How to Prevent Customer Tweets from Going Public

There are probably two desires for every company's Twitter strategy:

  1. Get people to love us so they buy more
  2. Avoid public complaints

Unfortunately, many companies inadvertently nudge customers to complain via Twitter. Case in point is a recent experience I had with a consumer products company.

It had been three days since I had emailed the company and it still had not responded. I wanted to send them a direct message (DM) via Twitter to gently nudge the company and request a response. For the uninitiated, a DM is private, meaning the world can't see it.

But wait! The company hadn't configured its Twitter account to accept DMs (i.e. private messages). So I couldn't message the company privately. I opted to send a public tweet instead.

Here's how companies can prevent this.

Person clicking on the Twitter app on their smartphone.

Why Private Messaging is Important

The key difference between a public tweet and a private DM is who can read it.

Anyone can read a public tweet. A private DM, however, is similar to email, chat, and other written customer service channels. The conversation remains private.

The key is starting the conversation in private.

The social customer care platform Conversocial recently released some interesting data based on two years of tweets from its enterprise clients.

Table showing tweets that started in public versus tweets that started in private.

Nearly all conversations that start in private (i.e. via DM) remain there. So the key is making it easy for customers to send you a DM.


Make It Easy to DM Your Business

Let's go back to the consumer products company. Twitter aside, the first and most obvious move is to respond to customer emails! My own research has uncovered two things:

  • Email response time standards should be 1 hour
  • Most Twitter complaints are escalations

So a fast and effective email response will likely prevent an escalation to Twitter. When you don't handle your business in other channels, customers will complain in public.

OK, so how can the company make it easier for me to DM them?

Right now, the company's Twitter settings are set up so only customers the company follows can send them a DM. One simple change to the privacy and safety settings on the company's Twitter account can fix that:

Screenshot of Twitter's Direct Message settings.

This setting allows anyone to DM the company, making it far easier for customers to start a conversation in private. Notice the difference between the @Comcast and @ComcastCares Twitter profiles. You'll need @Comcast to follow you if you want to send the company a DM, but you can send @ComcastCares a DM immediately.

Screenshot of Comcast corporate Twitter profile.
Screenshot of the Comcast Cares Twitter profile.

Take Action!

The best thing you can do is make it easy for your customers to contact your company, and make it easy for your agents to respond properly.

Twitter offers a slew of more advanced features for businesses. These include:

You can learn the basics of serving customers via Twitter from my training video, Serving Customers via Social Media.

The Best Way To Prevent Customers From Tweeting Complaints

Last March, Shannon Watts tweeted a complaint about United Airlines.

Watts had observed what she believed to be poor treatment from a United gate agent towards several other passengers and she took to Twitter to voice her displeasure.

The tweet went viral and eventually made national headlines.


Never mind that Watts only witnessed only part of the incident and had some of her facts wrong. (This thoughtful post from One Mile at a Time clears that up.) Or that United didn't help itself with its poor initial response.

What's scary is this type of viral complaint can be a PR nightmare. 

So what can companies do to protect themselves? I did a study of customer complaints on Twitter to find out and one very clear answer appeared.

Here's what you need to do to prevent 80 percent of those complaints.

Customer opening the Twitter app on their iPad.

Study Overview

I did a similar study in 2014 to find out what customers complained about on Twitter. You can find those results here.

Social media use by customers has risen since then, so I decided to replicate the research to see what has changed.

I looked at tweets attached to three common hashtags that contained a complaint:

  • 100 tweets tagged with #badservice

  • 100 tweets tagged with #customerservice

  • 50 tweets tagged with #servicefailure

A couple of notes here:

Only obvious complaints were included. For instance, the #customerservice hashtag also has a lot of job postings and customer service advice articles, so I left those out.

There's also a clear limitation to this study. Not every customer who complains uses a hashtag, or one that is consistently popular. So it is a possibility that my results are a bit skewed.

Finally, for background, a 2017 study from Sprout Social found that 46 percent of people have used social media to complain about a brand. My own study on consumer response time expectations revealed 40 percent of customers use Twitter for customer service.


