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Communicating with customers on Twitter: Personalised answers rather than standard responses

Twitter is one of the most influential social media platforms worldwide. Some 500 million tweets are written daily, and over 300 million people use Twitter to communicate with each other every month. It’s not surprising, then, that many companies have started to use Twitter for business communication purposes, especially in customer service. WU researcher Ursula Lutzky wanted to find out how the interaction between customers and companies works on Twitter and how it could be improved.

Over 80 percent of Twitter users access the platform on their mobile phones. Many of them also try to contact companies this way, especially to resolve problems that require a fast solution. Most transportation providers in Great Britain, like train operators and airlines, use Twitter as a professional service channel and direct passengers to contact them there. The companies promise their customers advantages such as real-time timetable updates and customer support, often on a 24/7 basis. Ursula Lutzky from WU’s Institute for English Business Communication studies communication in blogs and microblogs and investigates how language use has adapted to the online context. Her current research focuses not only on the topics that customers discuss on Twitter, but also on the linguistic constructions used and how the interaction evolves. Her results should help companies learn to better understand their customers and improve communication in the future. To this end, Lutzky studied, for instance, customers’ reactions to companies’ answers, using computer-based language analysis.

Standardized response – error

The data for this project, collected over a period of several months, shows the extent to which British train operators use the medium of microblogs for customer communication. In August 2016 alone, tweets with a total of 4.5 million words were exchanged. “The fact that individual tweets are restricted to 140 characters does not appear to restrict the volume of communication,” says Lutzky. Her analysis focused on a corpus of over 18 million words, consisting of all tweets directed at British train operating companies and the corresponding answers. The results show that customers expect a reaction from companies and become angry when they fail to receive it. Especially on Twitter, customers expect fast answers to their inquiries, but speed isn’t everything. Whether or not a customer is satisfied with the response they’re given also depends on the linguistic quality of the message. While courtesy and appropriate expressive speech acts like apologies are important, the main deciding factor is the relevance of the response. This means that social media managers are expected to deal with individual inquiries on an individual basis, and not to send empty, standardized answers. Customer service staff have to be not just knowledgeable, but also in possession of excellent communication skills.

Room for improvement

“Based on Twitter’s wide reach, the level of daily use, and its public nature, it is of course crucial that companies respond to customer inquiries appropriately, especially to avoid the spreading of negative reactions and to protect their image,” says Lutzky. She continues, “Computer-based linguistic analyses of empirical data allow us to study words as used in their original contexts. This gives us better insights into customers’ linguistic expectations on Twitter, and companies can adjust their customer service accordingly.” While in Great Britain most train operating companies are already on board with Twitter-based customer service, this is not the case for Austrian firms, for example the Austrian train company ÖBB. Currently, the only customer service options offered on the ÖBB homepage are a phone number and an email contact form. The future will show if Austrian companies are on track for Twitter-based customer service too.

About the researcher

Ursula Lutzky is an assistant professor at WU’s Institute for English Business Communication. During her doctoral studies at the University of Vienna she was the recipient of an Austrian Academy of Sciences DOC fellowship, which allowed her to spend extended research visits at the Universities of Munich and Lancaster, UK. Her first book (published by John Benjamins), based on her dissertation, was awarded the 2014 Book Award by the European Society for the Study of English. Before coming to WU, Ursula Lutzky worked as a course director in the School of English at Birmingham City University, UK. Her research interests include the analysis of big data collections in the field of online media and their use in a business context, for example in customer communications. Please see the FIDES research database for an overview of her publications to date.



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