Instant connection

Real-time communication tactics such as Twitter are providing technology-focused companies with a way to quickly address consumer concerns.

When Frank Eliason joined Comcast last year, he didn't plan for his job as customer service manager to turn him into a new-media celebrity. But within four days of his new job, he was tasked to go online and find customers who were complaining about the company and help them.

Comcast was then amid a customer-service crisis from which it's still working hard to recover. In 2007, it was ranked at the near bottom of JD Power and Associates customer-service surveys. But the company's customer service and communications teams were determined to see Comcast's fortunes turn. The two joined forces in what started as a modest effort and tasked Eliason to individually call unhappy, online customers and help them resolve their issues.

Jennifer Khoury, VP of corporate communications at Comcast, recalls how the company would identify bloggers, then try to locate their account before contacting them.

“We would find that, say, there were three Jean Smiths in the area, and then we would call up all them to find out who had the problem,” she says. “We did it that way for about three months and then we let [Eliason] loose.”

Because there are about 10,000 consumer-generated media that mention Comcast per month, according to internal research, the company needed a more efficient targeting strategy. The first step, started in December 2007, was for Eliason to reach a broader audience by blogging and leaving comments.

Then in February, Eliason discovered Twitter at the suggestion of Scott Westerman, an area VP of New Mexico and Arizona at Comcast. Eliason watched the emerging platform for several months before launching ComcastCares in April to directly respond to customer questions and complaints.

Now, after nearly six months of “Tweeting,” ComcastCares has posted more than 16,000 public Tweets, more than 4,000 private Tweets, and has more than 4,215 followers. Yet, while Twitter is a PR tool to some companies, when Comcast launched the account, it did not have specific messaging in mind.

“When I reached out to customers, I didn't focus on messaging at all,” Eliason says. “My background is customer service. And this, for the company, is really just focused on the customers' concerns.”

More than PR

Even though Comcast was connecting with consumers in a very public way through the Twitter feed, the company kept the new strategy under wraps. The reason was to ensure the Twitter feed was perceived as a customer-service effort, not a PR move, says D'Arcy Rudnay, SVP of corporate communications.

“We never made a formal announcement or sent out a release, or even talked to the press [when the Twitter initiative launched],” Rudnay says. “It wasn't about press, it was about helping customers.”

But as Eliason's popularity grew, so did his staff. He soon had seven people working with him, a number that will probably grow to 10 soon, Khoury says.

Yet, as more customers started to follow Eliason's Twitter feeds, the effort gained traction. In April, high-profile bloggers like TechCrunch's Michael Arrington and Dave Winer published glowing blog posts about their experiences with Eliason.

Techdirt's Tom Lee even posted a blog entry, “Frank's quick intervention left me feeling oddly positive about a company that I had long considered to be more or less the embodiment of malevolent, slothful incompetence... But we should all keep in mind that the sort of concierge-style customer support offered by ComcastCares is unlikely to ever scale beyond the size of a PR exercise.”

Despite the positive tone of the blog post, it did exactly what the Comcast team feared – characterized the Twitter initiative as a PR tactic. Eliason immediately responded that it was not a PR ploy, and because he had already built a strong network of followers, many of his supporters defended him as well.

“[Eliason] responded, ‘No, it's not a PR stunt – it's customer service,'” Khoury explains. “But before he could even say anything else, there was a whole host of customers who [Eliason] had helped chiming in and saying, ‘It's not just PR, he actually helped me solve my problem.'”

From then on, Eliason's team garnered even more recognition. What followed were articles in the Houston Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and ultimately The New York Times, among other outlets.

Although the team was reluctant to do media interviews, “one reporter called and said, ‘We're writing this story whether [Eliason] talks to us or not,' so we quickly had to get comfortable with talking to the media,” Khoury recalls.

Eliason realized just what a committed following he had was when he attended this year's Blog World Expo held in September.

“I went to several parties and introduced myself as Frank of ComcastCares,” Eliason says. “Then suddenly I'd have a huge group of people around me that wanted to meet me in person. It made me realize this is about relationships.”

He's since kept in touch with many of those who follow him, even exchanging pictures and meeting some followers for dinner.

“There's this personal side to social media,” he adds.

Some have speculated that actively seeking out disgruntled customers could be perceived as Big Brother-like or invasive. But Eliason says this hasn't been a problem.

“There were maybe six times we had a negative reaction,” Eliason recalls. “It's not a very common reaction, it's been almost always positive. People Tweet back things like, ‘Oh my goodness, Comcast helped me.' At this point, we're still surprising people.”

Comcast's customer service department now hosts three additional Twitter accounts, but none have even come close to the following that Eliason has won over. At press time, ComcastGeorge and ComcastBill had 77 followers each, and ComcastScott had 313.

