Drowning Not Waving: Why retailers struggle to help customers via Twitter


In a survey published this week, UK retailers were found to be performing so poorly on social media for customer service that just 33 percent of queries were answered effectively on Twitter. This result is in line with a US based survey from 2013, which in addition showed average response times increasing to over 6 hours. So why are retailers and brands struggling so much with customer service via Twitter? As a consumer, one might have thought that, with social media questions and complaints so visible to the world, companies would prioritise such enquiries over other channels. And tweets are more akin to texts and instant messaging than emails - so customers expect a very prompt response. Getting a reply many hours later can feel like simply being ignored.

The reality is that too many retailers are falling down on the basics of customer service, in ways that they would never dream of doing in a physical store environment.

So let's use a swimming metaphor to explore what's going wrong, and define 3 easy ways to avoid drowning your customers:

John Lewis Twitter Help
John Lewis Twitter Help
  1. Recognise the urgency of drowning! - it's amazing how many retailers set up a 'customer service' Twitter account, only to use it as a postbox to other existing channels. My favourite example is John Lewis (see above) who make no attempt to help their customers swim whatsoever, but just point towards the shoreline and say "go there'. Thanks.
  2. Get a full-time lifeguard - one of the joys of multichannel shopping is that you can turn to the web 24/7. Why then is it seen as appropriate to turn your back on 'live' customers who are in your online store right now? Retailers would not do this in a physical environment. Yet plenty of retailers close their Twitter response service at night, some even at weekends!
  3. Save me first, then explain - when customers have problems and turn urgently to Twitter for help, they don't need a recital of the company policy or rule book. That can wait till after the problem is fixed. Brands that live by their values and act in their customers' interests understand this inherently. In contrast, brands that use customer service levels to limit their involvement as much as possible don't. They'd happily let you drown.

One of my rules-of-thumb for who does Twitter support well is 'dynamism'. If you're tweeting a rail company, or an airline, they are used to reacting in real-time. The more this dynamism is part of their business, the more likely their Twitter response will follow suit. That's why highly regulated industries like financial services tend to respond at the speed of a legislative process!

Finally, check out this excellent review of retailers handling Twitter enquiries, and learn from those who do it well…and a few who don't!