In a continuing series of investigations into how companies use social for customer care, last week I took to Twitter, posed as an innocent customer and asked some of the most popular US retailers the same query.

The query would also test each brand’s true multichannel capabilities: “can I return an item bought online to my nearest branch?”

With this investigation we'll be testing their response times and ability to satisfyingly bring a resolution to the query.

Other matters taken into consideration are whether the reply was a personal, human response, whether the retailer either operated a separate customer service Twitter account from the main one or whether it stated that the main account was also there for customer enquiries and whether operating hours were clearly stated.

Let’s take a look at the results…

Quick, helpful and personal

Which of the US retailers responded within 30 minutes, answered my query satisfactorily and added a personal touch?

Nordstrom – 2 minutes

Offering help, multichannel returns, personalisation, massive amounts of positivity and all within two minutes…

My reply was then followed with this little gem…

My only complaint is that on the Twitter account it doesn’t say anything about providing customer service here, in fact it just offers a phone number so most customers may assume that’s the only method of communication with the customer service team.

Here’s some further reading on Nordstrom’s social media efforts.

Staples – 12 minutes

Again, great customer service, but nowhere does it say this is available on the Twitter profile.

Foot Locker – 15 minutes

Same story here with Foot Locker.

These are three great examples of helpful customer service delivered within 15 minutes but without advertising as such on each profile.

Sears – 27 minutes

Sears is the only brand to answer with half an hour to offer a separate customer service channel (linked from the main account) with operating hours clearly stated.

Better late than never

Pushing the limits of acceptability when it comes to replying in a timely fashion are the following brands. Although as we'll see later, this is far from the worst crime against customer care committed in this feature.

Macy’s – 2 hours 36 minutes

Not the latest reply here, but was cheerful and offered a positive resolution. Macy’s doesn’t offer a separate customer service channel nor does it state its main channel is for customer care.

Gap – 5 hours 14 minutes

Nicely helpful and positive tweet, but far too late, and again there’s no statement that it offers customer service in the profile. Then again if it can’t reply within one hour than perhaps it doesn’t want to advertise this.

J.Crew – 4 hours 12 minutes

J.Crew went to the trouble to check where I was tweeting from, which was really helpful and thorough. Unfortunately this reply came more than four hours later.

More encouragingly the follow-up reply came in 28 minutes.

J.Crew also operates a separate customer service Twitter with working hours listed.

Eddie Bauer – 10 hours 24 minutes

Wow Eddie Bauer I had almost given up on you.

Positive, if painfully slow response. But again, it doesn't advertise customer care in its profile.

Could do much better

Just because they were fast, it doesn't mean they actually helped.

Best Buy – 1 minute

This was the quickest response out of all of them. It was an encouraging start. This first tweet asks me sensible questions that are entirely valid.

This was then followed by...

And eventually…

You could read this one of two ways. Perhaps I'm being asked to bring the item in so I can get a refund? Although I would expect the reply to actually mention this for definite. It seems more likely that the customer service representative couldn't really help me and told me to go into a store to sort out the problem.

I felt a bit cheated here, especially compared with the positive replies above, also I didn't feel the agent was the warmest customer service agent.

Moosejaw – 2 minutes

Moosejaw are great at offering multichannel customer service with wit and flair. You can't argue with the speed here, but being passed to a separate channel is a big disappointment.

Barnes and Noble – 7 minutes

Instead of fobbing me off with a link to a returns policy, Barnes and Noble could’ve asked me directly what the item I wanted to return was and properly answer my question. 

Crate & Barrel – 35 minutes

A quick reply, that's half positive, however what's missing is an actual phone number or a link to a contact page. Again it could've asked me directly what the item was.

Target – 44 minutes

Pretty much the same as above and again the lack of a link to the page it mentions is a baffling omission.

JC Penney – 5 hours 46 minutes

Almost six hours later here's a link to a returns policy. Definitely not good enough.

Still waiting…

But then as much as I may criticise the above brands, it’s hard not to think of them positively when compared to the following seven brands which have yet to reply to my question four days later...

  • American Apparel
  • American Eagle Outfitters
  • Home Depot
  • Kohl's
  • Office Depot
  • Toys “R” Us
  • Walmart

Just to clarify, only Walmart here explicitly states that it's available for customer service.

Statistics

How many US retailers replied to my question? 71% (15/21)

How many US retailers satisfactorily replied to my question? 38% (8/21)

Which US retailers operate a separate customer service channel or state that they offer help on their main account? 29% (6/21)

Which US retailers publish their opening hours in their profiles? 19% (4/21)

Based on these tweets alone, how many US retailers offer multichannel returns? 52% (11/21 - although the brands that haven't replied or offered ambiguous replies may still offer returns offline.)

What have we learnt?

When it comes to actually replying to customer tweets, it seems US retailers are further behind UK retailers when it comes to social customer service. 85% of UK brands replied to my questions two weeks ago. Satisfaction is also much lower (US: 38% vs UK: 65%) as is the offering of a customer service channel (US: 29% vs UK: 70%) and stating operating hours (US: 19% vs UK: 45%).

In a surprising twist, it was the three retailers that didn’t even state they offered customer service which offered the quickest and most helpful responses. These companies just need to state this in their profiles and they’ll be able to reap the benefits of even more positive brand awareness.

Other retailers need to be much, much quicker. Anything more than an hour is just too late when it comes to social, under 15 minutes and you’re on to a winner. As for the large number of brands that didn’t reply, they’ll find themselves left far behind when social becomes the first port of call for the majority of customer service queries. 

For more social customer care investigations, check out how 16 retail banks handle social customer care.

To learn more about social and all things digital come to our Festival of Marketing event in November. A two day celebration of the modern marketing industry, featuring speakers from brands including LEGO, Tesco, Barclays, FT.com and more.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 7 October, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (4)

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Seth Petersen

This is an interesting test. I'm a firm believer that if you're an organization with a Twitter handle, you inherently acknowledge it to be a customer service channel. Regardless of the size...be it a local restaurant or a large-national corporation.

That said, I do think the experiment may not have been without flaws. If I'm an organization, especially a large corporation, I'm going to look into your account (including your tweet history) before replying (or possibly even assigning it to a representative). If I saw that you had asked the exact same question to a dozen or more retailers, I'd assume something was up. It's possible you may have received a better response if you had used a platoon of other journalists.

almost 4 years ago

Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff, Editor at Methods Unsound / Search Engine Watch

@Seth - I completely agree. Although I'd expect even quicker responses from most of them, if they looked at my profile they'd also see who I write for...

Still, it's a good excuse to spend an afternoon creating 20 Twitter profiles using various pseudonyms.

almost 4 years ago

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Los Angeles Marketing Company

This was a great post, thanks for this Christopher!

almost 4 years ago

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Rudi de Groot

Wow, best buy really sucks. It looks like they outsourced their webcare to India or something ...

https://twitter.com/BestBuySupport

almost 4 years ago

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