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Customer service on Twitter takes more than software

Barney Beal, News Director

Frank Eliason is becoming something of a Web 2.0 celebrity.

But the director of digital care at Comcast hasn't made his name with constant blog and Twitter updates espousing his musings on the social networking phenomenon. Rather, for the past year and a half, Eliason has been establishing a group within Comcast to monitor blogs and social networks and respond to them.

What started with Eliason and a few others reaching out to select bloggers grew into a specific job and ultimately a 10-person department. Since April, the group has been monitoring

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Twitter, the site that asks users to post short updates about what they're doing in 140 characters or fewer. Other users can "follow" or subscribe to these updates -- and Eliason himself now counts more than 13,000 followers on the microblogging platform.

This has earned Eliason and Comcast a number of mentions in the press. Last week, as Salesforce.com was announcing its integration of Twitter with its customer service CRM application that it dubs The Service Cloud, Eliason joined Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff on stage. Salesforce.com is tapping Eliason for help on using Twitter as a customer service channel. Comcast is testing Salesforce CRM for Twitter in its digital care division, which currently uses Salesforce.com for its knowledge base.

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"Really, the world has changed and social media has changed, and they all come together in this space," Eliason said. "Look at what companies have been doing with social media for a while -- the advertising piece, the PR piece -- treating it like the press. But it's really a great place to talk to customers. You look at the success we've had. We have conversations with people, and we're very personal in what we do."

For example, a Comcast customer might write on his Twitter account that his Comcast service is out. Someone in Eliason's group sees the message and replies, offering assistance.

Online, social networks are an increasingly important channel that companies need to be prepared for. More than 50% of customer interactions in 2008 occurred in Web-based or Cloud-based interactions outside of traditional customer service channels, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

Establishing a social networking division

Comcast's digital care division is essentially offering customer service, but it operates separately from the company's customer service division. Twitter is a long way from replacing the contact center.

"First of all, as an organization we have 300 million interactions with the customer a year," Eliason said. "My team helping 21,000 people isn't a blip on that radar. But what is interesting is, a place like Twitter is that early warning system. Usually before people call in, they'll Twitter it. It becomes so you can spot things in advance and hopefully get them corrected and share that with people."

Eliason does provide customer service with reports and updates on his group's progress, but the division isn't solely a customer service operation either.

"I talk to marketing and PR on a regular basis," he said. "One time, I told them: 'The best thing about me is, I'm not one of you.' I never saw my job as marketing or PR. Now I'm doing a blog post to say how wrong I was."

Comcast doesn't have someone monitoring Twitter full time, either, though Eliason practically serves in that capacity, and he said he could foresee having a full-time position monitoring Twitter. For now, the division works from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. eastern time, monitoring conversations about Comcast across the Web, including its own community site, Facebook and Twitter.

And while Eliason now considers his job partly marketing and PR, he's found that the people best suited to work in his department are from customer service and customer advocate positions. The staff includes people with specific expertise, like Internet or phone specialists, and some with expertise in Comcast's different billing systems.

"I've learned from being in the space that it's about personal interactions," Eliason said. "People don't like to interact with an emblem. All my people have their own Twitter IDs."

Eliason's account is @ComcastCares. He estimates that his department has assisted 22,000 customers since it was created.

In fact, the majority of the team's time is spent on email, he said. There is also some inbound and outbound calling as team members try to help people they've contacted online, which raises the question of whether social networking is simply adding yet another channel that the customer service organization must adapt to serve.

"Ideally, we would have one solution to track all contacts and get to know the preferred method of contact for the customer," Eliason said. "That's where the right tools come into play. It's up to companies like Saleforce.com to see what the future of tools will be."

Salesforce.com, for its part, said it will continue to build connectors to social networking sites as long as customers ask for them. It's already built out connectors to Facebook, and Salesforce CRM for Twitter will be available with its Spring '09 release.

"It ends when our customers stop asking us to extend into the cloud," said Kraig Swensrud, vice president of product marketing. "We started with Google and Facebook, and we expanded to Twitter because the community is expanding so rapidly."

Twitter now has more than 8 million users, according to Salesforce.com.

Salesforce.com is not the only company integrating Twitter into its technology. Orem, Utah-based Omniture, a website analytics company, this month released a feature for its SiteCatalyst, allowing online marketers to import into the analytics engine data about conversations happening on Twitter about their company. For example, the feature will allow marketers to identify brand detractors and brand advocates.

Twitter and other social networks here to stay

Gartner predicts that by 2010 more than 50% of companies that have established an online community will fail to manage it as an agent of change. Gartner recently issued a research note highlighting the four ways companies are using Twitter. Many have established Twitter identities as part of their corporate communications strategies and are using it as a marketing or public relations channel. Others are letting employees use Twitter to enhance their personal reputations and thus the company's. Twitter provides a way of raising the profile of both the individuals and the organization they work for, according to Gartner. Other companies are using Twitter as an internal collaboration platform, though Gartner counsels against this because there is no guarantee of security. Finally, some companies are using Twitter as a way of signaling to the organization what customers and competitors are saying about them.

"It's not CRM," Eliason said. "What I see in this space is it's not customer relationship management. It's really about customer relations. It's a two-way dialog. Management puts a control factor in there, but now the control is on the customer side."


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