Some of Britain’s biggest firms were last night accused of ‘spying’ on their customers after they admitted ‘listening in’ on disgruntled conversations on the internet.This is just not the case. Companies such as BT, and us at Virgin Media, are present on social media as we're aware that our customers are talking about us and want to hear what they have to say - and to help where it's appropriate to do so.
The companies include BT, which uses specially developed software to scan for negative comments about it on websites including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
[...] privacy campaigners have accused them of ‘outright spying’ while legal experts have suggested that firms making unsolicited approaches to customers could fall foul of data protection laws.
As people may know, we have had a presence on Twitter since December 2008 as a company, and with a number of our more enthusiastic staff members having been on the site earlier than that it was clear that customers were on Twitter asking questions about our products and seeking help - so naturally we had to join in that conversation, which is going to happen about us whether we're involved in it or not.People posting on Twitter generally have their profiles in public (we can't see what they post otherwise, as it requires people to be following each other to see what is being posted via a protected account) and hence what they post is open to be viewed by anyone on the web, so why would a brand not be using social media monitoring tools to see what is being said about them and act on it accordingly?
Clearly companies need to be using their judgment when engaging with customers on sites such as Twitter, and I wouldn't begin to claim we've always got it right. You need to learn from your mistakes, and the only way to do so is dive in 'boots and all' and engage with your customers.
We set up a Twitter team in our customer care area (Billy, Sam and Pete for anyone who has dealt with them) to deal with customers seeking help on Twitter, and the results have been fantastic.
Their first priority is to help customers who message us direct (i.e. the equivalent of sending us an e-mail) with enquiries and/or asking for help, and we've found that generally the quickest way to solve problems is for customers to e-mail in some details and the team then gets on the case to resolve the issue.
They're empowered to do so and act as if they were the customer internally - which has enabled internal facing areas of the business to get some great, instant direct feedback from customers and resulted in many process improvements that benefit our customers as a whole.
What the team also does is to use various social media monitoring tools to see Twitter users talking about Virgin Media but not 'to' us direct. These can be customers (sometimes including celebs) talking to each other, non customers querying our products and services, the media, analysts and others - and this is where the team makes a judgment call as to how to engage, if we need to at all.
The likes of media and analysts are fairly straightforward, and our media relations team deals with these either via our main feed (which our head of media relations setup alongside myself in the first place, and still posts to regularly) or by taking it offline to talk to the respondent direct - often the most appropriate way as it's difficult to answer often complex media enquiries in 140 characters!
Customers talking about problems they are experiencing but not to us direct are the main source of our 'wow' experiences - or, as someone once said, taking them from woe to wow. Many people aren't aware that we have a presence on Twitter, and when we step in to a conversation or post to someone talking about us the reaction is almost universally positive.
Picking up that customer's issue and resolving it tends to be the type of experience that results in external blogs (for example here and here), independent recognition and thank you e-mails into us from customers - and the success stories help us reiterate internally the importance of engagement in social media from a customer service perspective.
We regularly survey our customers who interact with Virgin Media as to what their experience is, using the Net Promoter® Score (NPS) framework. It's little heard of within what is effectively a complaints function (which is what the Twitter team does much of the time) for a customer to recommend their experience and give a 9 or 10 (out of 10) score on their survey - but our Twitter team hits this time and again, breaking many advocacy records along the way.
Using social media monitoring tools to find out what is being said about you and to act on it is not spying - it's moving with the times and realising that as a company you need to engage with a customer in the way they wish to speak to you or even about you - you just need to use your common sense and learn where it is and isn't appropriate to engage with users, and on the best way to do so.
And our experience tells us that it's also what our customers want.