How AT&T Plans to Lift Its Image Via Social-Media Customer Care

Carrier Beefs Up Staff to Monitor Facebook, Twitter, Spreads Word About Strategy

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NEW YORK ( -- When you're having a bad day, just think: It could be worse. You could handle customer complaints at AT&T.

Few brands engender as much social-media fury as the iPhone's exclusive carrier. Facebookers and the twitterati adore the devices but despise the service lags and dropped calls. Almost every day during the first half of last year, #attfail and "AT&T sucks" were regular trending topics on Twitter. Just last week, the twit again hit the fan as customers kvetched that they couldn't process new iPhone preorders on the carrier's website.

Credit: Martin Kozlowski

On a normal day, AT&T has 10,000 mentions on social networks, but during stressful moments like these they rise precipitously. The marketer is out to calm those twit storms by staffing up its social-media customer-care corps. The team, led by its first-ever social-media strategist for customer care Shawn McPike, has been building steam since August of last year and is now poised for full-scale launch.

The team began with five people dedicated to responding to customer dissatisfaction on Twitter and YouTube and has since moved on to Facebook and grown to 19 people. To date, 47% of people reached on social media respond to the social team, which results in 32,000 service tickets per month.

When Mr. McPike, a former IT customer-care employee, assumed his social-media role last July, he thought it better for AT&T to not participate in social media at all rather than to do it badly. But nearly one year in, Mr. McPike is ready to actively promote and grow its social-care footprint. To that end, AT&T will flag social-media customer care on its bills, website and other customer channels to alert customers that they can turn to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with problems. The brand is considering advertising its social care and will grow and train staff to handle increased volume.

Eventually, Mr. McPike says the social-care team could save the company money with operational improvements and processes that affect tens or thousands of customers at a time, rather than just one.  

"I'm glad they [AT&T] are going to push forward," said Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs. "They are a bit behind, like Comcast was. They've really let the media run the story for the longest time."

Comcast, now envied for its social-media customer service, had a tarnished service reputation somewhat comparable to AT&T's today. Over the past few years, the cable operator has made a steady climb from reviled service brand to being held up as an exemplary customer-care organization, along with Dell.

'Solve my problem'
Unlike Comcast, however, 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.'"

To abate the criticism, the care team responds directly to consumers on Twitter who engage @ATTCustomerCare or others on the team with "ATT" prefixes to their handle six days per week. (A program scrapes Twitter for AT&T mentions during off hours so staff can respond when they're back online but, to compare, Comcast responds to tweets all week.) AT&T also responds to customers on its Facebook wall, while corporate communications chimes in with brand messages and content. Outside of direct customer requests, the team monitors social networks to seek out complaints and, well, AT&T haters.

"It's hard to sit there and let someone blast you, but that's the only way we're going to improve," said Mr. McPike. "As much as it's not pleasant, I have to fully acknowledge and encourage people who come to me and listen."

One vocal and visible critic of AT&T service, TechCrunch blogger MG Siegler, thinks acknowledging holes in service and outreach might be able to quell at least some backlash for the brand. "It's enough for a certain percentage of people," he said. "A lot of people complain about Comcast, but when they get someone person-to-person reaching out, a lot of people feel better, even if it doesn't actually serve long-term problems."

In the end, though, the only thing that may ease social-media angst is increasing its bandwidth; to that end, AT&T plans to invest $18 to $19 billion to improve both its wired and wireless infrastructure.

In the meantime, AT&T seems equally sanguine about its chances to save its brand from routine pummeling on Twitter and Facebook. "From a care perspective, I don't worry about it from day to day," said Mr. McPike. "What we worry about is that there are customers out there who have problems. We need to at least get them engaged to show that we're listening and that may turn the tide over time."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Shawn McPike as Shawn Pike. We regret the error.

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