Following the release of our Truth about Twitter report recently, we were contacted by Guy Stephens, the Online Help Manager of mobile phone retailer, The Carphone Warehouse, who wanted to highlight some of his company’s experience of using Twitter to support its customer service operation.

Since we’re not planning to produce another Twitter report in the near future, Guy kindly agreed to let us interview him for this blog post. It’s made a lengthy article, but if you’re interpreted in a big brand Twitter case study from the real world, you’ll find plenty of great insight below.

Can you give us an overview of what CPW currently uses Twitter for?

We have various accounts, which are used as follows:

@carphoneware – This profile represents the corporate voice of the company, and is used to tweet company announcements. It employs a formal tone without too much emotion.

@guyatcarphone – This has been the main customer service profile. It uses a personal, friendly tone to respond proactively or reactively to customer complaints and queries. We also use it for customer service alerts, help tips and so forth. I will be moving back to providing help and support to our customers via Twitter.

@becksatcarphone – Becks will be taking over from me to provide customer service. She is our first actual customer service agent to be providing customer service support for our customers. We will be adding more agents in time.

@erkanatcarphone – Erkan will be providing information and answering questions specifically about the iPhone and other handsets we sell.

@stuartcarphone – We use this one specifically for BlackBerry related information

@steveblancpw – Steve is the UK Sales & Customer Director, he’s only recently started using Twitter.

@shaneatcarphone – This is for official PR announcements, daily share prices, etc.

@cpwhelp – Help tips, service announcements. We’re building this one up at present.

@cpw1team – this was set up for a senior managers’ conference held in June. It was the first conference we tweeted and yammered live from. This allowed us to connect with employees, customers and generally anyone interested in getting a live tweetfeed of what was happening at the conference. I think this might have been a first in the UK. We had Charles Dunstone and Andrew Harrison speaking, and we officially tweeted about Vodafone and Carphone Warehouse partnering up again.

What drove the decision to engage with people through Twitter?

We realised that people were seeking out new customer service channels, often using social media to create their own peer-to-peer self help networks. It’s clear that information is decentralising, and as a company the challenge for us was working out how to engage with our customers in this new world.

Companies are being forced to use whichever channels their customers are choosing, rather than continuing to focus on their own websites and call centres. We also saw examples such as  BestBuy, JetBlue, Dell, Zappos, doing great things in this space.

Do you feel Twitter provides any specific advantages over the other channels you use?

From a customer service perspective, Twitter speeds up the identification process of a problem (although not necessarily the resolution of it, just the identification). Once the issue has been identified, then it is resolved using traditional channels such as email or phone.

It also serves as an early warning system. Various issues were higlighted on Twitter 24 hours or so prior to the launch of the iPhone, so we’ll take this lesson and ensure we’ve got the appropriate resources in place ahead of the next big launch.

In terms of customer service channels, emails, phones and letters are the most popular route that customers use to contact us. These are essentially 1-to-1 and private. No one else will see the customer’s enquiry apart from the person who wrote it and the person who reads it. Twitter and social media on the other hand, have completely opened up this world.

They are public mediums, where the resolution of an issue often takes place within a very public and populated arena. An arena in which bystanders are often more than willing to add their own experiences, suggestions and recommendations. This opening up of a historically closed space, is forcing companies to recognise the value of transparency, openness and collaborative working practices with customers firmly at the heart of it.

What are the main challenges you have encountered with Twitter so far?

It’s an evolving medium, so there’s a lot of learning as you go along. Sometimes that doesn’t sit too well with companies, because it opens them up to risk.

In terms of customer service, we’re looking to get our customer service agents directly onto Twitter, dealing with customers directly rather than through me. This is going to be great for customers, but it raises the issue of how scalable the service is.

One of the advantages of Twitter is the speed with which it can help you identify customer service problems. The challenge we face is how can we take the best of Twitter, such as that speed, or any social media platform and apply it to traditional customer service channels.

Moving forwards one of our challenges will be how best to involve all the different parts of the business and employees who want to get involved in this space in a coherent and effective way, not only for themselves, but also for customers. This requires making sure everyone who wants to get involved knows what is required of them, the risks involved, as well as the opportunities that are available.

