Customer Support Via Twitter Isn’t Support, It’s PR

You’re better off contacting the company directly

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

Over the weekend, the online banking app Simple shut down, transitioning its customers over to accounts with its parent company BBVA. This did not go well. Users of the service (including myself) found themselves locked out of their accounts and took to Twitter to complain, where BBVA’s social media team could reach out to help with their problems.

This is a terrible way to do customer support. But then that’s not the goal, is it?

Let’s set aside BBVA in specific here for a second. The issues with the transition from Simple to BBVA started long before they got to the customer service stage (whose idea was it to transition all Simple users at once on a Saturday morning, for example?), but BBVA is far from the only company to use this social media tactic.

Companies from airlines to internet service providers to tech giants all have resources devoted to finding disgruntled users on Twitter and trying to resolve their issues. But there are severe problems with this approach. For starters, as one study from a customer service management company found, Twitter support is generally okay at pointing users to existing policies or information but not very good at solving the kind of problems that a user would need to contact the company for.

Companies don’t want to admit that calling into a phone support line is simultaneously a grueling, aggravating experience and also one of the best ways to get your problem fixed.

Another 2016 survey found that when customers called a phone line, they got their issues resolved around 60% of the time but that success rate dropped down to 16% for people complaining on social media.

Let’s admit a fairly obvious fact: Phone support sucks. Digging through branching menus, listening to fake humans fake type on their fake keyboards, and jumping through hoops before you have the privilege of sitting on hold for 20 minutes is hardly what anyone would call a good time. And yet, once you can finally get through to a person, it’s usually one of the better ways to get an issue resolved.

So, why do companies invest so much time and energy into manually seeking out customers complaining on Twitter?

One reason is that phone support is hard. Large companies deal with a massive volume of calls every day, and each individual support agent can only talk to one person at a time. The basic economies of scale aren’t too different from how hiring retail employees work: If you have too many people manning the phones, then you’re wasting money. Too few and the lines get backed up and you get a reputation for awful customer support. So companies are motivated to hire enough workers but only just enough.

Then there’s the issue of connecting a customer to the right person. Many major companies have a single line for many different kinds of customer support problems: billing, service interruptions, refunds, defective products, etc. This is the primary service that those annoying automated systems serve. If they can direct customers to the right person, that wastes less of the phone reps’ time. If the automated system can give the customer the answer to the problem, even better.

These two issues were always challenges. But the pandemic blew them up entirely.

Customer service call centers were also hit by the pandemic. Suddenly, it wasn’t safe to pack dozens or even hundreds of people into a call center all breathing the same air. So many of those workers had to be sent home to work, which means using potentially less reliable phone or internet service. One study performed early in the pandemic found an uptick in customer support calls where either party complained that “I can’t understand you.”

That same study also found that as the pandemic began, hold times increased by 34%, and the number of call escalations increased by 68%. Whether this is due to staffing shortages, infrastructure challenges, or just the general stress of trying to work a customer service job during a debilitating pandemic is hard to say, but there’s no reason to single out just one explanation. The simple truth is, it’s hard to provide good customer support during a pandemic.

But companies don’t want to admit that. They don’t want to admit that calling into a phone support line is simultaneously a grueling, aggravating experience and also one of the best ways to get your problem fixed. And they certainly don’t want to admit that phone support is getting even worse due to the pandemic.

Which brings us to Twitter.

It’s hard to say that you can actually seek out customer support on Twitter directly. There’s no hotline or address you can reach out to directly in the same way there is with phone, chat, or email support. You can tag a company’s account name (and hope that they don’t have some separate customer service account you don’t know about), complain really loudly, and just kind of hope that maybe that works.

And sometimes it does. Not really that often, as mentioned earlier. But sometimes. Of course, just as often a company might ask you to reach out via DM to escalate the issue only to direct you back to the phone support line you already called. This kind of bait and switch customer “service” is so common, it’s basically become a punchline.

And that’s assuming you get a timely response at all. In one instance from my own experience, I complained because I was getting the wrong version of Google Assistant on my phone after an update. I was just mindlessly venting into the void, but Google support found me and offered to help. I messaged them on November 3, 2019, and got a response 11 days later.

Honestly, Google, it’s fine, you can just ghost me, I wouldn’t have cared.

I can’t believe I’m saying something complimentary about phone-based customer support but it’s worlds better than this. Whining to your followers, hoping that customer service senpai will notice you, and potentially waiting days to find out that the social media team can’t even help you anyway and you should’ve just reached out via phone or email—which you probably already did in the first place—is a new kind of disheartening.

But that’s only if you assume that social media-based support is meant to serve as a separate, coequal branch of proper customer service.

It’s not.

Social media-based customer service is a public relations gamble. Phone support is expensive. Every individual rep can only handle one call at a time, and they might spend several minutes on each one. Social media support can send out several tweets a minute, usually with canned messages asking to continue the conversation via DM, a promise that might only bear a passing resemblance to the reality that customers are likely to experience.

But if that tweet-based support makes a customer feel like they’re being heard, if referring them to a help article solves their problem or if they really can solve the problem via Twitter DM, then the company just solved one more support case without taking up a phone rep’s time and for potentially much less money than it would’ve cost to funnel that customer through the phone system.

More importantly, by selecting the customers who are complaining on Twitter, the company hyper-fixates on the customers that matter most to them: the ones who could cause backlash online. A customer who gets frustrated with an automated phone system and hangs up might rant to their friends and family. They might demand a small refund, or in the best cases (for the company), they’ll just roll over and take it.

But people who complain on social media could end up in articles about the company. They could end up causing a discourse. They might even dissuade other potential customers from signing up. That’s a bigger problem (for the company), and so it makes sense (for the company) to deal with them first, even if the support that’s possible over social media isn’t as robust as other methods.

The thing is though, this isn’t good for anyone who isn’t the company. Social media support, from a user perspective, is a last-ditch effort that might work when everything else has already failed at best. At worst, it’s a waste of time that only serves as a way to distract the customer from being too much of a nuisance.

Social media support may be here to stay. I sincerely doubt massive companies are just going to start letting users complain loudly on Twitter, sometimes to massive followings, without having a presence online.

But maybe some of those users wouldn’t complain quite so loudly if they could get real support when they ask for it—even before the pandemic—rather than getting hung up on by a robot… Comcast.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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