Replying to customers on Twitter is listening gone mad


Social networking is making management focus on the wrong things, writes LUCY KELLAWAY

ON THE bank holiday weekend, the political satirist Armando Iannucci was driving along the M40 to spend a couple of days in Snowdonia and stopped off at a Starbucks on the way.

As he is a man who likes to record all his thoughts on Twitter, he dispatched this message to his 80,000 followers: “Still surprised that, despite their market dominance, Starbucks haven’t eliminated the slight smell of lavatory you get as you enter.”

Within minutes, Darcy Willson-Rymer, the UK head of Starbucks, had replied: “Thanks for your feedback. Which store did you visit?”

Mr Iannucci confirmed that he was at the Warwick services, but that the pong was in several stores. The managing director thanked him again and promised to investigate. The satirist then tweeted: “Good news. Starbucks are now looking into their pervasive lavatory smell.”

Social media experts will tell you that this is a perfect example of how companies should reply to customers on Twitter. The response should be made quickly and politely by someone senior. That way customers get heard and corporate reputations protected.

But to me this exchange does not seem like a good example of anything. Instead it shows how social networking is making management focus on the wrong things and boring everyone else in the meantime.

Lavatorygate raises three important questions. The first is: does the coffee chain really smell like a lavatory?

If it does the MD should not have been relying on this circuitous and random route to make the discovery. Surely his staff should have tipped him off long ago.

The second question is about reputation. Does it matter that a satirist tells his 80,000 Twitter followers that he thinks Starbucks stinks? I doubt it. As far as I can tell none of them responded and I’d be amazed if even one had coffee that morning at Caffè Nero instead.

Still, even if Mr Iannucci’s remarks were potentially damaging, they raise a third question: what should Starbucks have done about it?

Willson-Rymer’s “thanks for your feedback” followed the traditional formula for customer complaints, but on Twitter it rings even more hollow then usual. If I were the head of Starbucks and a famous smart alec had just claimed that my stores stank of lavatories, I’d feel more like flushing his head down the nearest toilet than thanking him.

More importantly, though, Mr Iannucci’s tweet wasn’t feedback. It was an observation to his followers. It wasn’t addressed to Starbucks and there was no need for Starbucks to reply.

And at least by not attending to such stuff a lot of management time would have been saved. I’ve just searched for Starbucks on Twitter and every minute about a dozen people tweet about the chain, mostly saying things like: “just chillin at starbucks ” or “I’m @ starbucks haha”. Floating around in this pigswill were some genuine complaints: about a leaking cup or the odd duff vanilla latte. I contacted these people and asked if they had had replies from the company. They hadn’t.

I then looked at Willson-Rymer’s movements on Twitter. And there he was, manfully trying to cope in the deluge, giving directions to the nearest store, dealing with complaints on the Starbucks card, commenting on the size of a tea leaf. Minute by minute, evenings and weekends came the random responses to customer messages.

Starbucks has been criticised for not listening to its customers. But this, surely, is listening gone mad. But then I had a thought: maybe this isn’t really the Starbucks MD himself doing this low-grade traffic management as he has 700 stores to look after. So I asked if he employed someone to do this awful job for him. “No, all replies and tweets are from me,” he tweeted. “I think it is important to listen to customers and learn from the mistakes we make so I try to respond to all.”

And so I thought I’d test the system. I’ve tried to compress my view of the chain into a tweet. “Starbucks is a riddle. The coffee is weak and pricey, the decor horrid and the place often grubby. So why do we go on going there?”

I tweeted it 20 hours ago but I still haven’t had a reply. Maybe it’s because Willson-Rymer doesn’t know the answer any more than I do. Or maybe because I used a Twitter account that only has 10 followers and so this disgusted, yet loyal, customer doesn’t count.