The Big Result

There's one insight that really jumped out—80 percent of complaints on Twitter were an escalation.

This means the customer previously had contact with the company via a different channel (phone, in-person, email, etc.) and had not received a satisfactory resolution.

This makes it clear that the best way for businesses to prevent these types of complaints is to get it right the first time. Unfortunately, many companies do such a poor job serving other channels, they effectively train customers to use social media.

Here are the top reasons people complain for 2014 and 2018:

Chart highlighting twitter complaints by category for 2014 compared to 2018.

Number one on the list is waiting for a resolution. These customers experienced some issue with a company and felt it was taking too long to get fixed. This angry tweet could have been prevented if the initial phone complaint had been handled to the customer's satisfaction.

The third most popular reason customers complain on twitter is the customer never received a response to another contact. This customer tweeted about a product issue because she's still waiting for a call. The company probably could have prevented this tweet by (a) fixing the issue or (b) responding to her request for a call.

Many public tweets are a customer's way of venting about a service failure. Quite a few tweets aren't even specific about the issue or what resolution the customer is seeking. 

Take Action!

One thing you can do is trace the social media complaints your company receives. This can apply to Twitter or any other social media channels.

  1. What are customers complaining about most often?

  2. Can you address the root cause?

For example, one company identified a number of complaints were all connected to the same process. They are now fixing that process to help improve customer satisfaction, which in turn should reduce complaints.

There are also a few courses on LinkedIn Learning to help you develop your social media customer service skills.

You'll need a LinkedIn Premium account to watch the full videos. You can get a 30-day trial here or access the training through your account.

How Fast Should a Business Respond to an Email?

Email is a critical customer service channel.

A 2017 study from inContact revealed that just 43 percent of customers were highly satisfied with their most recent email customer service interaction. Those who were happy cited speed as a top delighter.

The average company takes 12 hours and 10 minutes to respond to an email, according to a 2018 study from SuperOffice. That's certainly better than the old one business day standard, but is it fast enough?

In April 2018, I surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to learn exactly how fast they expect businesses to respond to emails. The survey also examined response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages.

You can read the analysis below or browse the data yourself.

Customer typing an email message to a company.

Study Overview

This is the first time I've done this study since 2015, when those results revealed the new email response time standard was just one hour.

The 2018 study surveyed more than 1,200 consumers to see if this has changed.

Participants were asked how quickly they expected a response when contacting a business via email. Response time expectations for Twitter and Facebook messages were also assessed.

Finally, the study examined whether response time expectations varied by age group. For instance, do Millennials expect a faster response than Baby Boomers?

The age groups were defined using definitions from the Pew Research Center. One note, too few members of Generation Z (ages 21 and under) and the Silent Generation (ages 73 and over) participated to include their perspective in the age group portion of the study.


Email Response Time Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of one hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service..

Email response time expectations

This conclusion comes from looking at the response time that will meet the expectations of at least 80 percent of customers

This can be a little confusing at first because the top choice was one day, with 43 percent selecting it. But one day only meets the expectations of those who selected one day or 2+ days, which is a total of 56 percent. You pick up 14 percent of customers if you can respond to email within four hours, though that's still just 70 percent of the total.

A one hour email response time will meet the expectations of 89 percent of your customers. Companies aiming for world-class customer service should respond within 15 minutes or less.

The study looked at response time expectations by age. The responses were fairly close together, but there was a mild surprise. Baby Boomers want the fastest response.

Email response time expectations by generation

A smaller group of 206 respondents was asked an additional question: How quickly do you expect a response when emailing a coworker?

Chart of email response time expectations for coworkers.

Response time expectations for this group are very high and arguably unreasonable, with 41 percent of people expecting coworkers to respond to email within one hour. 

The pressure to respond quickly causes many people skim and scan emails from colleagues. They then send partial responses which generates a lot fo unnecessary back and forth. One study found that the average email conversation at work includes 4.5 messages.

