Twittering telcos! Better service at last?

Telcos' reputations for customer service came to a head in April, when ACMA announced a formal inquiry into the industry's ailing standards. But recent experiences with Telstra and Optus suggest they may finally be lifting their game — thanks to their warm embrace of social media.

I may be prone to taking telcos to task when they stuff up, but it's only fair that they should be commended for doing something right. And it's for this reason that, after enduring years of phone support that ranged from passable to utterly terrible, I was pleasantly surprised to note that both Telstra and Optus seem to be upping their games thanks to their new investments in social media.

Having recently switched from 3 to a Telstra Next G wireless broadband dongle — my mobile and backup internet service — I was having problems setting up the system on my Mac. The local T-Life shop wasn't picking up the phone, online and on-disc instructions weren't helping, and I was about to go on a trip to a place where the dongle would be my only connection to the online world. In short, I was desperate.

A tweet referencing @Telstra seemed to raise the attention of the faceless Twitter watchers, and a direct message exchange came back with a surprisingly helpful answer: "Hi David. Your best bet is to have a chat to faults. I can get someone on the line for you if you would like?"


The plan's terms were clear, but a simple transposition created a six-month billing drama. (Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

An online exchange soon led to a phone call from Scott, an Adelaide-based gent who, I found out, is one of five people tasked by Telstra to do nothing else but monitor Twitter, Facebook and Whirlpool for customer service issues. Within hours, and via several Twitter direct messages, Scott had a technical support person on the phone, who walked me through the fault resolution (the Telstra documentation had instructed me to install the wrong software for my modem) and had me up and running. Thanks to Twitter, I had gone from panicked to happy in the course of a day.

My second experiment with Twitter support was something of a cry for help, to be honest. I had tried for months to resolve a long-running billing error on Optus' part: instead of signing me up for a 90GB plan at $60/month, they had entered me in the computer as having a 60GB plan for $90 a month, and billed me accordingly. Several calls earlier this year had failed to resolve the issue, but in late April I reached a lovely and helpful Optus phone support person who promised a refund of the overcharged money, a correction to my user profile, and an upgrade to a newer and better plan.

I hung up the phone that night so happy that I tweeted about my great customer service experience — and Optus tweeted back in a friendly shout-out. But when my bill arrived two weeks later, absolutely nothing had changed. Optus had overcharged me again for my 60GB plan, no refund had been issued, and my online usage meter still indicated I was on the 60GB plan.

Forget apathetic outsourcers or struggling with computerised voice-recognition systems: the Twitter pages of Optus and Telstra are full to bursting with compliments, helpful requests for information, and friendly banter that shows there are definitely caring, helpful human beings available to help

Desperate, and not sure I wanted to waste more time talking through the same issues yet again, I issued a tweet hoping to attract the attention of @Optus, the Twitter presence the telco has set up for the express purpose of handling customer replies. Sure enough, it didn't take long before a reply came through, directing me to a web submission form where I detailed my grievances and clicked submit. By the next day, I had a confirmation reply from a guy named Ian in the Optus social media response team, who promised to look into my situation and get back to me with a resolution.

A day later, there was an update: Ian had identified the problem, and was working to fix it. The next day, he caught up with me on the phone and talked through his solution: a full and correct refund and immediate adjustment of my broadband plan. Again, I hung up the phone smiling — but this time, the changes were confirmed by email, and actually made.

In both cases, I needed a quick resolution and had been unable to get it using conventional phone channels. In both cases, a desperate tweet was picked up and acted upon — correctly — with quick resolution. And in both cases, the experience required a minimum of effort and time on my part.

While social media may not be the silver bullet for telcos' customer support woes — and their woes are many, if ACMA's recently-announced inquiry into telco service is anything to go by — it is clearly playing an important role in the new thinking about customer service. Forget apathetic outsourcers or struggling with computerised voice-recognition systems: the Twitter pages of Optus and Telstra are full to bursting with compliments, helpful requests for information, and friendly banter that shows there are definitely caring, helpful human beings available to help. If even the two industry behemoths can move more quickly and effectively using social media than time-honoured phone support, well, maybe there's hope for them yet.

Have you had a particularly good (or bad) support experience? Did social media help?

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