Web-savvy businesses are starting to use Twitter to offer a human response to consumers' complaints. The results can be surprising – and entertaining. By Rhodri Marsden

If you moan vociferously to friends about the terrible service you're getting from your mobile phone network, the reaction is fairly predictable: perhaps a shrug, a few words of sympathy, the offer of a nice cup of tea. If, however, you take a few seconds to vent your frustration online, the aforementioned mobile network might not only be listening, it might just leap to your aid. Twitter's much-maligned stream of consciousness inevitably contains people's thoughts about products, services and the companies that provide them, and said companies are getting the hang of eavesdropping and reacting – often to the surprise of those complaining. Free gifts, money knocked off bills, hastily arranged repairs; these all occur as the result of the public's airing of grievances. For some businesses it may be merely an exercise in damage limitation, but Twitter users are nevertheless impressed by the way it's injecting a bit of humanity into the often unfulfilling world of customer service.

Well-known writers or celebrities whose pieces are widely read online will invariably have consumer complaints attended to by a frantic PR machine as word gets around that they're unhappy; TV presenter Charlie Brooker and celebrated blogger Heather Armstrong (aka Dooce) have both bitched recently on Twitter about their respective washing machines, and both have subsequently written about the unusual way their issues were dealt with. But developments in real-time search – the ability to be alerted when any word or phrase crops up online – means that, for those companies savvy enough to be monitoring their brands, everyone's mentions register equally. "That's the true value of Twitter," says social media expert Mark Shaw, who advises and trains businesses and individuals on how to use Twitter. "The ability to search for real people talking about real stuff in real time. Companies are always desperate to know what people think about them; this is a fantastic opportunity to find out – free of charge."

The range of companies keeping tabs on Twitter is surprisingly broad; from Thames Water to British Airways, Tesco to Vodafone. A little experiment conducted by Shaw in recent weeks which involved dropping casual mentions of various brands on Twitter saw organisations such as M&S and Sainsbury's picking up on it swiftly. It's not always about customer service; Magners recently used Twitter to politely request that users delete "tweets" they'd made about a fake product recall, while British Gas seems to scan for people moaning about broken boilers in order to advertise its services. But those gaining a reputation for positive interaction range from LoveFilm to organic vegetable delivery service Abel and Cole.

Cut-price spectacles outlet Glasses Direct has a Twitter account operated by its User Experience Manager David Carruthers, and he has observed the way a few thoughtful acts can create substantial goodwill online. "I use it as a more emotionally engaging way of talking to customers," he says, "and hopefully we leave people with a smile on their face." While he admits it's impossible to measure the sales this has generated – or the level of customer satisfaction – a straw poll we conducted last weekend on Twitter showed a number of customers impressed by the firm. And with social media driven almost entirely by word of mouth, the rationale behind Carruthers' efforts is obvious.

Why does customer service via Twitter generate goodwill, while traditional methods of customer support frequently fail? "It's partly to do with the fact that businesses are being proactive," says Mark Shaw. "They're coming to look for us. And as consumers we're delighted we're being listened to." David Carruthers concedes that part of the reason he's able to do such a good job is because the number of mentions is relatively low, but his status within the company is also a factor. "I'm given more leeway than customer service staff, so I can chase issues with a bit more force and push things faster." But the knock-on benefits in a connected world like Twitter are self-evident – because people who tweet about a company are also likely to tweet their thanks and congratulations when they have an unexpectedly positive experience.

Simon L'Anson, a Twitter user who works in an office overlooking Bose's shop on Regent Street, was surprised to receive a phone call from Bose after a series of tweets where he idly observed the daily comings and goings at the store; the invitation to drop by for a cup of tea generated more tweets and blog posts – which, of course, has done Bose's image in a small corner of the internet no harm.

Not all companies have got the hang of it. For some, making the shift from broadcasting a message to interacting online has proved tricky, and Twitter has seen casualties – usually as a result of contracting out their Twittering to third party PR companies. Habitat, for example, made notable breaches of etiquette during a publicity drive earlier this year. "But if the person engaging with customers online loves the company, loves Twitter and is good with people," says Shaw, "not much can go wrong."

Whether customer support via social media is sustainable is another issue; it owes much of its success to the fact that it's not everyone's first port of call, and it still hasn't been established to what extent short-term goodwill generated by a Twitter strategy benefits a brand. "But no one's saying that companies have to abandon other channels," concludes Shaw. "Twitter is, however, somewhere customers are hanging out. It makes perfect sense for companies to hang out there, too."

At your service: Twitter in action

The good

Sian Schiaparelli says: “I was trying to book tickets at the Barbican and noticed its website had a peculiar bug, so I tweeted about it. I received a reply from the Barbican asking me to phone them, giving me a name and a number. I called up and had to say, “Hello, I’m Sian, from … Twitter? You asked me to call?” They put a cheery lady on who thanked me for pointing out the error and assured me that she’d fixed the bug. It’s great to have that kind of simple, direct rapport with businesses; a couple of years ago the bug would have just sat there, unfixed, annoying customers.”

The bad

Kate Griffin says: “During recent trouble with BT, my partner and I often had trouble getting through to the call centre. If we complained on Twitter then the people running @BTCare would reply quickly, saying “Can I help?” or “Anything I can do to help?” But by the time they got back to us about the problem we had lost patience and called the call centre anyway. We even tweeted recently about a badly parked BT van, and @BTCare piped up promising they’d deal with it – but who knows whether they follow it up. I think @BTCare may be more about dampening down criticism than customer service – as if they are scared of a vast archive of complaints amassing on Twitter with no rebuttals.”

The unexpected

Ed Richmond says: “I went to get my haircut a few months ago, and while I was waiting the chap who showed me in removed some interior design magazines and replaced them with Men’s Health and MacWorld. I tweeted to the effect that the supposed women’s mags were of more interest to an unfit non-nerd like me than the blokey alternatives. I had my haircut, checked Twitter and was surprised to see that MacWorld had replied asking what was wrong with their mag. It was a bit of an object lesson in how visible your tweets can be, and how ready some organisations are to engage directly with you.”

The ridiculous

James Ward says: “I recently posted a series of tweets about the Kellogg’s Special K Mini Breaks advert. At one point in the ad a woman opens a glass-fronted cabinet (we view her from a camera inside the cabinet), and there’s a packet of Mini Breaks sitting on some sort of display stand, directed towards the camera. Which means they’re pointing towards the back of the cabinet. Who would arrange a cabinet like that? So I pointed this out on Twitter, and the following conversation ensued between Kellogg’s and myself: Kellogg’s: Let us assure you that at no time did we anticipate the glass cabinet featured in the advert causing any offence.

Me: The fact you didn’t anticipate the arrangement of the glass cabinet causing offence is indicative of the problem.

Kellogg’s: We will bear in mind your plea for us to use a non-glass fronted cabinet in TV ads going forward.

Me: Apology accepted. However, I’ll be keeping an eye on your adverts in future, and there’ll be trouble if it happens again.

Kellogg’s: We will consider ourselves told off. Thank you, James.

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