Which generation has the highest expectations for coworkers? Generation X leads the pack on this one.

Chart showing how quickly each generation expects coworkers to respond to email.

Twitter Direct Message Response Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 15 minutes.

Twitter response time expectations.

Anything slower that 15 minutes risks disappointing a large portion of customers. This can present a challenge for businesses as Twitter is not as popular as more traditional service channels such as email, phone, or even chat. There may not be enough volume to justify staffing for a 15 minute response time. 

Once again, Baby Boomers have the highest response time expectations:

Twitter response time expectations by generation

One note from the study is only 40 percent of participants message businesses via Twitter. That percentage is only slightly lower for Baby Boomers, with 35 percent saying they use Twitter for customer service.


Facebook Message Response Time Expectations

Businesses should target a response time standard of 1 hour, with 15 minutes representing world-class service.

Chart showing Facebook message response time expectations.

A one hour response time may be adequate for most customers, but 17 percent still want to hear back more quickly. For Facebook, it's Millennials who want the fastest response.

Chart showing Facebook message response time expectations by generation.

Only 50 percent of participants message businesses via Facebook. Millennial Facebook usage is slightly higher than the group average, with 55 percent saying they have contacted a business via a Facebook message.


Get More Insights

I hosted a webinar where I shared some more granular data from the study along with several tactics for meeting customer demands for fast responses. You can watch the webinar replay.

How to Meet People and Learn About Service on Twitter

I met my neighbor on Twitter.

Jeremy Watkin wasn't my next door neighbor, but he lived about a mile away from my home. We connected because he is a customer service expert who regularly shares interesting customer service content (follow him on Twitter!)

We exchanged tweets and I subscribed to his outstanding Customer Service Life blog that he co-authors with Jenny Dempsey. It was a few months before I learned we lived in the same neighborhood. 

This isn't uncommon. 

ICMI just released it's list of Top 50 Thought Leaders to Follow on Twitter. Including Jeremy and Jenny, I personally know 23 of the 50 from meeting them on Twitter. 

That's not bragging but rather a testament to the power of Twitter as a networking and learning tool. Here's how you can use Twitter to grow your customer service network and knowledge too.

Be Helpful, Not Spammy

A so-called customer service expert once begged me to follow him on Twitter. Literally begged me. He sent me daily tweets that read, "Please, please follow me!"

The reason? He had a new book coming out and wanted help promoting it. Ugh. Those tweets were exactly why I didn't follow him. 

Don't be spammy.

Don't tweet to people and ask them to read your blog or sign up for your newsletter. They'll discover your amazing content on their own if it's relevant to them.

Instead, try to be helpful.

Notice what people are tweeting about customer service and share the content you like. Tweet back with your own take or helpful links. Ask questions. Show appreciation.

In other words, use Twitter to engage in honest conversations. You just might learn that someone interesting is your neighbor.


Find Experts to Follow

Follow some customer service experts you admire. 

These people often scour the internet for new ideas and helpful tips so you don't have to. They also share their own interesting and relevant ideas.

Not sure who to follow? 

There are plenty of top tweeter lists like the one ICMI just put out. Look up the Twitter handles for people whose books or blogs you read, keynotes you listen to, or even journalists who write about customer service.

You can also see who the people you follow follow. For example, I typically only follow people who regularly share relevant and interesting customer service content.

You can click on that "following" number and discover new people.


Follow Hashtags

Hashtags are away of organizing content around a specific theme, so following customer service-related hashtags is a great way to discover new content and ideas.

My favorite hashtag for customer service is #custserv.

There are other good ones too, and you may discover additional hashtags that are relevant to you or your industry. 

Here are a few other favorites:

Tip from the pros — some companies try to ruin these great hashtags by spamming them constantly with job postings and other marketing. You can block or mute these Twitter handles so you don't see them in your feed.

I like to use Tweetdeck to organize the various hashtags I follow, but there are plenty of other tools you can use such as Hootsuite.


Join Tweet Chats

Tweet chats are great opportunities to learn and network.

