Abuse magnets: the people behind corporate Twitter accounts

It’s three o’clock on the final day of the Premier League season, and fans across the country are switching on their Sky Now TV boxes hoping to stream the title decider between Manchester City and West Ham.

Abuse magnets: the people behind corporate Twitter accounts

“Hoping” being the operative word, because five minutes into the game, the action from the climax of the season is replaced by an error message: Sky’s servers have collapsed under the weight of demand (not for the first time) and people are angry. Positively apoplectic, in fact.

Twitter is abuzz with people complaining that they can’t watch the match they just handed over a tenner to see, and before long the mob is turning on Sky’s various Twitter accounts, spewing pure bile as fast as their thumbs can tap it into their smartphones.

The Sky Twitter team mounts a rearguard action, issuing a poorly punctuated apology and promising a service update as soon as possible.
“F*** the update, just fix it. Rinse millions from people for a s*** service,” responds one customer. “F*** off, reply to is on here and stop covering your tracks. C****,” replies another, who’s so irate he’s lapsed into illiteracy.

I have myriad examples of abusive, absurd, ridiculous and disgusting messages we’ve received from people on social media

“I’m not interested, I’ll watch your fascist broadcasts at the pub. And by the way I’m not the sort of person to let up when slighted like this,” responds another, who seems to equate a service failure with someone questioning his parentage.

They’re obviously a handpicked selection of some of the choicer responses – the majority of people are far more reasoned in their responses to Sky’s poor Twitter handlers – but it’s fairly typical of the kind of abuse social media teams have to wade through when a service goes down, the trains stop running, or, erm, Ed Miliband talks about a recent visit to a hospital in Watford.

“I have myriad examples of abusive, absurd, ridiculous and disgusting messages we’ve received from people on social media,” said Anna Wilson, head of social media for Tangerine PR and The Juice Academy, which handles social media for clients ranging from the Wilkinson chain of stores to the boxer Amir Khan. “But the fact remains, no matter what it is, it can always be managed.”

We’ve interviewed the hardy souls behind some of the biggest corporate accounts on Twitter to find out what it’s like dealing with that level of abuse on a daily basis, how they’re trained to cope with it, and what life’s really like behind the social media accounts of the household names.

Change of purpose

It’s easy to forget that Facebook and Twitter were never intended to be vehicles for customer service. The 140-character limit and potential for anyone to effortlessly contact a brand and demand an instant response make Twitter a particularly tough way to manage difficult customers. The moment businesses decided to start using social networks as cheap ways to reach a mass audience, they laid themselves open to attack.

Corporate twitter fails

American Airlines (@AmericanAir)
American Airlines accidentally sent customers a link to a pornographic image of a model airplane entering, ahem, a woman’s hanger. The poor staff member had been sent the image by an abusive customer and had copied the link to their clipboard to report it to Twitter, and accidentally pasted it in responses instead of the intended claims form.

HMV (@hmvtweets)
Memo to management: if you’re going to make your social media staff redundant, change the password on your Twitter account first. A lesson music retailer HMV learned the hard way in January 2013. “We’re tweeting live from HR, where we’re all being fired! Exciting! #HMVXFactorFiring,” was one of many memorable tweets.

Tottenham Hotspur FC (@SpursOfficial)
The football club sent a swiftly retracted tweet gloating about Liverpool’s title-race collapse, with a video mocking captain Steven Gerrard. “Brutal but very funny. The biggest capitulation since Newcastle in the 90s,” they tweeted. Spurs later claimed its Vine account had been hacked. Righty-ho.

“A celebrity was tweeting about his experience and somebody [running BT’s Twitter account] offered help,” she said. “The moment somebody from a big company offered help it opened up a can of worms. All of the company’s customers started voicing their dissatisfaction. So BT, almost within that week, had to set up its strategy and set up its channels as a reactive measure.”

Salins said that when she first arrived at BT in 2010, the Twitter account was being operated by a handful of call-centre staff, but it soon became apparent that they were out of their depth when it came to being the face of the company to tens of thousands of customers, instead of a single customer at the other end of a phone line.

“The staff were under pressure to deal with a public conversation,” says Salins. “We had to operationalise it. We had to think about how we scaled those conversations, because the second BT was on social media, the greater the volume of people there was taking to those channels. We had to retrain our staff and build an operation that supported all sorts of scenarios.”

Salins said the BT Twitter team had to learn on the job. “In the early days it was tough. There wasn’t a lot of inspiration to draw from. Because we were one of the first brands to be integrated into the business that way, we were experiencing it on the fly.”

Salins made sure the team learned from its experiences and mistakes, however, modelling different customer-service scenarios, using “test shoppers” – people pretending to be genuine customers – and building up best practice.

Now, most big brands either have fully trained in-house teams or third-party agencies handling their social media accounts, which are often manned at all hours.

“A retail store opening nine to five, Monday to Friday, would typically require actively monitored social feeds during this timeframe to manage customer feedback and proactively engage on behalf of the brand,” says Tangerine PR’s Anna Wilson. “Whereas a chain of restaurants would require monitoring during the evenings and weekends – times when footfall is at its greatest. The number of people required to facilitate this varies, but typically it’s a minimum of three people and a maximum of five or six.”

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