Short post this time on how two companies manage customer expectations on social and what this tells us about social customer care. Of all the companies now providing social customer care on Twitter I’ve only come across two companies that publicise customer response times: @Telstra and @KLM. Thanks to Dean McCann at @HelpHandles for bringing Telstra to my attention.

@Telstra, Australia’s largest telco and media company, has been on Twitter since July 2009 (an old timer!) and has sent over 436k Tweets, while @KLM has been there since, wait for it, July 2009, and has sent over 746k Tweets. Both started in July 2009! Co-incidence? Maybe not. I’m assuming you’ve heard of Dave Carroll and “United Breaks Guitars”? Published on YouTube…wait for it: 6th July 2009! I’m wondering if there was a sudden rush of companies joining Twitter in July 2009?

So what can we infer from how each of these companies treats customer response time?

@Telstra’s Twitter bio reads: We’re here 24×7 to provide customer support and answer any Telstra questions you might have. Last week our average response time was 45 minutes

@KLM’s Twitter bio reads: Official global account of KLM, We are here 24/7 for service in 13 languages. Share personal details only in private messages! And above their bio in large type is published: We expect to reply within: …mins Updated every 5 minutes

Firstly, well done Telstra and KLM for not hiding how long customers have to wait. I think this is called being customer-centric. I think that’s what most companies have somewhere in their mission statement or annual report. Although, I’m not sure what company tries not to be customer-focused? Perhaps there’s something about repeating it over and over again?

As a quick aside, read an interesting post by Seth Godin today: And what else will you lie about? The post starts with the following:

“When did companies start talking about, “unexpectedly high call volume?”

Are they really so inept at planning that the call volume is unexpected? For months at a time?”

Godin describes this as a ‘reality distortion field’. I’ll leave you to read the rest of the short post, but it brought a smile to my lips this morning.

Back to response times. Before I continue, I should point out that I have absolutely no dealings with Telstra, don’t know them from any other telco. I’m simply sharing my observations with whoever cares to read them. And as for KLM, all I know about them is what I read online.

My perception of Telstra. Gets social, been in the space long enough to likely have some scars and I’m sure they’ve built up a war chest of stories over the years, but can’t quite bring itself to shake free from the safety blanket of the past, the familiar. Email by another name, if I’m being harshly critical. Twitter brings with it possibilities and opportunities (or threats and risks, depending on which side of the coin you’re on) of an emerging service model. A different way of thinking and engaging that is more relevant to how we communicate and engage with each other today. Last week our average response time was… almost written as an after thought, slightly apologetic perhaps. We’re social, but cautiously so, our thinking is still a little outmoded, but we’re getting there, give us time. The use of the words ‘average response time’ doesn’t strike me as particularly customer-focused. As a customer, I don’t really care about your ‘average response time’! Your customer service director or team leader will, your Customer Experience Director or Chief Customer Officer (if you have one) might at a push, but not me. I do care, however, about how long I might have to wait for a reply, especially if it’s an emergency. That’s an emergency for me, but for you I might still be a ‘statistical insignificance’ (to coin Dave Carroll’s words from a long ago talk about United Breaks Guitars). And actually, I’m not that bothered if it’s three minutes or three hours, but I’d just like to know. Okay, I am bothered if it’s three hours, but at least I’ll know.

What this tells me is that even just to publish last week’s average response time can take a company almost six years. I’m wondering how many meetings took place before it was agreed to do this? Social is a journey of individual and corporate self-discovery. Of building up one’s individual and collective confidence, trustfulness, belief in each other. Of finding a sure footing for your next step or knowing if there’s no sure footing that there’ll be someone standing alongside you. Perhaps in a year’s time we’ll see Telstra publish: Sorry, we’re really busy right now, but we’ll do our best to respond to you in X minutes OR We’re rocking through your questions at the moment, we’ll be with you within five minutes! Hang tight.

My perception of KLM. What can one say about KLM? They get social. They experiment. They push boundaries. They have been pushing boundaries like no other company in this space over the past few years. Hat tip. But scratch a little deeper, and perhaps they, like Telstra and many other companies, find themselves also having to navigate between two service worlds. Once again, although they don’t use average response time, the perspective is very much from their point of view. The customer will have to wait until KLM agents are ready: We expect to reply within… rather than ‘You will get a reply within’. It’s still a journey of self-discovery, even for KLM.

What I applaud these two companies for though, is not some random number which will cover all eventualities as we get with emails: You’ll get a reply within 48 or 72 hours. The world has moved on in 72 hours! My life has moved on. My need at this moment in time is not the same as it will be in 48 or 72 hours. Here’s what happens in one second on the internet!

In some ways the posting of a company’s response time, average or otherwise, is at complete odds with being customer-centric. An average response time (who wants to be ‘average’ anyway?!) addresses the issue from a company’s perspective. You might think you’re doing me a favour letting me know how long I have to wait, albeit – on average, for my Tweet to get through your system, but what you’re doing is simply reminding me you’re not actually customer-centric. You’re system- or process-centric. You’re thinking about the efficiency of your system (or lack of it?). I’m also wondering what a ‘good’ average response time looks like?

What’s also interesting is that if you use a service like HelpHandles and do a search for @Telstra and @KLM, their respective average response times on Twitter are – 5hrs 35mins (335mins) and 2hrs 37mins (157mins). I’m not sure how average response time is calculated on HelpHandles, but the point is that not only can anyone with the skill and inclination set-up their own dashboard to track average response times of companies, but that we can get hugely differing results. Whose reality do we believe?

Perhaps at the end of the day a lot of it is about perception? Perception matters: but whose perception? Mine, the companies, influencers… perhaps it’s not that clear cut.

Okay, so this post wasn’t as short as I thought it might be when I first started writing it. And by the way, remind me: what lies at the heart of social again?