Tied to the Twitter listening post

How HP and JetBlue are using social media as a listening post -- one that can influence corporate policy

Back in early January, a regional bicycling publication BikePortland.org in Portland, Oregon covered the saga of a JetBlue customer who was charged $50 for checking his bike as baggage. The customer, and BikePortland.org, thought JetBlue’s baggage policy regarding bikes was out of line. The unhappy JetBlue customer had worn himself out complaining via e-mail and phone and had been told this was policy and nothing could be done about it. But when BikePortland.org tweeted a link to its article on Twitter, Morgan Johnston, Manager of Corporate Communications for JetBlue Airways saw it.

"When I saw the link come up on Twitter, I followed the story first from their article and then to an article [by the JetBlue customer] at BTA4bikes ," says Johnston. "It was clear to me that the policy needed clarification. So, after a quick flurry of talks internally, we were able to clarify our policy, communicate that internally, and reach out through e-mail and Twitter to inform [BikePortland and the unhappy customer] that we had updated our policy." This all happened within 24 hours of the Tweet that got Johnston's attention.

[ For more on attaining customer service via social media, see earlier Gripe Line posts: "Hacking the customer service game" and "On becoming the squeakiest wheel" ]

Not every company has a team of people dedicated to staffing Twitter and other social media complaints the way Comcast, Mozy, and other companies I've spoken to for this series on social media do. For some companies, the effort is akin to keeping an ear to a listening post. In these cases, though, often the person -- or people -- tied to this listening post are in a more influential position than a customer service representative. In the case of JetBlue, the director of corporate communications was listening and was in a position to quickly clarify company policy when he saw a customer with a valid point. Because of the emerging nature of social media and how easy it is to simply tune in to the noise of the rabble, this might well be a common scenario in big companies.

Hewlett-Packard is in an exploratory phase when it comes to its approach to social media. "We are big believers," says Brent Potts, HP Director of Global Online Support. "We had support forums in play for several years in the late 1990s. But in late 2004 or early 2005, we closed them. We were seeing such a shift to e-mail and chat -- where we had better tools -- that we chose to focus our efforts there." But in this brave new world of social media, the idea of asking the crowd -- as in a forum or via Twitter -- for help has returned in a big way. "So about 18 months ago," says Potts. "We realized we needed to get back into this channel. We did a re-launch of our support forums last fall."

Twitter is on the company's radar, too. Hewlett-Packard is not yet staffing Twitter with a dedicated team to answer technical support questions, though about 50 percent of their Twitter interactions do involve helping people out by providing a link or an answer, says Potts. But key people in the company monitor Twitter as well as blogs and online communities. "We use it as a listening post," says Potts. "We see it as a safety net, a voice of the customer to spot where there are people screaming for help. We are out there listening but we are still in a learning phase. We know that certain types of questions are going to be ideal for Twitter and others will be too complex.

I think that point at which questions become too complex for 140 characters is an interesting intersection in the world of social media and customer support. Being able to listen to what customers are saying about a company right now can change the way a company does business, as illustrated by the JetBlue incident. But it seems that listening is a first step. Next comes harnessing the energy of customers to support each other (as in forums) and even bringing the customer into the product development process. Potts tells me that HP is, in addition to exploring ways to integrate Twitter and other social media sites into its support offering, looking at ways to support and interact with the communities that spring up naturally around issues that touch Hewlett Packard products around the Web. That too is still in an exploratory phase.

I have also spoken to companies that are using social media tools as a way to build communities of their own. Next up in this look at social media are some examples of how social media can be integrated into the company, the product itself, and the way that customers use the product. Social media does offer companies an excellent way to listen to the rabble. But when harnessed carefully and thoughtfully, it can also offer a way to turn that rabble into a village that helps create technology, take care of customers, and improve the company. Stay tuned for some examples of what that sort of Web village looks like.

Got Gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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