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I think it's safe to call Comcast's Frank Eliason the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly in the world. Ten months ago, Eliason, whose official title is director of digital care, came up with the idea of using Twitter to interact with customers of Comcast (CMCSA), the mammoth provider of cable TV, Internet, and phone services for whom he has worked for a year and a half.
Eliason's maverick status has won him a recent flurry of media attention, and a number of corporations have followed his lead by making Twitter (and sometimes other microblogging services such as Jaiku and FriendFeed) a means for reaching out to their own consumers and resolving their complaints.
About 3.5 million people worldwide use Twitter, mostly to share personal minutiae such as "Just tried Starbuck's (SBUX) marbled loaf cake, not bad" with friends who sign up to follow their "tweets," short messages up to 140 characters long sent via the Web, cell phone, or PDA. (To learn more about Twitter basics, you can view the helpful video Twitter in Plain English on YouTube.) Eliason discovered that by doing a search for the word "Comcast" (and occasionally "Comcrap"), he could find tweeters who just happened to mention service complaints he could address. In December 2008, he celebrated the handling of his 22,000th tweet.
Despite the acclaim, Eliason stresses that Twitter is not a replacement for phone and e-mail help. "This is just one way people have gotten to know us," says Eliason. "It's a little more personal. More back-and-forth discussions, and it's less formal. And it gives immediacy to interactions."
I recently visited Comcast's gleaming new Philadelphia headquarters to see Eliason in action and learn how Twitter improves customer relations.
2:15 p.m. A meet-and-greet with the famed Twitter pioneer, Frank Eliason, or "ComcastCares," as he's known in the Twitt-o-sphere. A tall, sandy-haired man who looks slightly too young to be named Frank, he is friendly and upbeat.
2:20 p.m. I check out Frank's computer screen, which Twitter has populated with six tweets. The messages appear as horizontal rectangles, arranged with the most recent at the top. Unlike e-mail, Twitter doesn't require you to click on the messages—they arrive open and stay that way. Most people upload a picture of themselves into their tweet template so it appears at the top left of their messages.
2:25 p.m. Our first disgruntled customer. A tweet from a middle-aged woman named LanaTurner898 with platinum-blond hair says: "I just got off the phone with Comcast. Not a pleasant experience." Frank hits the reply button and speedily types: "Can I help?" (Although such tweets are entirely public to the millions who use Twitter, I've changed the tweeters' names out of respect for the fact that they probably didn't expect to wind up in a BusinessWeek.com story,)
2:30 p.m. In the meantime, a Comcast customer named PrinceValiant (no picture) tweets he's having Internet problems. Frank hits Twitter's "Direct Message" button, which allows PrinceValiant and Frank to communicate privately via e-mail, and Frank asks for his phone number.
A few seconds later, PrinceValiant responds with his number. With a Comcast user interface called Grand Slam, Eliason can enter the phone number to check whether PrinceValiant's modem is functioning, But before the exploration begins, PrinceValiant tweets that his service is working again. Happy ending, so we move on.
2:35 p.m. No response from LanaTurner898 despite Frank's offer of help. "Sometimes because of the publicity we've had, they're testing to see if they get a response," he says. "The complaint isn't exactly true."
2:40 p.m. Frank lets me sit in his chair and man the Twitter board. A bit of hostility pops up from DonDenson, a young white male whose picture shows just a pert nose and blue eyes: "Comcast in Houston sucks. No service for 48 days due to Ike. Entitled to 48 days credit plus $153 bill paid during outage. Incompetent accounting can fix billing."
"Type 'We try' and then put an exclamation point or a smiley after it," Frank instructs me. I opt for the exclamation point.
In less than a minute, DonDenson sends another message: "You are quick—and nice response." Well, that didn't take much. Frank tells me he will investigate DonDenson's complaint about billing later. I can see what he means about Twitter's immediacy. Instead of having to wait on the phone—while growing madder and madder—DonDenson got the instant gratification of a tweet acknowledging his concerns.
