Want better service? Just complain on Twitter

Twitter isn't perfect, and not just because we're all sick of hearing about it. The one-line updates can be maddeningly short, and too many users do a lot of reading but not much posting.

On a typical day, the average Twitter stream can look like a tedious march of news of the weird and alarmist predictions of a dire future. But after a recent trip, I discovered that it does have its uses.

Sure, there are lots of people who treat Twitter like an inane chat room, and use it to announce when they're going to bed, and what kind of pickle they're eating for lunch. But many companies use it, too, to manage vocal customers.
Public relations and customer satisfaction departments may not answer their phones if you call, or even know the right answer if they pick up, but they're often monitoring every word that goes out on Twitter. After all, if you say something on Twitter about their product, you're saying it in public, and that can be embarrassing.

I recently stayed at an InterContinental hotel in a mid-size American city, and when I went to put a bottle of warm Coke into my fridge, I saw that the door was fastened closed with a plastic twist-tie. To open the fridge, I'd have to break the tie, and there were no signs in the room that indicated whether that would result in an extra charge on my bill.

This irritated me, and so I posted the following line on Twitter (I'm @bastable, by the way, and WalletPop is @walletpopper), marked with a "#travel" so that anyone else interested in the quirks of travel could find it and comment on it:
"The InterContinental Hotel locks its fridge with a plastic tie so guests can't chill their stuff. Feeling territorial, ICH? #travel"

The matter felt too small to take up with the front desk (I'm one of those people who hates pestering hotel staff), but letting off a little steam on Twitter, where people might nod knowingly and maybe tell about similar experiences, made me feel better. I considered the matter closed. The Coke would be warm.

But a few hours later, I got a message through Twitter from @WorldConcierge, a Twitter account run by InterContinental Hotels ('DM' means to send a message):
"@bastable - Pls DM us details of your stay... we'd love to assist in anyway we can."
Huh! That was fast. Instant attention, all because I made a pointed observation in public about a product.

Soon, I was engaged in an exchange with Charles Yap, a man whose job as a social media administrator is, among other things, to comb Twitter for references to his hotel brand and, if required, make things right. Yap told me that locking a hotel fridge with a plastic tie "is not a standard practice" at his hotels, and he promised to take the matter up with the property in question.

That wasn't the only time this happened to me. I also recently flew on Midwest Airlines (I wrote about its $11 in-flight meal for WalletPop), a carrier known for dishing out fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in flight. Because people who follow me on Twitter like to know what I'm up to, I sent out a silly little joke of a tweet:
"Midwest Airlines is popular because it serves warm cookies in flight. Is it that easy to win devotion? Who are we, America? #travel"

Hours later, I got a reply from @CChip, an account apparently run by someone at Midwest Airlines that purports to be written by one of its cookies. The snack apparently took mild offense:
"@bastable Never underestimate the power of the chip. Though we do have nice people and planes, too."
Instant attention (even though it was just a form of advertising)! I didn't intend it in either case -- I was just making observations -- but it happens a lot for us tweeters. Companies set up programs to automatically receive alerts when certain key words are sent out.

I was once excited to see that The Dog Whisperer's Cesar Millan had started following my tweets, but then I realized it was just an automatic addition because I had mentioned the show a few days before. The same thing happened when I mentioned The Science Channel and the play Oleanna on Broadway.

Which just proves that on Twitter, unlike in the real world, the people who sell things care a great deal about what you think. If you call, you may spend 10 minutes on hold trying to find the right person, but on Twitter, your voice can cut through the noise.

A while back, just because it was on my mind, I remarked upon all the junk mail I got when I subscribed to Consumer Reports once, and in short order, I got a message from someone at that organization telling me how I could change my account with the magazine to make sure that didn't happen again.

Not only would I probably never have gotten that answer so quickly if I had tried to call them, chances are I wouldn't have had the inclination to even try. But Twitter, inadvertently, delivered the customer service that real-world interaction failed to supply.

I would hate to think that people will now rush to join Twitter just to whine about stuff. There are already too many people yammering on about how drunk they are and what they think of Spencer Pratt. The only time I've ever complained online was not to intentionally get results, but to swap information and opinion with people who follow me. But it's nice to know that whenever I write something that reflects upon customer service, it's not always falling on deaf ears.

SmartMoney recently noticed the same thing I did, and it posted a list of Twitter accounts for companies, some of which are normally recalcitrant (Bank of America, for one, and Comcast), that might prove fruitful.

Right now, Twitter is small enough where one-on-one attention is still possible. Maybe one day, it will be just as useless as most of customer service toll-free lines.
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