Industry trend
Comcast isn't the only tech-focused company to utilize Twitter. Autumn Truong, corporate communications manager of new media at Cisco, says the company has used Twitter and also Second Life to communicate with users in real time. At Cisco's annual user conference in June, the company used Twitter to communicate with its 13,000 attendees, as well as the general public.

“This was around June, when b-to-b companies were just really starting to pick up on Twitter,” Truong says. “And for people who couldn't attend, especially analysts and reporters, it was a way for them to feel like they were a part of the interaction.”

Prior to the event, the company had about 60 followers, and midway through that number had shot to more than 600, she says. Other than engaging with users, the company also involved followers in live polls.

“The conference theme was collaboration, and we're all moving toward doing things more virtually,” she says. “So we also had [Cisco CEO] John Chambers hold a question-and-answer session on Second Life.”

Even though Second Life has recently earned the reputation as a virtual ghost town, the platform still can be used to stream virtual events live and garner an audience outside of the site, Truong notes.

Additionally, the Cisco Live Twitter feed continues to attract followers with now more than 750 people signed onto the feed, she adds. There are currently several Cisco Twitter feeds, but the company tries to maintain some consistency for the brand among these.

“There are several Cisco accounts coming out of Twitter,” Truong explains. “And with social media, the lines between professional and social are being blurred. But we are making an effort to ensure that the ones that are externally facing and represent a technology or a group do adhere to our communication guidelines.”

The company, which works with Text 100, is working on launching a corporate Cisco Twitter account that will aggregate much of the already-existing content.

“What we're recommending [for those who Twitter for Cisco] is know your target audience so you know that what you're doing is really reaching that audience,” she says.

Broad accesibility
Comcast's push to make the company more accessible to consumers started even before Eliason joined Twitter. Last year, the company promoted Rick Germano to SVP of customer operations to revive its image.

“One of the first things we did was change the Web site to give customers better ways to contact us,” Khoury explains, citing the addition of an option to send an e-mail directly to Germano. “[Germano] also did a road show with JD Power and Associates to meet with customer focus groups. We posted what he learned – negative and positive – on the Web site. It was an opportunity for us to say, ‘We know that you love our products, but you don't always like the way you interact with us. Now we're going to change that.'”

The company, however, didn't tread into that space lightly. The team knew that once it made that commitment to customers, it would have to follow through. This would mean ensuring that customer-service representatives, technicians, engineers, and the communications team had the resources to respond to customers in the way that they wanted.

“It's something that at all levels at our company, we've had to embrace,” Khoury says. “We need to be really honest with our customers. We had to say that we know that we've made a mistake and we know that we need to change and improve and we're putting all of our resources behind it.”

Yet she cautions, even now, customers shouldn't expect changes to happen immediately.

“It's going to take some time,” she notes, adding that the company has more than 100,000 employees and serves more than 44 million accounts. “So we have to be realistic about the improvements and when the surveys will change.”

Although the company works with two agencies – Abernathy MacGregor Group for financial communications and Burson-Marsteller for branding – most of its digital strategy is done in-house, she adds.

Next up, the company plans to launch a corporate blog that operates separately from Eliason's task of customer service. The blog will be a platform to raise any issues about Comcast's overall policies, positions, or products, Khoury says.

Even blogging at Comcast is not limited to the communications team. For example, if a blog post is about a technical subject, the team would recruit an engineer to impart additional expertise.

“The responsibility for communications have evolved and broadened so much,” Rudnay says. “Many, many more people within your organization now feel like they want to participate in the communications of the company. There is good and bad with that, but if there are people who truly enjoy working for their company, who are very engaged, and who understand certain segments of the market, they can be very useful to what is going on.”

As a part of its larger strategy, Comcast has also upped its engagement with the blogosphere. Instead of just leaving comments to correct inaccuracies, the team now looks for opportunities to engage on an ongoing basis.

“Let's say there was an article on network management with something in it that we thought was incorrect,” Rudnay explains. “In the past, somebody from my team would go in and post a comment to correct that. About six months ago, we'd do that and then go back to other work. But now we'd go back and forth with that blog and engage in a discussion.”

The other side to this strategy, she explains, is also being honest with the public when the company disagrees with a blog post or does not have the answer the blogger is looking for.
Rudnay says: “It's a matter of having a discussion in real time.”

Tips for companies using Twitter

  • Even though Twitter is a low-cost investment, companies must ensure they have the resources to support the effort. This includes frequent updates and the capacity to quickly respond.
  • Consumers have become skeptical of companies joining the social media conversation simply as a PR move. To be effective on sites like Twitter, companies should provide value for customers by answering questions about the brand or providing technical information
  • Because there is no barrier to entry on Twitter, some companies have been “brandjacked” on Twitter. It's best to set some branding guidelines so that users can identify the company's official Twitter feeds.
  • For most tech companies, at least a part of their audience will be on social networks like Twitter. But they should be prepared for some users to prefer not to be contacted through social media.

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