Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Squeaky Wheel

Over the past few years, Twitter has progressed from a novel way of blogging (microblogging) to a powerful tool for sharing and for businesses.  Twitter users went from sending a few thousand tweets per day in the first year of operations to over 7,000 tweets per second during the Women's World Cup Finals.  It is hard to argue that Twitter is an indispensable tool for social media and, increasingly, for business.

Over the past few years I have marveled at the companies that have made twitter a part of their success.  Comcast comes to mind, turning a relatively mundane employee role into an internet celebrity via their @comcastcares account.  Many airlines have also adopted social media as a platform for delivering near-time updates and handling basic customer service complaints.

Another thing that Twitter has created is the internet celebrity, as mentioned above with Frank Eliason and Comcast.  These are the folks who are at the leading-edge of technology.  They act as voices for their particular corner of the world, be it a tech blog or a cooking show.  These are the people with crazy Klout scores and who end up with thousands of followers.  They are generally respected for their opinions and are fully taking advantage of the new platform Twitter has created for them.

Of course, every transformative tool has its seedy underbelly.  As people find new and different ways to interact with a new social tool, they also find ways to exploit it for their own benefit.  Because Twitter has become such a powerful customer service tool for companies, it was only a matter of time before it was being exploited - especially by the aforementioned internet celebrities.

Because these "twelebs" have large numbers of followers and can make a lot of negative press in a very short time, companies are eager to bend over backwards.  For example, I have observed several tech blogger personalities publicly complain to airlines about weather delays.  The airlines usually respond by asking the "tweleb" to send a direct message so they can sort it out.  The last time I checked, weather was not a valid customer service issue (and is clearly noted as such on the Contract of Carriage).

In some cases social media has even been used to rectify a wrong that was not actually a wrong.  Delta was dragged through the social media mud by a few American soldiers after the airline imposed an extra-baggage fee on the troops.  Delta was very clear on their policy, and it was revealed that the soldiers were misinformed by their orders based on the class of ticket purchased.  Because the troops took to social media, however, Delta not only refunded the fees, but the airline increased the baggage allowance for troops.  Other airlines followed suit, just to avoid a similar snafu.

As a country that likes to complain and receive monetary compensation for when we are wronged, it is a shame to see that social media is going this route.  Yes, it makes me feel better as a consumer when I know that I can receive near-instant help with an issue I am having.  Yes, it's nice to be able to have a new means of communicating with businesses.  It's even nice to know that somewhere there is a real person speaking to me on behalf of a large corporation.

As many companies adopt and tweak social media policies, they may take actions that will prevent them from being the social scapegoat.  As the news media continues to air stories like the Delta example noted above or the now-famous Morton's Airport story, where will companies draw the line between actual customer service and catering to the media hype machine?  Will social media as a customer service tool be phased out as more companies inadvertently draw criticism for enforcing policies?