What was the rationale behind running several different accounts?

We felt it was very important to be specific about how we wanted to use Twitter, rather than have generic jack-of-all-trade accounts.  This might not be the case for smaller companies, but for The Carphone Warehouse it has ensured that in each area we go into, can build up their own personality and characters as they see fit.

We also deliberately had a more formal account for the company which we use for corporate info, announcing our results, etc. To be honest, on one level we probably didn’t think about it too much either, as we were learning as we went along.

Do you have a particular strategy for deciding who to follow?

There’s no overall strategy or hard and fast rules about followers. At the end of the day, I’m probably like anyone else, if they look interesting I’ll follow them. I tend to follow them as an individual (‘me’) rather than someone with their corporate hat on.

I think in both instances it’s more about building up credibility and trust within our customer base, rather than actively seeking followers. I would say that The Carphone Warehouse is still very much operating on Twitter in a somewhat functional way, we have not got to the level of a Frank Eliason at ComCast or Tony Hsieh at Zappos, who operate on a thought leadership level as well.

With the corporate account we deliberately do not follow lots of people as many add no value to the account. Those we do follow are linked to our business in some way such as Robert Stephens (CEO of Geek Squad). Being less ‘personal’ the account benefits from staying lean as far as followers are concerned. Its growth in followers is because people want to follow and it’s growing steadily.

Have you found that using a specific ‘tone of voice’ on Twitter works particularly well?

What you read is what you get, and our tone of voice reflects that; we’re there to help or to provide information. We encourage conversation with our customers and it is important to understand their frustrations or concerns and be open to listening and responding in a timely and efficient manner. In order to do that, our tone of voice has to be more empathetic, open and honest. Whilst our corporate account is more formal, there’s still an element of personality that comes through.

We’re trying to create a sense of ‘freedom within a framework’ for our employees who want to get involved in this space. We can’t stipulate how they should sound or what they should say, that works against the whole idea of social media. There’s room for lots of different opinions but coming from The Carphone Warehouse it would be in our approachable, honest and open tone of voice. Our challenge is to create a framework that allows that to happen.

Do you actively post comments that you want people to retweet?

We do not have an RT policy or guidelines. If you find it interesting and want to RT it, do. If you don’t find it interesting, dont. There’s no doubt that we try to RT colleagues where we can in Geek Squad, Best Buy, TalkTalk etc, but it’s still got to be interesting.

CPW has a quite sophisticated customer service IT system – is the Twitter customer service channel linked to that in any technical way, or are you just managing it personally?

At present, Twitter is not integrated into the business at a systems level. This is coming, and now that we are starting to put our customer service agents onto the front line, we’ll have no option but to find a way to ensure that Twitter is not only seen as a valid customer service channel, but is also integrated more fully into the business. We don’t know what that will look like, but I would imagine within the next 3 months or so, we’ll start seeing Twitter stats appear on weekly reports.

We are also planning to add Twitter and other social media sites such as Digg, StumbledUpon, Delicous to our online help content so that customers can share it if they like it.

What lessons have you learned from your experience with Twitter so far, and what advice would you give to other organisations who have yet to get started with the channel?

  • Be specific and clear about how you want to use Twitter. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
  • Just have a go.If you’re feeling a bit nervous,start small, become confident in one area, whether that’s customer service, sales, marketing, PR etc, and then as you become more familiar and confident, grow your offering from there.Then get the directors on boardandusing it.
  • Be prepared to change the way you think. It is an open medium that cuts across business units, it forces you to become more transparent in the way you work, and you begin to realise that actually customers can operate quite happily without you. You need to find your rightful place within their social spaces.
  • Ultimately, Twitter is just another channel. You’ve still got to understand your customers, how they engage with you, and what motivates them. Once you start understanding that, you can then understand whether Twitter is really for you. Twitter isn’t for every company, so don’t feel the pressure to join if you can’t find value in it.
  • If you do decide to join, do it wholeheartedly, embrace the space and the opportunities it offers, and simply keep listening to your customers, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.
  • Encourage people to have a go and, if you can, help them to understand how toget thebest out if it. Sharing good content means that youwill attract good followers etc.

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