Twitter’s New DM Feature is Changing How Brands Provide Social Customer Support

When it comes to social customer support, speed is critical. According to digital marketing advisory firm Convince and Convert, 42 percent of consumers complaining on social media expect a response in 60 minutes or less, and Twitter is making it easier to meet that expectation.

On Twitter, most customer service interactions follow a similar route—the customer complains and the brand responds, usually with a generic apology and a follow request in order to handle the situation further. In the past, brands were not able to directly message a consumer unless that consumer was a follower, which added several additional steps between the complaint and the attempt at a resolution. Thanks to the new DM functionality, however, brands can now message users regardless of their status.

Though the change may appear trivial, it will save customers some valuable time, and make the overall experience more customer-centric, says Jeanette Gibson, vice president of customer experience and community at Hootsuite. When customers reach out with an issue via social media, it's likely that they don't have time to call the contact center, or go online to resolve their issue. Chances are they're on their smartphones, trying to get an answer quickly, and the last thing they want is a back-and-forth exchange that circumvents the issue. If customers are already frustrated by something, the last thing they want to do is follow the brand that's causing the frustration, Gibson says. Because of the limitation of the direct messaging feature, all companies could do was "answer a request with another request, which could create friction," especially in a time-sensitive situation, she adds. The feature update is largely a win-win for customers and brands, but there are caveats on both fronts, experts say.

Currently, the feature is available on an opt-in basis, meaning customers can turn this option on, but it isn't on by default. Because opting in will likely open the door to potential spam messaging, customers may be reluctant to change the status quo. If consumers do opt in, however, their privacy must be respected, even in the context of a customer service interaction. "Not every interaction will warrant a direct message," Gibson says, "and brands must be careful about determining when it's appropriate to escalate the conversation to the direct message environment."

While there's no defined precedent that determines when to transition to direct messaging, Gibson recommends taking the cue from the customer. If the customer explicitly asks for help with a particular situation, the request may warrant a direct message, whereas if the tweet is a general complaint, it should be addressed in the public Twitter arena. "With direct messaging, you run the risk of spamming the customer, and you don't want to create that feeling. This feature presents an opportunity to provide support more directly, and it shouldn't be used to [bombard] consumers," Kaveh Rostampor, executive director of the Americas division at media intelligence company Meltwater, says.

Another potential drawback is that over time, customers may become more accustomed to connecting with brands through direct messages, and the transparency that Twitter has brought to customer service interactions could be jeopardized. In other words, if customers and brands can now have a seamless conversation through direct messages, then why initiate the exchange through public tweets? Brands would prefer that complaints aren't shared publicly and may push customers further into the direct messaging channel. This is a slight concern, Gibson and Rostampor agree, but it's highly unlikely that customers will give up the opportunity to publicly scorn brands for mishaps.   

"Again, it depends on what customers are trying to get out of the interaction. I think it'll make conversations that already occur behind the curtain easier to initiate and handle, but I don't think it's going to eliminate the conversations that happen out in the open," Gibson says. "Customers want to hold companies accountable, and the public tweets are the best way to ensure that that happens," she adds.

As for what consumers think of the feature so far, Rostampor says the response, which Meltwater measured with its sentiment analysis tool, has been somewhat surprising. "I think it's fair to be [skeptical], but it seems like most consumers are either neutral or have a positive view on the feature," he says. From a customer service perspective, that's promising. 

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