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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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