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AT&T has a lucrative exclusive for the iPhone in the United States. But that has proven to be a double-edged sword. While the iPhone has helped AT&T acquire lots and lots of customers, it has also strained the company's network. Regardless of whether or not that's entirely AT&T's fault, network issues have led to a significant number of unhappy customers.

Improving its image is a top priority for the company. But how should it go about that?

As detailed by AdAge, AT&T is hoping that it can turn more frowns upside down using social media:

...AT&T is turning to social media for customer care after first using the medium for public relations and marketing. "We started using social media as a PR tool," said Susan Bean, who leads an eight-person social-media strategy and execution team within AT&T corporate communications. "With marketing, we discovered that for social media to be successful we really needed there to be customer care. Otherwise all anyone would want to talk about is: 'solve my problem.'"

Not surprisingly, AT&T's efforts focus on Facebook and Twitter. But there are a few problems:

  • Twitter and Facebook aren't always ideal channels for customer service delivery. Looking at just a handful of tweets like this, it's not too difficult to see that Twitter is a fairly clunky tool for the delivery of customer service, especially in instances where a customer needs immediate help of a technical nature.
  • Customer service isn't a silo. Can social media be a worthwhile part of a customer service strategy? Sure. But good customer service requires excellence across all channels -- not just one. While AT&T does deserve credit for monitoring tweets and following up when appropriate, these two recent tweets demonstrate that AT&T's overall customer service has a long way to go. Bottom line: if you're messing up in some channels and using another (like Twitter) as a stop-gap measure, something is wrong because there are obviously consumers who aren't on social media sites who are falling through the cracks.
  • AT&T really isn't using social media for customer care. Problems relating to customers' biggest beef -- that the AT&T network is lacking -- are not addressable by the company's social media team. All the social media team can do is console customers and try to convince them that AT&T feels their pain. That's far closer to PR than it is to customer care.

The latter point is perhaps the most important. It's easy for AT&T (and other companies) to label their activities on social media sites "customer care", but a lot of the time it's a not-so-subtle effort at PR. The reactions to AT&T's social media push highlight the fact that a good number of people perceive it as such.

Obviously, when it comes to AT&T's greatest Achilles heel (network problems), there's nothing its social media team can do to make things better. But even when it comes to cases where the company is finding individuals who are complaining about their customer care experience in other channels, AT&T's efforts to publicly address them have more of a PR effect than anything else. After all, you can use Twitter to ensure that a customer who didn't receive a call back gets helped, but unless you're addressing the real problem (the fact that a customer wasn't called back), you're really only pretending to be providing customer care. What you're really doing is providing damage control with a smile.

If AT&T is to improve the way customers feel about its brand, it needs to improve its product. And when it comes to the company's efforts on Facebook and Twitter, it needs to recognize that emphasizing your use of social media instead of delivering customer service effectively across all channels is little more than a fruitless PR campaign.

Photo credit: cameronparkins via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 22 June, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2405 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Nigel Sarbutts

Nigel Sarbutts, Managing Director at BrandAlert

This is PR's big challenge. PR has (rightly) spent years trying to climb up the organisational tree, pursuing a desire to be seen as a strategic discipline, whilst still keeping a foot in the tactical media relations camp and all too often happy to run to the comfort of the big fat clippings book to justify itself. Social media makes this dichotomy a three way stretch (a trichotomy?) where dealing customers is the new thing. Groundswell gives us the new stakeholder group I call the micro-journalist - the active consumer with a following stretching from 1 to over 7 figures. In the client's agency roster who deals with these people who bring to a brand's door a simultaneous need for customer service and the threat of a United Airlines/Paperchase/Nestle reputational foul-up. Moreover, how can PR agencies support this essentially high volume, low-cost activity in their fee structures which reflect their C-suite aspirations?

over 6 years ago

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Mark Chapman

Fundamentally, social media is showing up (parts of) AT&T for what they are - badly run. That's terrible PR. Adopting social media for AT&T looks to be a poor business decision by the telecoms company. Why did they do it?

That said social media may lead to them learning how to survive in the marketplace... because they don't know how to run as a good business that they must now rely on customers to guide internal operations. Are AT&T management that bad? Wow.

mark.

over 6 years ago

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Pamela Gleeson

I give AT&T credit for having the intelligence to jump in to engage the customers rather than ignore them. That would be worse. Yes, infrastructure is a problem, but I'm wondering what company wouldn't have that problem given the required coverage area. So, I'll be their cheerleader. Everyone's still learning with social media. I think this is the right approach - Twitter / Molly: @NateHill Hi I'm sorry Uve ... http://bit.ly/cZS0GR 

over 6 years ago

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Shashi Bellamkonda

Hi Patricia,

With the new trend to implement SocialCRM where companies can merge their social conversations with the rest of the organization the customer will benefit as there is sharing of the interaction. At Network Solutions there has been a learning curve for us for the past few years and we suceeded in our goals to use social media for:

Reputation Management ( won two awards)

Connecting with Customers

Community outreach

I work for PR and communications and as more customers engaged with us we extended our cross functional reach to include more teams in our social media conversations. I am also happy that tools that organizations can use are also getting more CRM friendly. I am currently testing a tool called hy.ly ( http://hy.ly ) that is specific to companies doing 140care using Twitter. As we see more innovation in tools customer care will get better where ever the customers want to engage.

Godd to see this conversation going.

Shashi Bellamkonda

Social Media Swami

Networksolutions.com

about 6 years ago

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Shashi Bellamkonda

Kicking myself for getting your name wrong in the earlier comment. 

about 6 years ago

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Carol

I had a nightmarish experience with one of the Manila based call center of AT&T.  All I wanted was a little assistance regarding the coverage issues in my area and I get hours of waiting, extremely difficult to understand Reps on phone and no resolution at the end of nearly an hour’s ordeal. Did someone have a similar experience like I did ?

about 6 years ago

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