These are regularly scheduled events where a moderator will tweet questions around a particular topic. Anyone following the chat's hashtag can view the questions.

Here's an example from #icmichat (Tuesdays, 10am Pacific):

People then respond to the question by starting their tweet with A (for answer) and the question number while including the hashtag so everyone else can see it.

In addition to #icmichat, I regularly enjoy the #custserv chat at 6pm on Tuesdays.

Want to find more chats? You can often spot people you follow engaging in chats. Another good option is to tweet to a few experts to ask for their recommendations.


Follow Conferences

Many customer service conferences have an active backchannel, which is really just another way of saying they have their own hashtag.

There are two ways to use conference hashtags.

If you're attending the conference, you can network with other participants by engaging in conversations about a particular keynote or breakout session. This is particularly helpful in big sessions that wouldn't otherwise be interactive.

If you can't attend a conference, following the conference hashtag allows you to capture some of the big themes and top insights without having to be there.

Alaska Airlines Nails Social Listening

A few weeks ago, AT&T stumbled into an #icmichat Tweet chat. It's a weekly Twitter chat that revolves around contact centers and customer service. 

Someone mentioned a poor AT&T experience, which generated a series of automated Tweets from AT&T's @ATTCares account. 

The got trolled for their efforts.

It was an ironic example of how not to practice social listening. Someone on AT&T's social care team evidently got the message because the automated automated Tweets have stopped happening. 

Today, I get to point out a good example. Alaska Airlines provided a textbook example of social listening during this week's #icmichat.

We were discussing how airlines will sometimes match competitor's frequent flyer status in an effort to get them to defect. I mentioned that Alaska Airlines had recently done this for my wife. Another participant asked how to go about it.

Knowing Alaska Airlines is on top of social media, I sent this Tweet:

Within minutes, Alaska Airlines sent Nancy Jamison a direct message:

That was a great move since it established a personal connection and answered Jamison's question directly. Next, they followed up to let everyone else know how to do it too:

Their approach was fast, helpful, and friendly. Angel, the Alaska Airlines customer service rep, also took an extra moment to show a little non-automated personality:

This is the type of Twitter support that companies should strive for. I won't lie to you - getting here isn't easy. There's a lot of time, effort, and planning that goes into it.

Here are a few resources to help you explore how your company can nail Twitter like Alaska Airlines:

Automation Fail: How @ATTCares Stumbled Into a Tweet Chat

Automating customer service can be like playing with fire.

On Tuesday, the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) hosted it's regular Tweet chat at 10am Pacific (1pm Eastern). Things got a little weird when AT&T stumbled into the conversation.

ICMI's Tweet chat is a great way to connect with contact center leaders and discuss customer service. The beauty of a Tweet chat is anyone can join in just by following the #icmichat hashtag.

We were enjoying a lively conversation about the importance of delighting customers versus making things easy when Becky Levy sent this Tweet:

Other participants chimed in to voice their support and share their perspective:

I couldn't resist poking a little fun:

That's when AT&T's Twitter team wandered into the conversation. Their automated social listening program responded to several of us using the @ATTCares Twitter handle.

A few of us responded to the Tweets. My guess is that was the point when an actual person read our messages because nobody responded.

But, that didn't stop the automated responses.

Karen never responded. I guess we'll never know where she comes out on customer delight vs. ease of service.

So, we all had a good laugh at AT&T's expense. All thanks to automation. Sadly, AT&T has played the role of psycho ex before.

Inside Twitter's New Customer Service Guide

Twitter has published a playbook to help companies serve customers via Twitter. 

Overall, it's a very useful guide. It's also a pretty hefty volume, clocking in at 125 pages. This post is a "Cliff's Notes" version that summarizes a few key aspects:

  • Twitter's unique position as a service channel
  • Creative ways to engage customers via Twitter
  • Top challenges companies face
  • How to implement a successful Twitter care strategy

You can also download the full guide here:


Twitter's Unique Position

The Playbook highlights Twitter's unique combination of attributes:

  • Public: Anyone can see it
  • Real-time: Tweets are immediate
  • Conversational: Anyone can join in
  • Distributed: Tweets can easily be shared

Here's a great example of an exchange between a customer and a brand:

Twitter claims that serving a customer via Twitter can cost up to 80 percent less than via phone. I couldn't find a source for that calculation, but it wouldn't be surprising given the short-burst nature of Twitter.

