Last week I had the opportunity to catch up with two-parts of AT&T’s social media equation. Shawn McPike, a social media strategy manager with AT&T’s customer care group and Susan Bean, a strategist behind AT&T’s corporate communications, joined me in far-ranging discussion around AT&T’s social media strategy. For a company the size of AT&T, with a plethora of consumer touch points, social media can be both a blessing and a curse. In fact, AT&T has found the dangers of open discussion in social media from day one. But this isn’t a cautionary tale. It’s really a story about learning through doing. While AT&T has made some missteps along the way, they’ve course corrected and are reaping some of the benefits of having a direct channel to hundreds of thousands of customers and true brand advocates. Here are some highlights from the first part of our conversation.
RaceTalk: Thanks for joining me. Shawn, it sounds like you work within the customer care group and e-commerce, and Susan you’re on the communications side. How do you coordinate between these groups and how did that start? I think this might be a good place to jump-off.
Susan: Sure, well I can kind of give you the background, and the narrative, and then Shawn can jump in. First, it started with Facebook a couple of years ago and we were kind of just getting our feet wet, it was a little tiny page, a couple thousand people, we sort of jumped into it.
We thought Facebook is new and we should be looking at concerts and celebrities and we kind of played around with that and that didn’t really have much resonance for people. It evolved over time and we found what people were interested in talking to us about was our business and our technology. The real affinity at play here is the actual affinity for the technology and device itself, because people are so emotional about their cell phones. So when the iPhone 3Gs came out, that was when the page really started to take off. There was a lot of controversy about the pricing and lack of MMS and people just started looking for AT&T and social media and finding us on Facebook, and that was really festive! Everyone was really mad at us all the time. It was basically non-stop all week:
“We hate you, we hate you, we hate you.”
It was an interesting trial by fire because it was still small enough and it wasn’t happening in front of billions of people. But we sort of found our way with communicating directly with people. We were corporate communications so we knew all of the narratives; this is what we talk to reporters about. So we had this revelation of “oh, okay this is kind of like our dream come true.”
We’re always trying to give our point of view to reporters and now we get to just talk to people directly. So why don’t we get into it and really give them the point of view on why this is important. It was a fascinating process and what happened then is we started reporting back to the business – “You know what, people are really mad about this.”
They’re sounding off all over the place in social media, on Facebook and in the blogs. And the company actually listened and came back and re-did the pricing, which is one of the things that started to help us really turn around the tone on the page. Then it started really growing, and three months later we finally got MMS for the iPhone. We really went out of our way to make Facebook and twitter a resource for people with MMS, and that’s when we started working with Shawn and the care team.
So we were already working with them and on the first day of MMS people were coming and saying okay I’m having a problem setting up MMS, how do I do this. So we started referring them. “Oh we got these great customer care people, they’re over here on twitter.” Which was kind of a clunky way to do it, and we were like oh duh. Why don’t we make the customer care people administrators of the page and then they can deal directly with people on Facebook and everyone can be the beneficiary of the advice they get? And we did just it. It wasn’t a big corporate decision, we just said, we think this is a good idea. We checked with our bosses and off we went with it.
RaceTalk: So that became an extension of customer care and do you still work with them as far as messaging and pushing out content in addition to answering questions?
Susan: Yeah. We’re in more or less of a nonstop all day conversation. We just went through South by Southwest where we really took on a huge effort to make sure everyone on Twitter knew what was going on at the show. So that was a combination of us talking to our colleagues on the network team, finding out what’s going on, letting Shawn’s team know what the status of the network was, what it is we could tell people, and then their out there basically combing the Twittersphere looking for anybody who’s complaining and jumping in and giving them information and helping. So it’s just an all day conversation but Shawn should give you the background on Twitter and customer care and how that works and what the methodology is from his point of view.
Shawn: It really fits along well with the story Susan told. At the same time we and the eCommerce group, which is a part of our marketing, were seeing the tone, tenor, volume and the overall intensity of messages within social media. It was just deafening, and certainly if you go back to that time of MMS and look at the top ten daily, weekly, and monthly trends on twitter, you saw that AT&T and the iPhone was basically at the top or near the top, almost every single day.
Susan: And not in a good way.
