Image“70% of companies ignore customer complaints on Twitter.”

This oft-cited statistic, from a 2011 study by Maritz Research and evolve24, is even more incredible when you consider that the same study found that nearly 85% of customers “liked” or “loved” when a company responded to them.

Two years later – a lifetime in the world of social media – companies must have learned their lesson, right? Wrong. In fact, in my own (unscientific) study of 26 tweets to 18 different brands, just one brand responded – meaning that 70% number should be more like 95%.

Over the course of six months, I tweeted compliments, complaints, questions and general references to big brands like Starbucks, Coca Cola, Hilton Hotels, and McDonald’s. I also tweeted to smaller brands like Skittles, Maker’s Mark, and Play-Doh. None of these brands – nor 10 others – chose to respond. Even Twitter ignored one of my tweets, a complaint about a forged account.

Why do brands miss such great opportunities to interact with their customers? Surely these same brands would respond to a customer phone call, e-mail, or even snail mail. With so many companies talking about the importance of customer experience and customer-centered design, it is shocking that ignoring customers in a public setting has become so commonplace.

Let’s look at a few of the tweets in my study. First, a positive:

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My chat session with AT&T was so surprisingly easy and satisfying, I just had to tweet about it. Unsolicited public praise from a customer is a gift any company would be happy to receive. But AT&T didn’t bother responding, which eroded my initial satisfaction with the service interaction.

Next, a positive combined with a question:

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I was hoping that the positive comment would increase the odds of McDonald’s responding to my related question about healthier options, but both the compliment and the question were ignored.

Here are a couple that are clearly negative (I’m passionate about my candy):

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In this case, I am only one of hundreds if not thousands of people complaining about the same thing, so I’d actually understand if Skittles couldn’t answer me personally. But a search of the brand’s hundreds of outbound tweets since the switch from lime to blech shows that the issue was never addressed at all. Hiding from your problems does not make them go away, and Skittles missed an opportunity (actually, hundreds if not thousands of them) to engage what is clearly a passionate fan base.

This last one is a bit bizarre, but I was really surprised that it did not garner a response because it just begs for a funny, creative retort. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we just have to laugh at ourselves. If I were Coke, I would have done just that.

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So, which was the one brand who actually did respond?  The answer may surprise you, and what’s more, they responded twice during the study – once in a tidy 38 minutes, and once in an incredible 9 minutes.  Both tweets were compliments, but my loyalty to this brand skyrocketed when I received the responses.

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Now that’s how you succeed at customer service on social media. You don’t need 140 characters, or even close to it. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, especially compared with other customer feedback channels. You just need to follow these simple guidelines:

  • You must actually respond. Positive tweeters will love you even more, and negative tweeters will most likely be satisfied that you bothered to respond at all. I’ve seen countless cases of negative tweets being turned into positive tweets just because the poster is so pleasantly surprised that he received a response.
  • Acknowledge the customer. Personalizing the response by referring to the customer’s first name makes him or her feel special, and is a reminder that you are answering a specific question.
  • Keep it relevant. Answer the question or comment directly, but don’t try to sell something extra or ask for a follow or referral. Be gracious about a compliment (and consider retweeting it for extra brownie points), and respond to questions or complaints clearly and concisely. If necessary, refer a question or complaint to an offline channel if more details or personal information are needed.
  • Remember the need for speed. According to a 2012 study by Edison Research, 42% of customers contacting brands on social media expected a response within an hour. That may seem quick, but consider having to wait on hold on the telephone for that long!

Hopefully when I conduct my next study, more brands will have figured out that customer service in social media doesn’t have to be scary, but it is a reflection on the brand and needs to be handled with the same urgency and dedication that is given to other channels.