations about what “good customer service” really means, says Savannah Peterson (), founder of Savvy Millennial, a community engagement consultancy based in San Francisco.

"Twitter changes the velocity at which the conversation happens," she says. "Every customer is now having a face-to-face conversation with you, even if there's a screen between you and them. That's why they expect responses so fast. They think, 'If I sent my Tweet in two seconds, why can't they respond in 30?' The longer one waits to address a complaint on Twitter, the hotter and more widespread the fire burns."

Responding quickly not only puts out fires, it can also generate revenue by meeting and exceeding customer expectations. Research has found that the fastest responses generate the greatest revenue impact.

Seventy-two percent of people who use Twitter to lodge complaints expect a response within an hour, according to an October 2013 report by Lithium Technologies. That puts huge pressure on companies to have both staff and a strategy in place to deal with customers on Twitter, notes Nick Brennan (), founder and CEO of Watch Social Media, a marketing and media firm in Chicago.

Time lag is one of the biggest challenges, especially when there's a potentially incendiary Tweet and multiple people must weigh in on how to handle it.

"The first thing you have to do is assess the conversation and the account you're dealing with," Brennan says. "Is this person just trolling or honestly willing to have a dialogue with the brand? Even if they are trolling, do they have a large following or are they using popular hashtags? It might be worth responding to them, simply so other people can see the way your brand addresses the situation."

Most of the time, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Companies that fail to respond to legitimate complaints — or do so in an inauthentic or dismissive way — only make things worse for themselves.

"Twitter has turned customer service into a spectator sport," says Jon Symons (), principal of Until They Smile, a marketing firm based in Edmonton, Alberta. "With the ability for any Tweet to go viral, businesses have tremendous pressure to monitor and to craft impactful replies to mentions of their brand. Humor and generosity are rewarded, self-service is punished, and defensiveness is attacked.

Twitter can also make some problems seem worse or more widespread than they really are, adds Savvy Millennial’s Peterson.

"That's the dark side to customer engagement," she says. "You might only have 10 people Tweeting about an issue, but because those people have influence, there may already be reporters working on a story about how you failed as a company. You need to quickly put out that digital fire before it turns into a meme."

Collecting competitive intelligence

Besides proving to the world how responsive you are to customers' needs, Twitter can also be a great source for market intelligence.

Watching a competitor Tweet with customers is an excellent opportunity to learn from their mistakes and capitalize on them, says Scott Ruzal (), director of accounts at DXagency in Edgewater, New Jersey.

"I've seen a lot of companies get hammered on Twitter," he says. "What's really cool and fascinating is that if you are that brand's competitor, you can see what their most common issues are, then figure out how you can solve those problems and steal business away from them."

Stepping into a conversation and offering a solution is also an opportunity to surprise and delight potential customers. Ruzal says one of his clients, a pest control company, used this to great effect when it saw people complaining on Twitter about problems with rodents.

"We offered them a free trial of the product," he says. "People responded very favorably to that. It's something they don't expect to happen — someone else coming in to save the day."

In fact, people's reactions to brands on Twitter contain a trove of information most companies fail to capitalize on, notes Dr. Jillian Ney (), a digital behavioral scientist based in Glasgow.

"Most companies are firefighting responses and only thinking about customer service," she says. "But these conversations hold extremely valuable insights on how the business can improve, reduce costs, make more revenue, and surprise customers to increase loyalty."

By examining people’s conversations on social media, companies can drill down on what captures people’s attention, why they purchased a particular product, and what kinds of things make them connect emotionally with a brand.  

The result: better products, happier customers.

Surprise & delight

Still, having a proactive Twitter response team on call 24/7 and empowered to solve customer issues isn't enough, Yellin notes.

"Twitter is not a magic bullet," she warns. "If a company has great exchanges with its customers on social media but still infuriates them on the phone, they can make their frustrations easily known — and they'll probably do it on Twitter."

But the opportunities Twitter presents for turning negative experiences into positive ones are virtually endless, Peterson says.

"The great opportunity with social media platforms like Twitter is to surprise and delight," she says. "People come to a customer service platform expecting something mundane and scripted. Anything you can do for them that's human and empathetic is a chance for them to appreciate you more."

Editor's note: As of April 2017, we’ve updated our product names and video campaign objectives on ads.twitter.com:

Product names:

  • Promoted Video stays Promoted Video
  • Premium Pre-roll becomes In-Stream Video Ads
  • Amplify Packages becomes In-Stream Video Sponsorships

Campaign objectives:

  • Promoted Video becomes Promoted Video Views
  • Pre-roll becomes In-Stream Video Ad Views (Pre-roll)
  • Mid-roll becomes In-Stream Video Ad Views (Mid-roll)