Cranky ex-Sprint Customer Dumenco 
Gets Satisfaction (Sort of) on Twitter

How Long Will the Current Marketer Fetish for Social-Media Responsiveness Last?

By Published on .

Last week, after having spent at least an hour of quality time, spread out over several months, with semi-clueless Sprint phone-support people -- and waiting on hold to be transferred to other semi-clueless Sprint phone-support people -- I broke down and did what I have never done before: I whined to Twitter. I typed this at 10:38 a.m. on June 14:

@sprintcare I canceled @sprint mobile broadband months ago, have repeatedly been told it's handled, but Sprint won't stop billing me. Help!

(At the company's main Twitter page, @sprint, I'd noticed this line: "For service issues, please contact @sprintcare.")

At 10:44 a.m., @sprintcare tweeted back:

@simondumenco Hey, sorry to hear that. I'll be happy to check on it - pls snd details (incl acct # + PIN) to [email protected]

In the space of 140 characters, I got: a) pleasantly colloquialized sympathy ("Hey, sorry ..."), b) friendliness/eagerness ("...happy to..."), and c) a single person ("I'll") taking ownership of the problem.

I could get used to this. I could, but I shouldn't.

But first I should note that I don't think I got preferential treatment or an expedited response because I happen to be a media columnist with a decent number of Twitter followers. Check out @sprintcare's interactions with other twitterers, and you'll find similar responsiveness to all sorts of folks. For instance, last Tuesday, a 19-year-old girl named Becca ("I love Harry Potter, books, writing, my friends and music") with less than 100 followers tweeted-- without even directly addressing @sprintcare -- "Thank you sprint for not sending my text messages for the past hour or so." Two minutes later, @sprintcare tweeted "Saw your tweet. Have you tried this: Take the battery out for about 30 seconds, then turn it back on and try again." (Becca wasn't having any of it: "no, sprint just sucks," she tweeted in response.)

Here's what I think is happening -- and here's why I think it won't last: Companies are, obviously, attempting to do preemptive social-media damage control because everyone in the marketing world keeps on saying they have to. As it happens, social-media as a corporate meme is still pretty interesting and exciting and attractive (if also increasingly overbearing and annoying). Nobody can quite wrap their minds around the possibilities and repercussions of social media for brands and marketers, so a lot of the smart, ambitious, college-educated, well-socialized people in corporate environments are getting sucked into social media. Some of these bright young folks can say things like, "Oh, I manage social media for X Corp." or "I monitor social media for Y Industries" -- and it sounds pretty cool. But what they're really doing is slaving away at a virtual call center. (If Mom and Dad, who helped pay for college, really understood that, they'd weep.)

Which ain't gonna last. Old-school customer-service phone lines tend to be staffed by not-so-helpful, not-particularly-well-educated, not-so-patient workers because, let's be honest, talking to cranky, pissy customers is shit work. (Or the call center employees are well-educated, but non-native speakers of English squeezed into cubicles on another continent. Either way, they're probably biding time.)

Just look at some of the anger Sprint's Twitterer has to put up with. Last week, for instance, in the middle of going back and forth with @sprintcare, customer @MrLitke growled "[wasting] more of my time on this. 4 phone hours in the past 5 days. #insanity #horriblebusinesspractice #awful #sprint."

He's right to be fed up, of course. Technology keeps failing all around us -- from strained cellular networks to busted deep-sea oil wells -- and no amount of heightened sensitivity and fleet-footed responsiveness from corporate Twitter gurus can make up for fundamental flaws in overburdened systems. (Don't even get me started on why I canceled my Sprint mobile-broadband service in the first place.)

Mark my words: The smart, ambitious, college-educated, well-socialized people currently manning a lot of corporate social-media decks -- like the @sprintcare-taker who assisted me last week -- will burn out fast, their spirits broken as they realize that they are helpless to break the cycle of abuse. (Customers abused by failing, inflexible technology and corporate idiocy become, in turn, abusive themselves.) Big corporations will either get over their social-media fetish -- which costs a lot of money, after all -- or they'll staff their social-media customer care centers with the same sort of not-so-caring, poorly compensated worker bees manning their traditional call centers.

And the old world order of mostly monolithic, unresponsive, Kafkaesque corporatism will be restored.

As for me and @sprintcare, it remains to be seen if my civilized, low-effort Twitter and e-mail exchange will ultimately pay off; I have to wait for my next credit-card bill to find out for sure.

If Sprint bills me $61.59 once again for service I canceled months ago, um, I guess I'll tweet about it again?

That is, if Twitter itself isn't on the fritz -- aka "over capacity," as it often is lately. When Twitter crashes, of course, there's no one to e-mail and not even a number to call -- so, really, all you can do is riot in the streets. But what fun is overturning cars and setting trashcan fires if you can't immediately tweet a picture of your handiwork?

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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