Shawn: Not in the way we wanted. So my team was brought in to start building that strategy for how we could change those numbers and how we can affect those customers, help them out and find out what their actual issues were.
But at the same time, we didn’t want to just jump in and our mantra at that point was basically the only thing worse than not being somewhere was being there and doing it badly. So we wanted to make sure we did it right before we jumped in full-force and if we could handle the volume. It was crucial, especially with the volume that we saw with social media messages. So at that point were engaged with corporate communications/PR and basically started putting together the strategy for how we were going to do that.
Certainly there were issues from a branding perspective, that fit more with communications area, and other issues that were strictly care and there were some issues that would definitely go down both paths. So rather than try and deal with all those on the fly, we decided to take a measured approach and plan for that ahead of time. We met for quite awhile, put that strategy together, got signed off on all levels across both organizations and then we put our presence out there. We started small at first, taking the viral, let’s not overextend ourselves approach. We wanted five care and four managers in August of last year on Twitter. Totally viral. Through the end of the year we hadn’t really put any publicity, promotions or advertising towards it. We still haven’t really for the most part. I was looking today and I think our Twitter followers (right now we have 14 care managers total) have almost 7,000 followers between the different accounts.
RaceTalk: So you have 14 for Twitter alone?
Shawn: There are 14 total people and they staff across, work on both Twitter and among other sites that we monitor as well. They don’t always do it at the same time. They kind of rotate, keeping a presence in all areas. But they are real people. This is actually their real names and real photos. That was the big step we wanted to take on the care side. Provide, not a corporation speaking at people, but really the care folks, and care managers speaking with people and try to help them. We definitely wanted to create that as a conversation, an engagement with them, instead of just the flat message.
We’ve taken a pretty strong approach with that and we’ve had great results. I think right now the team averages almost 1,800 reach outs per day to customers. In December we actually launched our first Facebook page versus the main AT&T page along with Susan and the other teams on the PR side. The approach is basically the same there.
Certainly the channel is a bit different. The medium is a bit different and the requirements of Facebook around engagement, private messages or not private messages, etc are different. We definitely had to tailor our approach a bit, but for the most part we kept a personal approach: private mailbox addresses for everyone, same personal personas, etc. Kept the same approach, monitored the wall. We’re on Facebook and on Twitter live between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 – 4 on Saturday.
RaceTalk: How do you assign stuff? If there is a post on Facebook or a tweet at you? Are you using CoTweet or other platforms to assign follow-up, or is it more just talking about whose best among your group to follow-up?
Shawn: We do have a tool now for the initial outreach. Our agents use the exact same process that our care managers would use in any other scenario: email centers, call centers, etc.
So when they contact a customer, when a customer calls or we get them on the actual phone with us, it’s the exact same interaction and documentation as any other channel. So basically we do have it set up where we ticket, open a ticket, an internal ticket for a customer region. Susan for example – would reach out to a customer, ask them for their contact information. Again, in most places we try to reach out to the customer to give out their contact information and then call the on the phone one on one. We try to do most interactions with the customer, especially with anything that’s obviously customer-specific information, one-on-one. And we try to keep it that person who initiates the response and interaction with the customer. We keep that same person no matter how many different instances. So it’s always, whoever opens it, has to close it out with the customer and make sure they’re satisfied. And then in many cases we get positive tweets on twitter for that person/AT&T. I think several hundred so far that are positive.
Susan: And we see the same thing on Facebook. It’s funny, before we really went down this road there was a lot of discussion around if you should try to do customer care on social media and there was a lot of “oh my god, that will be like having all these negative things in our social media properties.” “What if its just people complaining and everyone will see?”
And the effect of it has been really stunning. Shawn was talking about how we use to always be a trending topic on twitter. That is virtually never the case now. I mean this is a really rare instance of a company having a really big problem that was essentially solved. Sort of doing the simplest thing you could possibly do, which is talk to people.
On Facebook where there was even more trepidation about oh my god its going to be on the wall and everybody is going to see it. You know what we see everyday is people on the wall saying, “Thank you thank you thank you.” “Thank you customer care Tatiana.” “Thank you Natasha, thank you Jonathan, you guys are great.” What we also see all the time is somebody will come on and complain and another user will come on and say:
“Just wait these guys on Facebook are amazing, they’ll help you.”