Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Comcast's Twitter Man

I think it's safe to call Comcast's Frank Eliason the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly in the world. Ten months ago, Eliason, whose official title is director of digital care, came up with the idea of using Twitter to interact with customers of Comcast (CMCSA), the mammoth provider of cable TV, Internet, and phone services for whom he has worked for a year and a half.

Eliason's maverick status has won him a recent flurry of media attention, and a number of corporations have followed his lead by making Twitter (and sometimes other microblogging services such as Jaiku and FriendFeed) a means for reaching out to their own consumers and resolving their complaints.

About 3.5 million people worldwide use Twitter, mostly to share personal minutiae such as "Just tried Starbuck's (SBUX) marbled loaf cake, not bad" with friends who sign up to follow their "tweets," short messages up to 140 characters long sent via the Web, cell phone, or PDA. (To learn more about Twitter basics, you can view the helpful video Twitter in Plain English on YouTube.) Eliason discovered that by doing a search for the word "Comcast" (and occasionally "Comcrap"), he could find tweeters who just happened to mention service complaints he could address. In December 2008, he celebrated the handling of his 22,000th tweet.


Despite the acclaim, Eliason stresses that Twitter is not a replacement for phone and e-mail help. "This is just one way people have gotten to know us," says Eliason. "It's a little more personal. More back-and-forth discussions, and it's less formal. And it gives immediacy to interactions."

I recently visited Comcast's gleaming new Philadelphia headquarters to see Eliason in action and learn how Twitter improves customer relations.

2:15 p.m. A meet-and-greet with the famed Twitter pioneer, Frank Eliason, or "ComcastCares," as he's known in the Twitt-o-sphere. A tall, sandy-haired man who looks slightly too young to be named Frank, he is friendly and upbeat.

2:20 p.m. I check out Frank's computer screen, which Twitter has populated with six tweets. The messages appear as horizontal rectangles, arranged with the most recent at the top. Unlike e-mail, Twitter doesn't require you to click on the messages—they arrive open and stay that way. Most people upload a picture of themselves into their tweet template so it appears at the top left of their messages.

2:25 p.m. Our first disgruntled customer. A tweet from a middle-aged woman named LanaTurner898 with platinum-blond hair says: "I just got off the phone with Comcast. Not a pleasant experience." Frank hits the reply button and speedily types: "Can I help?" (Although such tweets are entirely public to the millions who use Twitter, I've changed the tweeters' names out of respect for the fact that they probably didn't expect to wind up in a BusinessWeek.com story,)

2:30 p.m. In the meantime, a Comcast customer named PrinceValiant (no picture) tweets he's having Internet problems.

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