Condensed Article By Michael Hess on BNet Blog

CNN Money/Fortune recently did a revealing (even entertaining), nonscientific customer service test. A reporter contacted eight household-name companies, including Zappos and Delta, with a complaint or inquiry via three different methods: Twitter, phone, and online support. Skipping to the end of the story, by far the most effective customer service came from… the phone, with the worst coming from Twitter.

Even in those instances where Twitter or the Web rated well, there was a consistent theme among satisfactory experiences: Behind the “delivery vehicle” a real person provided real help, real fast.

Unfortunately, like so many other modern communication tools, too many companies jump onto the latest bandwagon — without much thought, planning, or effective implementation — simply because they don’t want to appear to be Luddites…

I am admittedly a Twitter-hater. Even if that puts me in a minority, I maintain that it has no place in customer service.

So where are we? Here are the five most popular communication tools and what I feel are the promises, guidelines and practices that each demands:

  • Telephone: Even with the almost clichéd horror stories of phone support, as the test showed, on balance it still yields the best results.
  • Email: If you invite customers to contact you by email, you have an obligation to respond in a timely fashion. I question any company that considers “timely” to be anything beyond one business day.
  • Online chat: At my company we have become big fans of this, and more and more customers are using it on our site. But again, it is a promise of immediate and real service. 
  • Online self-help: I guess a necessary evil for businesses with vast amounts of information, such as software companies. But if you offer it, make sure it is actually helpful; too many self-help/troubleshooting services take loads of time, only to lead the user to a hair-pulling dead-end. 
  • Twitter: If you really must use it, then live up to the real-time expectation. If someone tweets a question, have an attentive person tweet right back.  But preferably, don’t use Twitter for customer service. Please.

Whether you choose to use one customer service access point or ten, the key is to put real, responsive people behind the phone or keyboard, or risk having your “we are so with-it” techno-service boasts blow up in your face. If you can’t live up to the promises implied by all of these immediate communication tools, use fewer of them. Better to offer great service by phone and email only than to offer 10 slick ways to get mediocre or crappy service.

Michael Hess is founder and CEO of Skooba Design.  Michael describes himself as “obsessed to the point of insanity” about customer service — both as a business owner and a consumer — and believes that all businesses can benefit from striving for elegance as the ultimate guiding principle in everything they do.