Following a horrific train derailment, American rail operator Amtrak has come under fire for its handling of the communications related to the tragedy.

Among them, the organization was too slow to provide information and respond to inquiries.

PRWeek's editor-in-chief Steve Barrett wrote:

Its social media response was tardy, on-the-ground communication was terse and unhelpful, and the overall tone was not good from an optics point of view.

A lot of the criticism leveled at Amtrak suggests that it was ill-prepared to manage a crisis across multiple channels, raising an important question: do organizations have the ability to choose their customer service channels anymore?

There are many reasons companies might legitimately choose not to provide customer service in a particular channel. Just about every channel presents challenges. Asynchronous channels like email aren't always fast enough. Synchronous channels like phone can be costly to scale so that demand is met with an acceptable level of service.

But despite the challenges associated with various channels including social, it's clear that consumers increasingly expect to interact with organizations on their terms.

Put simply, they want service whenever, wherever and on whatever device they choose. And in some cases, they'll want to use all of the above in a seamless fashion.

For better or worse, organizations that are unwilling or unable to deliver this type of customer service experience aren't likely to receive a free pass. A company that isn't prepared to respond to customer service inquiries on Twitter, for instance, is unlikely to find that its customers will forgive it for not responding to a customer service tweet. More likely, the company will find itself being criticized.

This does not mean that organizations should seek to provide the same level of customer service in every channel. Most can't. What it does mean is that companies need to understand the channels their customers are using, and be prepared to engage in some fashion using those channels.

For example, a company may decide that Twitter is not a suitable customer service channel, but that doesn't mean that Twitter can't be used as an initial touch point to direct customers into channels where service is provided.

Ultimately, organizations need to adopt a "customer service everywhere" mindset that assumes customer service queries will originate in any given channel, but adopting such a mindset and actually acting on it are two different things."

Amtrak appears to be a good example of that. In an interview with SocialMedia.org, Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Director of Public Relations and Coordinator of Digital and Social Media, explained that when she joined the organization, she had to deal with the fact that Amtrak customers were using social media for customer service despite the fact that Amtrak wasn't officially supporting this.

We had to explain that this is happening. We can either get on board and do a really good job, or we can dig our feet in and hope that customers stop coming to us for customer service needs on social.

But even though Amtrak trained two dozen call center representatives to handle inbound social media queries, Amtrak has still found itself facing criticism, highlighting just how high expectations are for multichannel customer service and reminding companies that embracing and executing are not the same.

Patricio Robles

Published 20 May, 2015 by Patricio Robles

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

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Background on the horrific crash, which seems to have been caused by human error because the train was travelling much too fast for a curve.

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20150518_Amtrak_injured__20_remain_hospitalized__five_are_critical__one_serious.html
http://www.ibtimes.com/amtrak-crash-philadelphia-human-error-caused-derailment-train-188-report-says-1927931

The focus on the quality of the social media response (above and elsewhere) seems a very American thing. I can't imagine us Brits worrying about that - here the emphasis would be on the victims and ensuring it never happened again.

almost 3 years ago

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Pauline Ashenden, Marketing Manager at Eptica

The balance has definitely shifted away from brands, with consumers in control – as you say they want service on the channels they choose, not those an organization decides to focus on. Such is the nature of modern business that every brand faces crises (though thankfully not all on the scale of the Amtrak tragedy) – it is how they are dealt with that sets a company apart. More on crisis customer service in this blog post http://www.eptica.com/blog/flooding-extreme-weather-and-customer-service

over 2 years ago

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