The Playbook also makes a really, really bold claim:

Twitter is the ideal customer service channel.

It's a bold claim. And, they could be right.

The argument hinges on the fact that customers are already on Twitter. They don't have to go to a company-specific channel such as phone, email, or an app to receive service.

Consider this choose your-own-adventure customer service scenario:

You experience a flight delay that will cause you to miss your connecting flight. You now need to get booked on a later flight.

Do you:

  1. Wait in line to speak to a gate attendant?
  2. Use your smart phone to navigate the airline's website?
  3. Call the airline and sit through IVR hell?
  4. Email the airline and wait two weeks for a response?
  5. Trust the airline's wonky app?

None of those sounds like a great option if you're in a hurry. 

The promise of Twitter is you can fire off a Tweet to let the world know you are bummed about your flight delay and the airline's super-responsive Twitter squad will see your Tweet and instantly book you on another flight.

Yeah, it does seem a bit far-fetched. 

But, imagine the possibilities if your company can pull off this magic! You keep the customer in their preferred channel. And, your brand's snappy response signals to others that you are on the ball.

(Yes, I know some airlines automatically re-book passengers in these situations. That service is far from perfect. One airline auto re-booked me to the wrong airport. #fail)

As a side note, Twitter's argument for being the best channel actually works better for text. Text is another way companies can serve you where you already are. Plus, it has the added advantage of being one-to-one versus one-to-one-to-many. 

In fact, text has amazing potential as a customer service tool.

In that same scenario, you could receive an automated flight delay notification from the airline via text. It could also propose rebooking you on another flight. All you'd have to do is text back to confirm. Voila!


Creative Use Cases

The Playbook lays out three general ways that companies can use Twitter for customer service:

  1. Issue resolution
  2. Proactive engagement
  3. Voice of the Customer listening

Many companies are familiar with issue resolution. A customer Tweets about a problem and the company tries to fix it.

The nice thing about using Twitter for issue resolution is other customers can see the resolution too. Let's say your customer asks a question a lot of other customers ask too. You can include a helpful link to additional information.

Proactive engagement is another way to use Twitter. This is where a brand steps into a conversation to offer helpful service. Hilton provides a good example with their @hiltonsuggests handle:

One word of caution here. There's a fine line between helpful and creepy when a brand is being proactive.

Voice of customer listening involves looking at the larger trends. Twitter's Playbook cites an example at T-Mobile where a change to a corporate discounting program caused a large spike in negative Tweets. They were able to quickly address the issue before it got larger.


Top Twitter Challenges

The Playbook also highlighted some of the top challenges companies face when using Twitter. The report mentioned two, but I'll add a third:

  1. Keeping up with volume
  2. Managing multiple touch points
  3. Low preference (my addition)

Twitter's analytics show that tweets to major brands have increased 2.5 times in just two years. They also show that approximately 40 percent of those Tweets go unanswered. 

(Note: a recent Freshdesk study puts the number of unanswered Tweets at 78 percent.)

Managing multiple touch points is also a challenge. A customer interaction might start in a store, migrate to the company's website, and finally escalate to Twitter. 

Companies struggle to maintain a consistent brand voice across all these channels. Many companies also lack the systems necessary to present customer service reps with a single view of customers who engage through multiple channels.

My own addition is that very few customers actually prefer Twitter. 

An Execs in the Know study revealed that only 9 percent of customers prefer social media as their primary channel. And, my own research shows that most customers turn to Twitter after failing to get a resolution from another channel.

Would more customers prefer Twitter if more companies got it right? I don't know, but I'd guess the answer is yes.


