Both Lucy Kellaway (whom I have never met but would like to) and Jonathan Salem Baskin (with whom I shared an enjoyable dinner in London a few months ago) have written excellent pieces on the use of Twitter for customer service.

I also wrote a piece about this 12 months ago.

Jonathan talks in his article for Ad Age titled simply “the Twitter tax” of his epiphany after speaking to a colleague who had used Twitter to complain about poor customer service.

“Tools like Twitter aren’t some dream of customer empowerment, but rather the nightmare reality of the broken relationships between consumers and brands. Responding to online complaints is a tax that companies pay because of the chronic mismatch between what consumers expect from brands and what they ultimately get. An individualized response might momentarily bridge the gap, but it won’t fix it. Never will.”

And here he has hit the nail on the head.

On a daily basis, clients I advise about social media are absolutely terrified about Twitter, because it now allows 24 x 7 instant feedback about customer service issues.

Dave Evans puts it so eloquently

Marketing Sets expectations
Operations Delivers
Any gap between the two
drives a conversation on the web

Twitter is the best early warning system a CEO can have.   Until now, we have put massive barriers in the way of customers providing us with feedback with endless phone queues and mindless “your call is important to us…” messages, so many just don’t bother to respond the way that YOU want them to, so they don’t.

Instant response channels such as Twitter allow consumers to complain at the very place and time when they receive bad service, even on their mobile.

The fact that they now can provide this feedback exposes the fact that many companies are not prepared to respond and action what is being said.

Indeed as part of a social media monitoring study to support a client pitch, I uncovered a raft of customer service issues being reported on Twitter.   “We know about this” was the client’s response.   There was however no process internally to actually rectify any of these issues uncovered so I wondered to myself why they were so intent on listening – but not willing OR able to act on the feedback.

As Jonathan goes on to point out (emphasis is mine)

“When you promote your online social monitoring you’re agreeing to pay the tax for the failures of your company’s operators to do their jobs. This means you’re not doing yours, either. Customer service starts and ends in operations, not marketing, and innovation is not regularly your customers’ friend.”

Lucy’s article in a recent edition of the Financial Times put Twitter on the front page (literally).  Her piece titled “Twitter is no way to manage a smelly mess” (article behind a paywall) was prompted by a tweet from Armando Iannucci (aka @aiannucci, the comedy writer behind The Thick of It) about a recent trip to Starbucks.

“Still surprised that, despite their market dominance, Starbucks haven’t eliminated the slight smell of lavatory you get as you enter.”

The (former) Starbucks UK MD, Darcy Willson-Rymer who responded directly to Armando also rated a mention in the piece as he tried to appease him via Twitter.  Lucy’s view in the article was that if an MD has to read and manage their Twitter feed personally then perhaps this is not the best use of his time.   She also suggested that The Starbucks MD should not have been relying on Twitter to have this problem reported because there should have been procedures in place to manage these sorts of issues without the MD even becoming involved.

So what does this all mean for your business?

Both Jonathan and Lucy have highlighted an interesting new trend for consumers to complain via Twitter and expect (and often receive) instant gratification due to the very public nature of the medium.

At conferences, I promote my own preferred communications channel for BT and Vodafone being Twitter.  I just can’t stand waiting in a phone queue.  The asynchronous nature of Twitter lets me get on with my day while my service provider gets on with fixing the problem.

While companies need to respond via these new channels, they also need to work on the basics – and improve customer service to the point where there is no need to complain via any channel at all.

Companies that start to monitor social media channels for customer complaints should not react with alarm if a large number of issues are being reported via Twitter, they should instead take this as a sign that there is a more fundamental problem with their customer service and operational areas and work on fixing those.  Twitter is fast becoming an “unofficial” channel that simply allows the bad news to flow much faster without the internal earmuffs being applied.

Social media is not the issue here.  Fix the basics and the bloggers won’t “go away” as many of you hope they will – but instead they will become online advocates for your brand.

In this new world, it will be peer advocacy and excellent customer service that drives sales – not just flashy ads and a “thanks for your feedback” tweet.  The Twitter tax can actually be good for your business as it forces you to put things right and check you are constantly improving the service you provide your customers.