AT&T Turns to Twitter, Facebook for Customer Care

AT&T Inc. is making a big move in the customer care space, with a plan to use social media as a new avenue to soothing the ire of, say, all those iPhone users out there that are having trouble with dropped calls.

Twitter and Facebook have long been considered valuable branding and promotional tools for corporations and startups alike; only recently however has their potential as customer care tools been explored. Comcast Corp. earlier this year became the poster company for such a strategy by hiring a digital care director with a team reachable by the Twitter flag @comcastcares. Sprint-Nextel Corp. has an active strategy to supercharge its social media presence, billing Twitter and Facebook as perfect venues for fans and haters alike problem resolution is part of a three-pronged strategy that includes promotions and user chat/advice.

The gadgets exclusive carrier and perennial Twitter trending topic (not in a good way) averages 10,000 mentions per day, which spikes when something goes wrong, like the pre-order meltdown of the iPhone 4 last week. With a plan to fight fire with fire, AT&T hired a social-media strategist for customer care, Shawn McPike.

According to Advertising Age, AT&T started the team last August and has grown it to 19 people whose sole responsibility is responding to Twitter and Facebook complaints. The Twitter handle @ATTCustomerCare sends complaints directly to the team, while a Facebook wall serves on that site. And sure, the less generous could say that signing up for customer service this way becoming AT&Ts friend is a good strategy for growing the audience available to push opt-in marketing messages to. But team members and software also monitor for AT&T-related posts that arent sent directly into the command center and try and handle those as well; about 47 percent of people that the team reaches out to respond. On the whole, AT&T is generating 32,000 service tickets per month via the strategy.

Many companies are investigating ways of using social media networks to improve their image, gain trust, and delight customers by providing proactive customer care, said Sheryl Kingstone, research director for Yankee Group, during a webinar with Siemens Enterprise Communications on the subject. She maintains that social media conversations should be handled by the contact center, but notes that important questions remain:

There are numerous pilots being run, without a lot of structure and formality, she said. For instance, how do you monitor the 5 billion pieces of content that are being written every week on various social networks? Who’s in the best position to monitor all this content and potentially engage people through social networks? How do you report on who said what to whom and when? How do you maintain control over your corporate brand and the image that your marketing department has worked so hard to develop? Since contact centers were designed to meet these challenges, doesn’t it make sense to add social media as yet another channel of communication into the contact center?

Apparently AT&T for one is ready to take its social-media care initiative to the next level by actually publicizing it; it plans to remind users of the channel on its bills, website and other customer touchpoints. Expect those 32K requests to balloon exponentially as word goes out, and its likely to prompt the carrier to run up against some of the aforementioned questions.

For now, the carrier is taking an almost mea culpa approach: “It’s hard to sit there and let someone blast you, but that’s the only way we’re going to improve,” said McPike to Ad Age. “As much as it’s not pleasant, I have to fully acknowledge and encourage people who come to me and listen. What we worry about is that there are customers out there who have problems. We need to at least get them engaged to show that we’re listening and that may turn the tide over time.”

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