How not to talk to customers on Twitter

Are you talking to your customers on Twitter? Are you helping them solve problems? As two recent experiences I had with companies using Twitter for customer service purposes illustrate, there is a right way and a wrong way to engage with a disgruntled tweeter.

First, the good way. As VP of the Friends of the Granby Public Library, I send out e-mail blasts about our events and other news to about 150 members who have given us their e-mail addresses. A few months back, Comcast decided I was spamming a couple dozen of their customers who are on the Friends membership list. Rather than take to the phone and try to convince someone in Bangalore that I didn’t deserve the black hat I’d been given, I decided to do a tweet about my problem and see if Comcast’s famous tweeter, Frank Eliason, aka @ComcastCares, would respond.

Well, Frank didn’t reply, but within mere minutes, I did hear from another Comcast customer service person telling me exactly who to contact via e-mail about my problem. Less than an hour later I had my white hat back. Problem solved! Thank you, Comcast! Miracles do happen!

The bad example

I’ve had similar good Twitter experiences with other companies, and as someone whose work sometimes involves helping companies communicate with customers, clients, or members, I appreciate Twitter’s enormous potential for shoring up shaky relationships. But yesterday, I experienced the negative potential of Twitter when it’s used by an employee who has not been trained in how to appropriately respond to an unhappy customer.

Yes, I’m talking about you, @fchp_tips, the anonymous Twitter presence of my health insurer, Fallon Community Health Plan.

Perhaps I should have known I was in trouble from the beginning when I saw that Fallon was not following a Twitter best practice; the profile of their Twitter customer service account doesn’t identify a real live person behind the Twitter name, as @ComcastCares and other Comcast accounts do. Twitter is about building relationships, which is hard to do if you’re nameless and faceless.

The Cliff Notes version of why I was tweeting about Fallon is that the insurer has not yet complied with a state order to roll back their rates to 2009 levels. As a result, I have paid them about $270 that they will eventually end up sending back to me or crediting to my account with once they finally get around to doing what the State Insurance Commissioner told them to do at the end of March. Color me deeply miffed by their recalcitrance in this matter. Here’s the tweet I posted after I was done having a phone conversation with Fallon customer service person about my June bill, which still shows the disallowed 2010 rate: “Fallon Comm. Health Plan has yet to comply w/ state order to roll rates back to 2009 levels. Outrageous.”

Enter, @fchp_tips, who told me they had complied with the state order for new business. I’m not a new customer, I replied. I’m an existing customer and my rate has not been rolled back as it is supposed to be. Their next tweet suggested I call their customer service person to discuss rate questions. Been there/done that…still unhappy with the company’s foot dragging, I tweeted back.

Now, an experienced, well-trained Twitter user would have let it go at that, realizing from the venom in my tweets that there was no way to make me happy…short of telling me a check for $270 was on its way to me. If @fchp_tips felt compelled to keep the exchange going, a “We’re doing the best we can and are sorry for your inconvenience” tweet would have sufficed.

But that’s not what I got. Instead I got a DM. (To Twitter newbies reading this, DM stands for direct message–a private tweet that no one else could see.) This tweet said, “Yes, it’s too bad the state is dragging its feet on a compromise, which affects you.” If I had been peeved before, now I was really seeing red now.

So I naturally copied the DM into a tweet and quickly followed it up with this tweet: “Note to @fchp_tips: Bad idea to shift blame to someone else when customer is clearly peeved with your company. Just saying.” And still @fchp_tips wouldn’t quit! They replied again that I should call customer service! Unbelievable! Hello…have you been paying attention; I already told you that I had spoken with customer service.

The business lesson

So here’s the business lesson in this: Please don’t put a neophyte in charge of your Twitter presence. Since only 70 people are following @fchp_tips, I have to guess that Fallon is very new at this game. But they’d better learn quickly. It takes training and a cool head to respond to unhappy campers like me. It is not something that comes naturally to everyone, as witnessed by the defensive and dare I say cynical nature of the DM I received.

Companies of all sizes can benefit from a Twitter presence, but make sure you get it right. Be authentic, be genuinely sympathetic to people’s problems, help if you can and admit it when you can’t. Don’t just tweet canned responses like “Call customer service.” And above all, for crying out loud, don’t pour oil on a blazing fire. Know when to shut up!


  1. GolfGurl says:

    Can't believe how brainless Fallon is. #1 Lesson in Social Media Marketing is to LISTEN to your customers. Great post Jeanne. Let's hope Fallon is listening NOW. Do let us know of any followup!

  2. Tish Grier says:

    Hi Jeanne! Good post! And the companies you mention aren't the only ones who don't know what they're doing. Lots and lots of companies have no idea how to handle Twitter, let alone other forms of social media.

    The perception of social media is that there's a low barrier to entry and that it must be very easy because the tools are free. HOWEVER…understanding exactly how to use social media effectively takes a heck of a lot of time to learn. And in the course of learning, lots and lots of mistakes will be made. The bugaboo for corporate social media is that there is no room/zero tolerance for mistake making. Mistakes have the potential to lead to bad press (not always though,) and for many companies, the adage of bad press as good does not apply. Bad press from a social media mistake often results in the firing of the person who made the mistake and a return to the status-quo of corporate social media that is mostly media and very little social.

    If that wasn't already the way a company was doing its social media.

    Personally, I gave up trying to be the customer who helps them get social media. Let them take their lumps until they finally hire someone who really knows what social media's about.

  3. It is great that people keep posting articles like this one and promoting the right way to use social media specially Twitter. We must be evangelists of the conversation otherwise Twitter will turn into a bunch of broadcasting channels where no one listens to anyone and it will lose its effectiveness.

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