A lesson from the floods: how to use social media for customer service

Twitter dialogue between me and First Great Western

Train companies come in for plenty of criticism from their passengers, often with good reason. There are times, though, when everyone deserves a pat on the back.

So when First Great Western got me to Oxford during the January floods, I said thank you. After I’d posted a photo of the flooded tracks, I tweeted ‘Got to thank @FGW for keeping transport going between Didcot and Oxford today.’ I got the reply: ‘Thanks Penny. Appreciate the tweet. Have a good evening. -Ollie.’

Ollie is one of the names behind First Great Western’s Twitter account, monitored from 7am to 10pm, seven days a week. (We’d interacted before: I’d been grumpy on the previous occasion but the response was equally courteous.) They are one of the travel companies using social media well for customer support. In recent weeks, that has become vital to many people, as my local newspaper reported.

The Oxford Bus Company were quoted as reporting a huge increase in Facebook traffic. While their Facebook page – a mixture of service updates and marketing posts – is useful, it’s on Twitter that their customer service comes into its own. Here, they follow the classic 80/20 rule: 80 per cent of activity is replying to users.

At any time, this could be a range of responses: providing information, dealing with a complaint or, when things need to go further, passing details to another department or providing an email address. At times, they even helped out with information on other bus companies.

Sadly, not all the travel companies in the area are as good. Without naming names, there’s another bus company that is a case study in what not to do. I learned a lot from looking at what they do. So here are some rules in how to effectively use social media for customer support. They are based on travel companies but the same principles apply whatever sector you work in.

  1. Be there when your customers need you. First Great Western state on their Twitter page that they are available 7am to 10pm, 7 days a week (currently updated to 24/7 during the disruption). Oxford Bus Company’s first tweet of the day, at 8am, is to state that they are there until 8pm.
  2. Be where your customers need you. The unnamed bus company has service updates on their website and Facebook but not on Twitter.
  3. Be responsive. If a customer is at a bus stop, checking their phone, they want an immediate answer to the question ‘where is my bus?’ A reply an hour later is no good.
  4. Be informative. Vague abstractions such as ‘incidents’ and ‘issues’ sound as if you have something to hide. If there’s a road closure, say so. If a bus has broken down, be honest about it.
  5. Be literate. Poor grammar and spelling give the impression that you haven’t made an effort. Semi-bureaucratic language such as ‘please be advised’ and ‘commence service’ put barriers between you and your customers. Getting the tone of voice wrong when replying to customers makes a bad situation worse.

Above all, give the job to someone with good communication skills. Good customer support managers know they can’t delegate social media to just anyone without risking damage to their reputation.

And let this be a warning. Here are some of the customer comments from the unnamed bus company’s Facebook page.

  • ‘There’s a large queue of people standing outside in the middle of a bad storm. We deserve more explanation than “operational reasons”.’
  • ‘What do you mean by all the “technical difficulties” you say your buses suffer from? Seems to always be the same excuse.’
  • ‘No explanation here as to the “no show” of the bus, again! Was it operational reasons like all the other cancellations today? An proper explanation I think is in order instead of keep hiding behind that excuse.’
  • ‘What operational issues cause a bus to fail to operate? These updates border on the farcical.’

And, worst of all: ‘Hello, can someone talk to us please?’

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