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Roughly one out of every five status updates on Twitter mentions a brand or product, which makes it a great platform for gauging consumer sentiment about existing products, and potential launches. Often, that sentiment is favorable - but even when it's not, companies don't have to be afraid. As AT&T shows, brands can mine Twitter for negative sentiment, and use those insights to help solve customer service problems in "real-time."

AT&T's track record when it comes to customer service in the age of real-time, social communications isn't exactly stellar. (Legal threats to disgruntled customers via email, anyone?) But the company is redeeming itself on a variety of fronts, including a new effort to monitor Twitter for real-time info on dropped calls and improve the network accordingly.

MIT Technology Review reports that AT&T has developed software that mines Twitter for complaints about dropped calls and other network problems. The program extracts details like the time the tweet was sent, the location of its user, as well as keywords like "3G" or "call dropped."

The company then uses that information to prioritize repairs as close to "real time" as possible. In some cases, the Twitter data even allows AT&T to find and solve network issues before subscribers have to call in to report them.

Of course, AT&T has millions of dollars to devote to research & development (R&D) for projects like this. But even if your company doesn't have the resources to undertake "Twitter mining" for customer service on a massive scale, there are some tips to be had from AT&T's experience:

  • Identify exactly what information you need to track

"We are trying to identify three pieces of information," Jia Wang, a staff researcher at AT&T's in-house research division, tells Technology Review. "Where the customer experienced problems, what type of problem, and when they experienced it."

Your company's key information cues may vary, but since Twitter produces a never-ending stream of content, it is extremely important to filter out unnecessary data. What are the keywords you should be targeting? If you're a UK-based company that does little to no business in the US, should you exclude US-based tweets from your search?

Figuring out what to track and what not to track in terms of complaints will be easier if you've already been using Twitter as a listening tool, but it's never too early to start.

  • Use the right tool(s) to gather the data

AT&T built its own program to aggregate, segment and analyze Twitter data, and Twitter's application programming interfaces (APIs) make that data readily accessible. But you don't need to have a developer on staff - or even hire one - to build a custom platform. Vendors including Attensity, OpenAmplify and others offer varying degrees of social media-centric data analysis, often via the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model.

  • Analyze the data in conjunction with existing sources

Don't leave the Twitter data in a vacuum. AT&T compares negative sentiment on Twitter with its own system logs, customer service calls, as well as data from Mark the Spot, an iPhone app that lets users submit feedback about exactly where they're experiencing network problems. 

Your company likely has a number of its own channels for feedback - be it email, a submission form on the website, a Facebook page, or even a brick-and-mortar location. Compile data from these sources with your Twitter mining results to develop a more accurate picture of what your primary customer service issues are (and how to fix them).

Tameka Kee

Published 3 November, 2010 by Tameka Kee

Tameka Kee has been covering digital media with a focus on online advertising, social media and gaming since 2007. Find her at or follow her on Twitter

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Comments (3)


Gabriele Maidecchi

This sounds kind of weird, I don't know a single person I know with an AT&T contract active who is satisfied by their service, yet they invest R&D money into something like this which I consider totally awesome. The ability to monitor and respond to incidents in real time is any social media manager's dream, I really hope this will help things out for unhappy AT&T users.

over 7 years ago

Guy Stephens

Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care Consultant at IBM Interactive Experience/GBS/Mobile

The ability for companies to respond in 'real time' always seems to emerge as one of the key reasons for using Twitter within customer service. There's no doubt that Twitter provides for the possibility of a real-time interaction between company and customer, but I'm not sure how much of this is simply marketing-PR. The fact that companies can pick up customer issues in real time is certainly appealing, but whether they are actually geared up to respond is a separate issue entirely. And in the end, let's not confuse real-time acknowledgement of a tweet - whether positive, negative or noise - for the actual resolution of that query or complaint that comes in via Twitter. 

It is also important to make a distinction in how companies use Twitter. On one level, it can be used as a first line acknowledgement for possible customer service issues, while on another level it can be used by marketing as a means to understand sentiment. Let's not confuse the two. That's not to say, however, that they aren't slowly moving closer together.

At the end of the day, if something goes wrong and depending on what the issue is and how important it is to me at that moment in time, I may not always be that worried about an immediate resolution, What I do want, however, is and immediate acknowledgement that you, Mr Company are aware of my issue and will keep me informed about how you are dealing with it.

over 7 years ago


Bian Salins

Hi all, I agree with Guy's point on using Twitter for customer service resolution in that, speed to respond is weighted more heavily than the actual speed of resolution itself. BT has been adopting this strategy for well over a year now and @BTCare offers proactive and reactive care using Twitter - our intention here always was and is, to be present where our customers are. But while servicing customers is one part of the piece, let's not forget that ultimately, the insight gained from what your customers are saying in the social space is what will help you drive improvements in your core business functions - thus leading you to become a better business. Not enough value is attached to this but from our perspective, it's about servicing customers while also trying to drive valuable feedback back into the business so we can get things right first time. Bian

over 7 years ago

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