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.