Twitter's Guide to Twitter

The most useful portion of Twitter's Playbook are the step-by-step instructions for getting started on Twitter or optimizing your company's presence.

They offer seven steps:

  1. Set your vision (here's a handy worksheet)
  2. Size and prioritize your opportunities
  3. Define the customer service experience
  4. Set goals for performance metrics (try the SMART goals worksheet)
  5. Establish the measurement mechanism
  6. Operationalize your strategy
  7. Iterate and innovate

You can download the full guide if you think these steps might be useful.

Why Your Twitter Care Strategy Shouldn't Start With Twitter

Angry Tweets scare customer service leaders.

Bad things can happen when someone complains on Twitter. It might scare off potential customers. The CEO might see it and go berserk. It might go viral.

Here’s an example of a customer service nightmare. Iggy Azalea sent this Tweet to her more than 4 million followers earlier this month, after a Papa John's delivery driver allegedly gave out her cell number.


It earned thousands of retweets and favorites, and was covered by major news outlets like the Huffington Post. 

It’s a smart move to prevent this type of fiasco. The counterintuitive secret is you shouldn’t start with Twitter.

Image source:  Twitter

Image source: Twitter

A Few Twitter Stats

Let’s start with the obvious fact that most of your customers don’t have 4 million followers. So, how many followers do your customers have?

This data is a little hard to find, but we can make a few educated guesses.

A 2013 study by O’Reilly Radar revealed the median Twitter account has 61 followers. That includes anyone who has Tweeted within the last 30 days. 

Your customers might be a bit more active than that. After all, the people who use your product or service are on the cutting edge of being smart, sexy, and sophisticated, right?

OK, so let’s say your average customer is in the top 90 percent. That number?


But wait! Just because it’s Tweeted, doesn’t mean it’s read. Marketing Land estimates the average Tweet is read by just 2 percent of a person’s followers. 

So, a hypothetical angry Tweet sent by a customer with 458 followers would be read by 9 people.

Suddenly, Twitter’s no scarier than any other customer service channel. But wait, there's more.


Twitter is a Second Channel

Here’s the key to your whole Twitter strategy: Twitter is a second channel.

That means those angry Tweets are usually issues that started somewhere else, didn’t get resolved, and then got escalated to Twitter.

Here are a few more stats with links to the references:

These stats tell us that the key to preventing angry Tweets is to provide better service via the first channel.

Azalea’s Tweet to Papa John’s presumably started because a delivery driver gave out her cell phone number. If the driver doesn’t do that, the angry Tweet doesn’t happen.

This principle isn’t just true for celebrities with enormous amounts of followers. It holds for customers with more average levels of social clout.

Hotels are a great example.

The Cornell Center for Hospitality Research estimates that an average 250 room hotel has 5,000 guest interactions each day. This includes valet, door, bell staff, reception, restaurants, housekeeping, engineering, PBX, and many other functions. 

If I’m managing that hotel, I’d spend a lot more time worrying about those 5,000 daily guest interactions than I would Twitter.

Here are some other examples:

  • A typical flight might have 150 passengers and 4 flight attendants.
  • A coffee shop barista might serve 25 customers (or more) per hour.
  • A contact center agent might talk to 10 (or more) customers per hour.

These impressions are all opportunities that could result in good or bad service. 


Fixing Broken Channels

People take to Twitter when the first channel is broken. 

The last thing you want to do is train customers to Tweet their complaints because they can’t get service any other way.

A good Twitter care strategy starts here. Fix the broken channels and your Tweets will be more praise and requests for information, and less of the “I hate your service” variety.

How do you do that?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Hire employees who fit your culture
  • Monitor your person-to-person interactions with the same rigor as social
  • Give agents for all channels the same empowerment as social
  • Map your customer's journey and look for trouble areas
  • Respond to complaints in a timely fashion
  • Fix problems on the first try
  • When you do see a complaint, look for icebergs

Finally, make sure all of your customer service channels have a similar personality that fits with your brand and matches your customer service vision. There's no sense in being nice on Twitter while employees are jerks on the phone and in person.