Getting Intimate (with Customers) on Twitter

Businesses should lose their inhibitions over using the microblogging tool to get closer to their customers

Twitter didn't do much for Ricardo Guerrero at first. In March 2007, the new tool was getting rave reviews from social media aficionados (BusinessWeek, 4/2/07) at the South by Southwest interactive media festival in Austin, Tex.

Guerrero considered this tiny new tool du jour very limited, at least from his perspective as a marketer of refurbished Dell (DELL) products. No one was in control. Conversations started in the middle and trailed off to nowhere in particular. If he wanted to direct messages to "targets," they were free to "unfollow" or "block" him out. All messages were restricted to tiny teaspoons of text, no longer than 140 characters in length. Much of the chat was mundane reports on lunch, weather, or bedtime nighty-nights.

Guerrero nevertheless thought Twitter had a certain engaging charm. So with a few friends he started playing around on the nascent technology that was being offered for free from a podcast technology startup formerly called Odeo.

Bringing Business to Twitter

Guerrero did not intend to pioneer the first for-revenue business foray on Twitter, but that's pretty much what happened. In June 2007, Guerrero opened @DellOutlet, the first Twitter-based direct sales account. It offered followers special discounts on rebuilt PCs.

Twitter let Guerrero get to customers quicker and at lower cost than by direct mail. It let anyone interested in a deal follow him for announcements. It reduced his need to jockey for prominent space on the company's massive Web site, where refurbished products were often relegated to the online equivalent of Siberia.

Further, Twitter took little time and effort. He needed no human assistance. More than that, he learned Twitter was fun—an all-too-often underrated element in sales, as well as in life.

Glitches Are Common

By DellOutlet's first anniversary, it had sales of more than $500,000. That's a paltry sum, compared with Dell's $16 billion in annual sales, but he had opened a new channel. Others at Dell would soon follow and along with them a lengthy parade of smart businesses. Dell has added 20 more Twitter accounts, but only two are sales-oriented. The remainder are used by Dell to engage in customer dialogue.

"Revenue is not key," says Dell spokesman Richard Binhammer. "What we want most is conversational engagement.…Twitter is perhaps the most intimate social media tool yet developed." Therein lies the key to social media's huge potential. It also explains why Twitter,though often plagued by downtime and startup company-type gaffes, has grown an estimated 500% in six months to almost 2.5 million users worldwide.

In fact, it's Twitter's very popularity that has caused many of the glitches (, 5/15/08). The tool was designed for collaboration between members of a mobile work group of less than 10 members. Now some Twitter stars have more than 50,000 followers.

Cozy with Customers

No wonder all sorts of businesses are using Twitter to get cozy with customers.

Comcast (CMCSA), a company whose customer satisfaction ranking has been historically in the toilet, authorized Frank Eliason, a customer service operative, to create @ComcastCares. Eliason, whose passion for quality service comes through to observers, has posted nearly 13,000 public and private "Tweets," all directed at solving customer problems, since May.

Skeptics voice suspicion, saying ComcastCares is more PR than authentic customer service. They note there are a mere 2,700 Eliason followers while Comcast serves 24 million U.S. households—poorly, in the minds of many.

Relationships Are Real

Still, ComcastCares has favorably moved the perception needle. Francine Hardaway, an angel investor for Stealthmode Partners, gushes about how Eliason spent hours on Twitter and the phone until a complex reception problem was resolved. Says Hardaway, "Frank is now a friend." Interesting concept, since the two have never met.

Hardaway drives home a point. Twitter works about the same way your local neighborhood works. You meet a neighbor and you chat about local places to eat and the weather. Twitter, which I have come to call "Twitterville," is like that. The place may be virtual, but the relationships formed there are very real.

H&R Block (HRB) already had intimacy with its customer base. The problem was that Block and its customers were growing old together. Younger taxpayers had an image of H&R Block belonging in a strip mall where people in white shirts helped people in white hair.

Learning to Listen

Twitter was among several Block social media initiatives that have significantly increased the company's online presence and fueled a marked upsurge in young customers. But first, the company had to learn about Twitterville intimacy.

Amy Worley, who manages Block's Twitter program, had to alter her approach. "I went in thinking Twitter was a free way to push our message out," she says. "Big mistake. We learned to listen. We started winning once we let people decide on their own about our services."

Large companies are historically slow to adopt new technologies. It seems to be happening faster with Twitter. The parade of U.S. companies includes Seagate Technologies (STX), Southwest Airlines (LUV), Whole Foods (WFMI), and, a Kentucky-based clothing e-tailer.

Making the Transition

As successful as the Comcast and H&R Block efforts have been, Twitter draws more independent consultants than big company players. Laura Fitton, who operates her Pistachio Consulting firm from her home office, illustrates why. In a year's time she has made the transition from homebound mom to international consultant. "All my work now comes from people I know through Twitter. All of it," she reports. Fitton is followed by more than 5,000 people.

Like Guerrero, many professionals consider Twitter pretty much worthless on first look. But those who stay for about a month start understanding the value. I didn't think much of Twitter for 60 days, until my casual mention that I was in Boston landed me a dinner with a nearby friend who saw my post. Since then, I have been invited to speaking engagements in five countries and even get to write a guest column for a prestigious old media publication.

A few years ago, corporations tried to speak with one voice. They were always speaking. They didn't understand how so many of us became frustrated that no one in large organizations wanted to listen.

The Secret's Out

In fact, until social media came along it was not economically feasible to listen to a global base of customers. Blogging began to fix that. But it remained pretty much a dynamic of, "I talk. I pick the topics, and a few of you can respond."

Twitter is more like how people find themselves in real life. Sometimes I talk. Sometimes, when you feel like it, you talk. If we like what each other has to say, then our conversations may go to a deeper level. It's the same thing that's been happening on golf courses for many decades.

Twitter has become a source of inside information. It's where small talk can lead to valuable relationships, where potential customers tell you how to build better products and services.

But maybe I shouldn't tell you all this. If all you BusinessWeek readers go running over to Twitter all at once, the damned thing will probably go down again, and we Twitterville old-timers just hate it when that happens.

Do you think Twitter might be useful for you in your business? How so? I'd like to know.

Israel writes and speaks about social media. He is co-author of Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers. Read him here. Unlike Twitter his site rarely goes down.

Business Exchange related topics:TwitterMicro-BloggingSocial Media Business Success

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