Four Lessons From Twitter’s Spam/Customer-Busting Episode

If you’re a Twitter user, you may have noticed a storm in a teacup erupting over the last few days.

On August 1st, Dave Delaney, a friend who I finally met in person at PodCamp Toronto this year, found his Twitter account suspended for no apparent reason.

Account deleted

As it turned out, seven people eight people, including Connie Crosby — another friend of mine — were caught-up in the Twitter crew’s latest attempt to reduce the growing amount of spam on Twitter. Their accounts were suspended with no warning and they were left confused and unable to access their followers, their past messages or any messages that people had sent to them.

To cut a long story short (you can check out Dave’s posts on it here), Dave and the others managed to get their account reinstated but the experience, especially in terms of communication with the Twitter team, left Dave in particular unsure of whether to continue on the service. As he said to me in an email to me earlier today:

“I truly felt abandoned. It makes me question whether I want to trust Twitter with a journal of my thoughts and communication anymore, not to mention the ability to hijack my 1,500+ followers. I have no way to export them, so how can we keep connected should this happen again?”

Connie Crosby had a similar take:

“For the record, I had no communication from Twitter that I was reinstated. No explanation, & especially no apology. Leaves me a little cold.”

I find it amusing but at the same time sad that Twitter, a service used by companies like Comcast, H&R Block and JetBlue for customer service, isn’t using its own service in the same way.

Why do I care about this? Firstly, because Dave (and Connie) is a friend, a genuinely good guy, and passionate about Twitter. Secondly, because companies can learn some lessons from this.

Lessons learned

Here are four lessons that companies can learn from Twitter’s latest customer-service episode:

Prepare for the worst

Mistakes will happen. There’s nothing we can do to stop that.

Surely someone must have considered the possibility that non-spammers would get caught-up in Twitter’s spam-control efforts. Given the number of people using Twitter it’s not surprising that they had a few false positives when doing this kind of work. In fact, I’m surprised it was only eight people. The problem was that they weren’t ready when it did happen.

Companies should prepare for events like this so that if the worst does happen they can catch it before it escalates.

Respond quickly

Twitter’s staff did respond, but it was a day after the initial complaint was posted on GetSatisfaction. The first time Twitter bigwigs Biz Stone, Ev Williams or Jack Dorsey mentioned the episode was around the same time.

At an event in December 2007, I remember Dell’s Richard Binhammer saying “If you don’t respond within 24 hours, forget responding.” Twitter has a status blog for just this purpose; a quick post on there early on may have solved this problem before it escalated.

Respond personally

After blogging and posting frequently about the problem, Dave Delaney received an email from a Twitter rep:

I saw the thread on Satisfaction and noticed your @replies regarding your account problems.  My apologies for the confusion; I’m looking into your account issues now, and I’ll be in touch with more information soon.

Andy Brudtkuhl — another affected user — received an identical email. Other people commented on the impersonal tone in the response they received. People don’t like being treated impersonally.

When you respond to upset customers, try to personalize your response. Prepared messaging is good, but copied and pasted emails leave a poor impression. At a minimum, try to put a personal touch on it. In this case, even the name of the customer would help.

Your customer service can drive your reputation

Happy customers will tell other people about you. So will unhappy customers. Your customer service can make the difference between people becoming one or the other.

Unfortunately, customer service people are often at the bottom of the corporate heap, isolated from much of the business and hence with little idea what’s going on in the big picture. Do yourself a favour and set your customer service people up to succeed — keep them involved and in the loop. You may find that they can give you some useful insights into what your customers are saying about you.

It’s a PRoblem

Notice a trend? All of the lessons above are PR-related.

A couple of months ago, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said this about Twitter’s PR efforts:

“Twitter is 16 employees made up of systems engineers and operators, product designers, and support specialists. We do not employ public relations professionals.”

I may be a little biased but I think it’s time that, if they haven’t already, Twitter re-evaluates that situation.