Customer Service – Communicating with Humans

Recently, I read Tracy Valentine’s blog lamenting the demise of great customer service. This prompted me to think about Web 2.0, and all the tools we have available to make customer service better while still giving it a “human touch.” Even when you may not actually be “speaking” to a human, you may still be able to communicate with one.

Online Chat

On-line chat has been around for a long time, and is becoming more and more prevalent as a mechanism for communication with customers, even for organizations outside of the technology realm. Companies, such as banks and investment firms, are also offering on-line chat. A few of the banks I saw were Chase Bank, Fifth Third Bank, and Bank of America. As governmental organizations offer more and more of their services online, “chatting” with citizens is going to continue to gain popularity.

There are some steadfast rules you must follow. First, you must be available during the hours you say you will be available. I saw a post that Bank of America’s on-line chat was off at 9:58 p.m., (EST), when it was supposed to be on until 11:00 p.m., (EST). Second, be prompt. Immediately greet the person to let them know you are there. Third, if you cannot resolve the issue, be very clear about what is going to happen next. Do not leave them hanging.

Myself, I prefer chat. The reason can be explained using the example of my AT&T smart phone. When I stepped off a flight in Kansas City, MO, and turned on my phone, it was locked up. Before I continue, let me preface my story by saying, by and large, I think AT&T has great customer support. I called AT&T and explained my issue to the technical support rep. He could not help me and transferred me to another rep, who then asked me to repeat my story. She also could not help me and transferred me again, and I had to repeat it a third time. When you use chat, there is no repeating of the story because it is all documented.


Twitter is a social networking tool that allows people to communicate through the exchange of quick, frequent messages called “tweets” of 140 characters or less. Every day people find new uses for Twitter. I love the way it allows us to build relationships with, and get to know, real people that we would never have been introduced to without Twitter. Humans are social animals, but we are also very busy.

Twitter allows me to communicate and my true personality comes out. Enough of my inspiring plug for Twitter, after all, they are projected to have 12 million users by the end of this year. Now on to my real topic, and some creative ways organizations are using Twitter.

To my knowledge SF311, the City of San Francisco’s 311 Twitter connection is the first of its kind in local government.¹ They ask you to follow them and they will follow you back to allow direct messaging, but as far as I can tell, since they do use @replies, it is probably not really necessary unless you are concerned about privacy. The following is their Twitter account information as of posting.

• Name SF311
• Location San Francisco, CA
• Web http://sftwitter….
• Bio Hey, we want to follow you as well. Go to http://bit.ly/70sZo
3,008 Following 2,817 Followers

Here is a sample of their tweets.

RobCorwin: Sent a dm to @SF311 about a sanitation issue and the city sent a crew out to resolve the problem w/i 2 hours. I was definitely impressed! 2 days ago from web

SF311: HowYouEco Thank you for contacting 311. Rate us:http://bit.ly/hYb01 ^RTabout 4 hours ago from CoTweet

HowYouEco: @SF311 possible to better monitor sprinklers in GGP + along Park Presidio/14th Ave? Lot of concrete getting watered.2:16 PM Jun 23rd from TweetDeck

HowYouEco: @SF311 can you add compost bins next to recycling & “trash” at Union Square? 2 days ago from TweetDeck

From what I could tell, the City is fairly prompt at responding to the tweets of citizens. While immediate replies are not necessary, I believe the @replies must be timely. The City should provide a Service Level Agreement (SLA) to citizens that lets them know when they can expect responses to tweets of varying degrees. Otherwise, I can see frustration building if they continue to look for replies that are not there. I can see the benefit of direct messaging in cases where issues are more severe and require a more rapid response.

There are many private sector companies using Twitter to communicate with their customers. When any business uses Twitter, you have the issue of spam. There is a fine line between providing a valuable service and information, and spamming. Typically, Twitter weeds out spammers naturally because followers drop off. In fact, in reading through the SF311 tweets, I saw a citizen complaint of spam because the City also tweets about City happenings on the account.

Many businesses troll Twitter in search of their name in order to seek out customer complaints, and issues, so they may address them. Some companies I have seen are Carnival Cruise Lines (carnivalcruise) and Jet Blue Airlines (jetblue). While Carnival’s tweets seemed to be more customer service related, Jet Blue’s seemed to be more like spam, in my opinion, but I can’t argue with 755,000 + followers for jetblue.

In conclusion, Twitter is becoming an excellent way to reach out to customers/citizens that was not there before. Smart companies and governmental entities are taking an organized and proactive approach to interaction with folks; rather than searching for issues after they have already damaged a relationship. The bottom line is communication is key and the more ways we can find to communicate, the better off we will all be.


Email is good, because like chat, it allows me to document my problem so I do not have to repeat it, should it need to be passed up the support chain. However, like Twitter, email response times should be documented in the SLA so they are understood by citizens or customers. Another problem with email is spam. There is so much unwanted email these days that sometimes “good” email is accidentally captured by spam filters and lost. We always laugh about the person who emails us then immediately picks up the phone and calls to ask, “Did you get my email?” That type paranoia is justified now more than ever. My mother always told me to start out assuming good intentions in every encounter. Therefore, if someone does not respond to my email, I assume they did not get it, not that they are ignoring me. They usually really are ignoring me, but I have trouble facing reality.


This is obviously the best, most direct form of customer service. When you have qualified, courteous, and knowledgeable individuals at the phones, it is a win-win. Look at it like this, if I have picked up the phone, that means I am probably experiencing the problem right now. I would probably like help right now. It is quite refreshing to get a real person, on the other end that is there to talk me through my problem. Even if I do not have a problem, but maybe I just called to complain. It is still nice to have a person on the other end of the phone willing to really listen to me, and to make me feel better about whatever is bothering me.

I can tell you when the telephone does not work, and that is when you have discourteous, unprofessional, unfriendly, unknowledgeable, or uncaring people on the other end of the phone. In that case, you are better off using one of the non-human contact methods. Sometimes the obvious needs to be stated to make a point.

Automated Phone System

As Tracy Valentine said, the automated phone system can be quite frustrating. It is like the voice recognition on my mobile phone. When I try to call my mom who is programmed in my phone as “mom,” my phone comes back with “MODOT,” which it pronounces as “mahdot.” MODOT is the Missouri Department of Transportation. You never know when you will want to check road conditions. I do not think mom sounds anything like mahdot. The phone asks me to repeat, which I do, louder of course, and it comes back with mahdot. I then relent and type in “mom.”

My favorite phone systems are the ones that offer a whole bunch of options, with no press “0” if you want a human. I listen to them all, and none of them matches what I want to do. By the time I get to the end, I have to decide, but I cannot remember what the first options were, so I press “8” to listen to all of the options again. Finally, in desperation, I pick option “4,” not because that is what I want to do, but because I have to pick an option.

Discussion Boards

These are for the laziest of the lazy in customer support staff. Here is how one web designer described them: “Discussion boards are wonderful — they can save tech support a lot of work! Because these boards are public, any customer of your company can answer the questions other customers might have, which frees up you and your employees to perform other work. Many Web hosting companies have implemented such a system, and have since found it useful for other purposes, for example: to post announcements regarding their service.” I get it, I can let my customers do my work for me…hmmm…

¹ As I was writing this, I received a follow back from CABQ – City of Albuquerque, New Mexico and saw the following tweet:

CABQ 311 is now available @cabq! DM or @ us your questions, requests for service, or pics of problems. We’ll write back ASAP. www.cabq.gov

This writer believes that many cities will soon follow.

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