Creating a low-cost helpdesk system

I’m only a half-hearted user of Twitter. It’s filled with vast amounts of meaningless guff; it can be like listening in on the thoughts of the world – and very nasty at times.

Creating a low-cost helpdesk system

Call me a hypocrite (@kevpartner, of course), but I use Twitter to broadcast myself, and almost 2,000 people willingly expose themselves to my invective. However, I rarely read tweets written by others, and I don’t tune in when a big story is breaking – the newsworthy needle is usually hidden in the hashtag haystack.

So who’d have thought it would prove the best route for getting customer service from big retailers? Recently, a contractor’s digger cut the Virgin Media cable connecting its Portsmouth hub with towns to the north and west, and the first I knew of it was when I couldn’t get online that morning.

Virgin Media’s status page was characteristically useless, first acknowledging a fault that would be fixed by 1pm that day, then pushing that back to three days, before a few minutes later claiming there was no fault.

Meanwhile, I still had no broadband, so I took to Twitter to vent. I received a response fairly quickly; as a result, I had at least part of the truth an hour or two before the local news media. (Naturally, Virgin’s status page remained in blissful denial.) Over the next few days, the Virgin Media Twitter account provided useful information, far more than their web-based fault-reporting system.

The Virgin Media Twitter account provided useful information, far more than their web-based fault-reporting system

This puzzled me – if the company is as committed to customer service as it claims, its first priority should be keeping the paying punters up to date. It’s true that the fault-reporting system requires a working internet connection, but so does Twitter.

Argos aggravation

A few weeks later, I had the misfortune of buying something from Argos online, as I wanted to use up my PayPal balance. Argos boasts a commitment to customer service, but that isn’t matched by the online support, which is truly appalling.

It begins conventionally enough by issuing a ticket, but each time you reply to a customer service email it opens a new ticket, rather than adding the reply to the existing ticket. The support staff take at least 24 hours to answer each ticket, so you can imagine my frustration.

In the end, I emailed them every piece of information they could possibly want, after which I heard nothing at all. Angry though I was, I’d had my interest piqued by my Virgin Media experience, so I tweeted a complaint. Sure enough, Argos responded within minutes with an invitation to direct-message my details. The entire problem was sorted in a brief exchange of messages, a courier was booked and an apology was made. So, why the massive contrast between the online support and Twitter support?

There are plenty of robust customer support systems to choose from, yet my experience of the service offered by big corporations – retailers in particular – is universally poor (with the exception of Amazon). Also, Twitter is hardly the ideal support environment, limited as it is to short text messages.

What’s more, these retailers must have invested in some fairly powerful technology to enable several Twitter agents to deal with multiple ongoing cases. I don’t think it’s too cynical of me to conclude that retailers are forced to engage with Twitter because of its public nature.

In other words, the very problem that makes Twitter increasingly less useful to me as a social medium makes it excellent for getting helpful customer support. I don’t think these companies worry much that Joe Public might notice angry tweets about poor service among their Twitter streams, but rather that Twitter makes their customer service both public and searchable.

My email to Argos’s support team, on the other hand, was just between the two of us and could be ignored quite safely.

It’s sad if some big companies are being forced to embrace Twitter – and good customer service – simply because they fear their practices might otherwise be exposed, but it makes Twitter a useful weapon for angry customers.

Right for SMBs

However, I’m still not convinced it’s a good choice for smaller online businesses. It’s better by far to install an effective, ticket-based support system on your site than to expect customers to vent publicly to attract your attention. I’d go so far as to suggest that resorting to Twitter is acknowledging that your customers don’t trust you enough to contact you directly.

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