Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Social Media Strategy Case Study on What NOT to Do with Your Corporate Twitter Account

What do you do when a good deal of your dissatisfied customers share their poor experiences with your brand with others online? Well, one thing you shouldn't do is turn your social media efforts into a customer service triage unit.

I recently came across one company using its social media efforts to deal with their customer satisfaction issues in a manner that I find such an excellent example of what not to do with your social media efforts, I felt compelled to share the story. One doesn't need to do a study or possess any company sales information to be confident that this company's social media efforts are certain to cause immediate harm to their brand image -- damaging their brand's reputation -- and negatively impacting their short term sales. Consider how their social media messaging is likely to impact prospective customers, journalists and industry analysts.

Hostway is a web hosting company headquartered in my hometown, Chicago. The company has some very vocal (well, in web terms) customers and former customers (or at least a lot of people claiming to be customers, however, Hostway's tweets responding to people claiming to be dissatisfied customers legitimizes these posts, so, consequently, we'll assume that these posters are legitimate customers and not tricky, underhanded competitors -- however, if it were the latter, Hostway's social media activity would be even more problematic) posting some far less than favorable comments about their experiences with the company's service quality on various blogs, web hosting rating and comparison websites and Twitter accounts (beyond Twitter, some sites I came across from page one of a Google search for reviews of Hostway include: , , , . I recently visited Hostway's Twitter page on several occasions over the past month. I would guesstimate that during this period, half or more of Hostway's tweets were addressed to specific customers who had problems with Hostway services (AKA quality issues). Here are some recent posts I gathered from one recent visit to the official Hostway Twitter page on Oct 28, 2010 (I removed the names of the Twitter users being addressed and, for the record, these tweets are addressed to numerous customers, not the same one):

"@(TwitterUser) Can you please provide me with the domain you are having issues with and I will have a rep contact you."

"@(TwitterUser) is there something specific you had issues with that we could try to fix?"

(TwitterUser), did you get a solution?"

Sorry for your recent issue. Has it been resolved? If not, would you like to have a rep contact you?"

I will have a technical service representative contact you to resolve your issue.@(TwitterUser)"

"Hi There, sorry for your slow connection. If you DM me with your domain name I can have someone look into it. @(TwitterUser)"

A tech support representative will be contacting you to resolve your issue."

These three were one after the other:
"@(TwitterUser) A technical support representative will be contacting you to resolve your issue."

A support representative will be contacting you soon."

We'd love to help you. Direct message me your domain name, and we'll look into it."

Members of the media, industry analysts (media and industry analysts frequently subscribe to tweets from companies they follow) and potential customers researching web hosting firms will see these tweets and certainly have a very poor impression of the company (can you say, run?). Even a loyal customer may question his or her loyalty in light of all the customer service issues prominently displayed on Hostway's corporate Twitter account page. These communications can create the impression that it's only a matter of time before a customer has serious problems with Hostway's services.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that Hostway should run and hide from its problems. Not at all. I have always been a believer in honest, truthful communications that reflect the true customer experience (appropriate expectation setting is critical to achieving customer satisfaction) and I do believe it is reasonable and can even be a good idea to intelligently address areas where improvement is needed (although not one customer at a time, stated publicly). However, no one is going to be impressed by Hostway constantly tweeting promises about how they are going to fix this or that individual customer's problems with their services -- especially when a customer is likely to be tweeting after unsuccessfully trying to use the company's regular channels to resolve these issues. Hostway's tweets aren't wise corporate communications and they certainly doesn't build trust with the public. Even more, it can come off with all of the sincerity of an abusive spouse pleading, "Come back to me, honey. I promise I'll never do that again." An promise to fix something at a future date (AKA an unfulfilled promise) is really not going to impress anyone, no matter how clever you think you are at spinning it. That's not a serious social media strategy or tactic. It's more of a suicide mission.

Instead, Hostway should be focusing their energy on working one on one, direct messaging with the people tweeting and posting about their problems and poor experiences with their company and seriously get to work at fixing the underlying problems that resulted in its customers posts. Hostway shouldn't be talking about what their going to do -- they should do it and work at making their customers extremely satisfied. Giving dissatisfied customers a multitude of public promises to fix a multitude of service problems doesn't benefit customers or Hostway. Instead, if Hostway focuses on satisfying these very vocal customers -- and works diligently at fixing the underlying problems that caused their dissatisfaction in the first place so that other customers will avoid the same experience -- some of these very vocal, dissatisfied customers are likely to tweet about their positive experience with Hostway-- which is far more valuable than Hostway's own tweets could ever be. At that point, it would make sense for Hostway to publicly address those customers using Twitter, as those can be considered testimonials.

So, what should Hostway be tweeting about?

Improvements -- with specific attention given to measurable or quantitative improvements in areas that matter to customers and prospects. Areas like server uptime, speed of issue resolution, customer satisfaction in the form of survey results, infrastructure improvements and any staff additions...along with customer testimonials that speak to improvement or reflect high quality. All of this should be real, honest and consistent with the customer experience, otherwise customer dissatisfaction can be expected (a brand needs to walk the walk before it can talk the talk -- the customer experience always trumps promotional messaging, so it's wise to be honest). Largely, Hostway should use hard, tangible results that speak to the quality of its services and favorable customer satisfaction ratings and feedback (that reflect the average customer's experience) where possible and use highly credible third-party sources/ratings on the areas customers care about most -- such as server reliability, new account setup and problem resolution.

There's plenty this company can do to make people feel more confident about using them, even with a history of missteps. However, turning a corporate Twitter account into customer service triage creates the appearance that the company lacks a competent social media strategy or a crisis management plan. It's a lot like someone starting a first date by providing a detailed list of reasons why every former relationship ended in failure. I wouldn't recommend calling in that order for wedding invitations just yet.