Using Twitter for customer service

When graduate student Chris Brooks noticed that none of the classrooms in Monroe Hall contained trash cans and that each hallway only had one, he decided to complain not to his friends, but to the World Wide Web.

Brooks, a Presidential Administrative Fellow, posted his concern on Twitter, where he received a prompt reply from Timothy Shea, a program manager for GW Facilities Management. Then GW rectified the problem.

“Two weeks later trash cans appeared in every classroom. Thanks to Twitter and one responsive GW staff member, students now have the option to discard their garbage in a trash can rather than on the floors and desks of Monroe Hall,” Brooks said.

Besides using Twitter to disseminate and aggregate information, the University is employing the microblogging site as a customer service platform.

According to Menachem Wecker, a writer and editor for the GW Today online publication, the University is taking a proactive approach to managing its recently launched Twitter account, GW Tweets.

Wecker said the University is becoming more aggressive in its outreach.

“If we can be a channel for customer service, if we can take out some of the steps for students, then that’s great,” said Wecker.

Wecker originally conceived of this idea while at his previous job at the Elliott School, where he used Twitter to point students in the direction of events and answer any questions they had.

“I see Twitter as a more of a way to involve people in a process, not just so that they’re products of it,” Wecker said.

But being aggressive about outreach requires a commitment to effective organization. To ease the information overload, Wecker uses applications like Twilerts, which sends him e-mails about particular phrases or words found on Twitter. He also uses TweetDeck to monitor the community he follows.

“I have a column of people I follow, a column of direct messages to me, a column of @replies to me, and a column that follows messages with the #GWU hashtag,” Wecker said.

In addition to his Twilerts and columns on Tweetdeck, Wecker also uses Google Alerts to capture the use of key words and phrases online.

But the analytics social media tools generate do not provide a complete picture. A less salient issue is privacy. For students who do not know they are being monitored, receiving a reply to a post on Twitter from an administrator can be alarming.

To address this, Wecker says that whether he replies to a student’s tweet involves making individual decisions about each situation.

“I make a personal judgment about whether I would consider it harassment or helpful customer service,” said Wecker.

GW Associate Director of Online Communication Rachel Watson said that she tends not to answer concerns students express on Twitter when she feels she would not be of help.

“If I don’t have a solution to their problem, I won’t respond,” said Watson.

There is no consensus on how many “official” accounts the University has, either; what is official depends on what one counts. Aside from GW Tweets, individual schools and departments have built their own followings, and many faculty members have their own accounts as well.

At the University of Maryland, which uses two official accounts, UofMaryland and UMDNews, departments are also free to manage their own activities on Twitter separately.

But the two institutions see a different role for the service. Senior Media Relations Associate Dave Ottalini said UMD views Twitter primarily as a way to disseminate information that is not always considered news.

“I can highlight things that are going on using Twitter that might not rise to the level of the press release,” Ottalini said.

As it relates to responding to student concerns, Ottalini said Twitter might not be the most well-adapted platform for this function.

“Facebook might be a better place for students to post their concerns because it is more two-way. It is probably more personal,” said Ottalini, who stressed the strategies that institutions use to leverage social media are constantly evolving.

For Wecker, Facebook does not do the trick when it comes to identifying members of the GW community since he says it lacks a favorable search function.

“Search is the most useful thing. Facebook has a bad search tool. It doesn’t let me find people who are connected to GW,” Wecker said.

As of publication, GW Tweets has 2,280 followers on Twitter, just behind Maryland with 2,368. A study conducted earlier this year by revealed that GW is the most prolific school on Twitter, with an average of 58.8 tweets per day.

Others, whether they are using Twitter for customer service or to attract media attention, stressed there is no need to rethink the standards of student-faculty communication simply because it now occurs online.

Elan Schnitzer, marketing coordinator for event and special services at GW Mount Vernon Campus Life, is one proponent of this view.

“I see the rules that should govern and regulate our use of little different than the formal and informal rules we all follow in employing the more familiar communication methods that have been around and in use for longer than Twitter,” said Schnitzer.

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