2:45 p.m. There's an angry message from SelenaRamsey, a woman with precision-bobbed brown hair like Posh Spice's. Within her picture is a smaller picture of Frank, so it looks like Picture in Picture on TV. "That means she's writing directly to me," Frank explains. The message is still public, for anyone to see, but the little picture of Frank alerts him to the fact that she's specifically soliciting a response from him.
It's not unusual for customers to address Frank or his team members by name. "Originally when I started to do this, I used the Comcast symbol instead of my picture," says Frank. "Then I listened to some customer feedback, and one was: 'Where's your picture?' Now when they think Comcast, they think Frank. Right now I have 5,700 followers. They know about my family Web site. It gives a face to Comcast." Frank's other Twitter team members go by the names ComcastBill and ComcastGeorge.
Back to the wrath of SelenaRamsey: "I would suggest you tell the people in charge of the money to do their jobs." A moment later, she is compelled to tweet again: "P.S. If my credit score is negative, it is your fault for not paying enough attention or not calling off your dogs."
Frank tells me to write back and simply thank her for her suggestion, with a period at the end. "I wouldn't do a smiley face when we're doing a collections issue," he says.
Next, he goes back on Twitter and searches for "SelenaRamsey" to trace her tweet trail for the past few days—unlike Instant Messages, tweets stay in the system forever—and resolves Selena's problem. (Over the next two days, she will write two tweets thanking ComcastCares for clearing up the problem with the collection agency.)
2:50 p.m. Strong words from Technophile: "We have the Comcast service guy out, and he tries to charge us for new cable, leaves, and now not only is cable out but the Internet."
A moment later comes another note from Technophile (since Tweets are limited to 140 characters, sometimes people need more than one to tell the whole story). "And the phone is out too. This means my wife can't work from home, which means lost income."
Frank remembers the name Technophile and that he gave his phone number in a tweet the day before. Frank searches for the tweet with the number and then plugs it into the Comcast database to see the account, but it's invalid. It's probably his cell rather than land line, so he calls Technophile's cell, introduces himself, and offers help.
I can't quite make out what Technophile is saying on the phone, but the agitated tone of his voice comes through loud and clear. "Where does your cable enter the house—is it upstairs in the attic?" Frank asks. After a few more questions, Frank determines that the problem is likely an exterior one and tells Technophile he'll arrange for the appropriate technician to visit Technophile's neighborhood—meaning Technophile won't have to hang around the house waiting.
By the end of the call, Technophile's tone sounds markedly more friendly. "I think he was surprised someone called," says Frank.
3 p.m. BittySnooks, with a wedding photo of a couple, directs this message to Frank: "Please make the Internet that we are paying for faster than a hand crank."
"Just type 'Can I help?'" Frank tells me. "I'm not expecting a reply. A lot times when the messages are overly dramatic, they're not really legit. But we treat each message the same way."
3:05 p.m. Jasper33, with a photo of an eagle, writes, "It is seeming that it is Comcast cable Internet that is sucking and not gmail."
Frank steals the seat away from me for a moment and sends Jasper33 a tweet suggesting he try a different DNS number. Sure enough, it does the trick. I bet Jasper33 will think twice before he says Comcast sucks again.
Thanks to the friendly Twitter network Frank has built up, customers occasionally help one another, as he discovered a few weeks earlier when he mentioned in a Tweet that he had an important family event during the day and would be unavailable. Once the event ended that evening, he logged onto Twitter at home to see which customers in the Twitt-o-sphere needed help that day.
"I found that people who didn't work for Comcast were responding, saying: 'Let Frank have his day. Can I help?'" he recalls. "They were saying: 'Here, try this.' And it was the most amazing thing. That day I understood the effectiveness of what we do."
3:10 No word from BittySnooks. And LanaTurner898 never replied either. Perhaps a bit of attention from the famous Twitter man was all they really needed.
Rebecca Reisner is an editor at BusinessWeek.com .