The add-on for Salesforce CRM lets companies track and aggregate customer complaints on Twitter.

Mary Hayes Weier, Contributor

March 25, 2009

4 Min Read

Frank Eliason, a Comcast customer-service rep, has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter. In the coming weeks, he's going to help figure out how to introduce corporate customer-service systems into the world of Twitter.

About a year ago, Eliason and his team of 10 reps, who primarily answered customer e-mails, began to seek out and help customers who were publicly blogging their criticisms and frustrations with Comcast. The team increasingly concentrated on Twitter and its millions of easily searchable microblogs.

Eliason's readiness to help solve Comcast customers' problems, while calmly ignoring the occasional insults thrown his way, soon made him somewhat of a personality among Twitter regulars. He's known as @comcastcares.

Then the media came calling, and in recent months, several newspapers, magazines, and television networks have profiled Eliason. His technique is to tentatively approach Twitterers critical of Comcast, rather than offer up advice that wasn't asked for. "I never thought I'd become famous on three words: Can I help?" Eliason said.

Now Salesforce wants Eliason's help. On Monday, it announced an add-on for Salesforce CRM that lets companies track and aggregate customer complaints on Twitter. Eliason and his team will be testing the offering, which is scheduled for general availability this summer. It's a perfect fit, since Comcast is already a customer of Salesforce CRM's Internet (a.k.a. "cloud")-based software services.

CRM for Twitter will include a dashboard for tracking and monitoring topics on Twitter, the replies to those topics, and whether customer issues were resolved, and it will alert customer-service reps to volume spikes on certain topics. The app will be integrated with Salesforce's Knowledge Base, which reps use to look up answers to customers' questions and problems.

Pricing will start at $995 a month for five agents and support for 250 customers. This isn't Salesforce's first social networking attempt: In January, it announced an app service that companies can set up to have customers come to them on Facebook (the searchable Twitter approach wouldn't work with Facebook, since users' "walls," where they would post comments, operate on an invitation-only basis). Still, using a team of salaried employees to seek out disgruntled customers on the Web may seem counterintuitive to the typical big-business approach to customers service; that is, stock a phone bank with as many low-cost workers as possible that follow scripts in a database.

But Salesforce executives said during a recent InformationWeek briefing that maybe that's not the best approach. Perhaps, they suggested, companies need to move beyond the call-center mentality and start reaching people at the place they're increasingly going to complain about things and get help from others: the Internet.

Twitter, of course, is used by just a small fraction of Comcast's customers, and Eliason's team is a tiny speck in a pool of 30,000 customer reps at the company. Still, Eliason said his team has helped solved about 21,000 customer issues on Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, and other social networking sites since starting the work a year ago, and he envisions a day when perhaps thousands of Comcast reps can use the CRM for Twitter application.

"This allows us to be much more efficient because it's going to tie into Knowledge Base," Eliason said. "My team is the guinea pigs."

There's also a big-brother quality to a software service that helps companies find what their customers are saying about them and then intervene. Eliason said it's all in the approach.

"My advice to companies considering this is that you don't try to interfere with a conversation," Eliason said. "If someone is commenting about Comcast, we may not give the answer right off the bat. We don't force ourselves into a conversation. Instead, we throw the ball in their court, with, 'Can I help?' "

Twitter has also proven to be an "early warning system," Eliason said; customers will tweet about a Comcast problem before calling customer service.

In some situations, Eliason's team has known about issues before a Comcast call center. Last year, Comcast reps working on the East Coast at 7 a.m. saw a few late-night tweets about a network problem in San Francisco (4 a.m.). The call centers serving San Francisco didn't start getting calls about the issue until three hours later, when most Comcast customers in the area were waking up and trying to sign on.

Based on his experience with Twitter, Eliason believes that public social networks will prove to be far more important to businesses than they may are expecting. "Engaging with customers is what works, not PR or marketing or customer-relationship 'management,' " he said. "People respect a company when it's not about the message, it's about the personal relationship."
Can enterprise social networking pay off? InformationWeek has published an independent analysis of this topic. Download the report here (registration required).

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