How to deal with customer service complaints in 140 characters

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We are all used to handling customer service complaints over the phone, but many are not so comfortable dealing with complaints in 140 characters.

Carolyn Blunt gives some pointers.

Over the past ten years we have focused on developing front line agents’ listening skills, voice tone, positive language, empathy, rapport, problem solving and complaint-handling skills.

Yet the transference of this skill to 140 (publicly published) characters is yet to be fully embraced by the contact centre industry, but we envisage that take-up of our training offering in this area is set to increase.

A YouGov survey, commissioned by technology provider Avanade, surveyed 1,998 UK consumers about their attitudes to customer service, as well as the types of company they tend to complain about most.

41% of people still use the telephone to complain to a company and 63% of people use email, but a significant proportion (20%) will use social media to air their gripes, with this figure rising to 36% for Generation Y (under 25-year-olds).

Separate Twitter accounts for marketing and customer services

In our experience, the monitoring and use of social media is not yet done within customer services in the majority of customer service call centres.  The responsibility for using social media  currently remains with many PR and Marketing functions (as, of course, it also an excellent tool for sales and marketing purposes).  This is also confirmed in our latest social media survey.

Some brands that have taken steps in this direction include John Lewis, who have two separate twitter accounts ‘@johnlewisretail’ and ’@JLcustserv’ .  Through the ‘customer service account’ John Lewis provide responsive apologies and then aim to take it offline or show their ability to resolve the problem through further information links.

Train agents in online conversations

However, a collaborative approach will be required if the trends continue as predicted.  The need to train customer service agents in how to deliver customer service in 140 characters will rise.  Training will need to include the tools and processes for using social media effectively as well as the content of conversations and the abilities to know when to take the conversations offline.  Agents will need to be multi-skilled in all channels for customer interaction.

Start by acknowledging the complaint

Jim Singer from AT Kearney notes, “The majority of companies we looked at are not moving toward a more interactive use of social media, even as their customers are becoming clearer about their expectation to interact with their brands.”

Global management consultants’ AT Kearney’s 2nd Annual Social Media Survey confirms that of the top 50 brands (measured by Interbrand), only a handful focus on two-way communication, and 27 did not respond to a single customer reply in the measured period.

Just by starting in dealing with the complaint will take you a major step forwards.

Gather the customer’s account number

The first action is to gather the customer’s account number.  You can do this by asking them to direct message you with their account details (if they have not already provided them). A direct message is like a secure text message, but it is also limited to 140 characters.  In order for them to direct message you, you will first need them to follow you on Twitter.

Try to refrain from asking them to call your customer services department.  If they had wanted to do this they would have already picked up the phone to call you.

Be prepared to take the conversation offline

Just because a complaint came in on social media does not mean that it has to stay there.

Moving the conversation from social media onto another channel can be very beneficial. A tweet can be a good way for them to get your attention but it is a poor communication channel.  An email or an outbound telephone call can work as a much better channel for resolving the call.

Listen to the brand being mentioned

Another option is to use tools to ‘listen’ to where the brand is being mentioned and have alerts that are then routed to the appropriate team, be it Customer Service, Sales or PR/Marketing for the right response.  This still allows PR/Marketing to control the external-facing brand tweets and updates but allows customer service teams to swiftly solve any problems and issues that are being publicly highlighted.

Carolyn Blunt

Carolyn Blunt

Whichever approach is taken, the authentic, personal touch will continue to be in demand for a winning customer experience.  While the customer service agents in the call centre are the original experts in one-to-one customer service, they will need support and empowerment as we redefine how engaging customer experiences are delivered.

Carolyn Blunt is a contact centre training expert with Real Results Training.  For more free information on customer service or social media training for your advisers or team leaders visit

Author: Jonty Pearce

Published On: 13th Mar 2012 - Last modified: 13th Sep 2022
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