Who’s reading your tweets?

Your reputation depends on 140 characters

Over 400,000 complaints were sent on Twitter to train companies last year. A new report from ‘Commute London’ has analysed these and how train companies handled them. It makes for interesting reading, and there’s much bus companies can learn. Who knows, they may be about to report on you too.

I’ve also been monitoring how well bus companies are tweeting, and it’s definitely a case of ‘must do better’. Social media is relatively new for many ‘old school’ managers but its use is growing exponentially and no company in the public eye can afford to ignore it. It’s now become an essential communications tool for all bus and coach companies.

The way a company handles feedback from tweeters can be seen by hundreds, thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of observers. Not only will people see what you’ve replied, but when you’ve replied; or perhaps if you’ve not replied at all.

In the ever corporate conscious world of the big transport groups, top level PR people devote hours polishing news releases to ensure they’re completely on message yet lowly grades of staff on the Twitter feed are putting out messages at all times of the day which are almost certainly being monitored by local journalists ready to pounce on any good (as in: ‘bad’) news story for their paper. Who knows where a quote from a ‘company official’ on Twitter might end up?

That’s why Twitter is providing a real dilemma for the corporate control freaks. To be effective, staff responsible for social media have to be close to the action; passionate about customer service; knowledgeable about corporate policies and strategies; and able to express themselves articulately, sympathetically and succinctly in 140 characters. Furthermore, customer expectation is for a reply within minutes. That’s not ten days, nor even ten hours; in Twitter land, you’ve got about ten minutes. And remember, we’re all watching and reading. If you think it’s a tough remit now; don’t forget tweeting is growing, fast.

Skills set

A whole new communications skills set is needed. Knowledgeable staff able to tell the difference between genuine complaints and people just sounding off; and importantly, how to handle both. Have you prepared and trained your tweeters for this? Where’s the business case for all the extra resources this needs? You can’t afford not to wholeheartedly embrace this. A half hearted job is probably worse than a Twitter silence.

In my recent monitoring of your tweets; and even sending some highly pertinent ones myself (they’re pertinent to me, remember) it’s obvious that some companies have already got themselves into a bit of a mess. There are marketing people tweeting special offers, banal competitions and incentives for this and that; there are operational people giving news on disruptions; customer service staff doing their best to deal with complaints and information requests and there are pre-assigned tweets set up in advance to be published at regular intervals. And there are tweets that are just rudely ignored.

I won’t name names but urge you to take a fresh look at whether some of the gaffs I’ve spotted are systemic failures or indications that skills are lacking and there’s an urgent need for training. Remember, this is all in the public domain. This isn’t an out of date timetable in an obscure bus stop location (that’s bad enough); it’s not an incorrectly set destination blind or a branded bus on the wrong route (they’re bad too); or even a driver speaking rudely to one customer (unforgivable); these are messages being broadcast all over the world.

Operational gaffs

Some companies are very good at tweeting about missing or delayed journeys; although some do so only after the departure time of the journey from the original destination giving a rather tardy impression. It should also be remembered not every passenger waiting for a cancelled journey at their stop will know the departure time at the original destination; especially if no traditional timetable is available at the stop.

More frustratingly one company tweeted ‘Route X – due to a mechanical breakdown we will be running a reduced service of 1 bus per hour until further notice. Sorry for any problems caused.’ Not particularly helpful when you know the route normally runs every 30 minutes. So now you know you’ve got a 50/50 chance of waiting 30 minutes for your bus depending which journey you set off to catch! Even more annoying, this was one of the tweets I replied to, asking which journeys were cancelled; only to be ignored.

Another company tweeted ‘unfortunately the X route will be running a reduced service this morning. Apologies for any inconvenience.’ This was a route with an hourly frequency, so again more frustration only to be amplified when I replied asking if it meant the service would run two-hourly and not to receive a reply.

Marketing gaffs

It’s all very well having fluffy, gimmicky marketing ideas to promote bus travel using Twitter, but marketing people need to be aware of the Twitter atmosphere at any particular time before they indulge. The last thing passengers want to receive when there might be severe disruption on the go and a whole host of comments and complaints about unreliability is an inane tweet offering ‘your chance to win a doughnut’ by liking or sharing this comment. Yes, one company actuallly did this, but worse, in the knowledge of how tough it had been for passengers, as the tweet began: ‘what a day, congestion everywhere’.

Timing gaffs

When the marketing people go home at five o’clock with an effusive yet definitive sign off (some go home at four o’clock on a Friday; how good is that, we all think!) up pop more tweets for the next hour or so from the operating people; result being we’re all totally confused as to whether ‘tweeting is closed for the day’ (as per marketing) or not. Even more puzzling for us tweet monitors will be more banal competitions and offers later in the evening, obviously pre-set by the nine to five (four on a Friday) marketing people.

With passenger expectations ever rising, it’s really not good enough to just have ‘office hour tweeting’ in the world of bus travel. Some companies stretch coverage to twelve hour days (typically 7am to 7pm) but there are one or two exemplary operators who are actively tweeting from start to finish of operations; so it can be done.

Local gaffs

Another issue prevalent in some Groups is sharing tweeting resources between companies. The problem being a failure to answer authoritatively and accurately simple questions about timetables, particularly upcoming service changes. One company singularly failed to answer enquiring tweets right up to the change date.

Tweet the manager

And then there’s the ‘tweet the manager’ PR stunts. These really don’t work unless every tweet is replied to appropriately. The most high profile practitioner of this is Boris Johnson with a monthly half-hour session attracting hundreds of tweets only to self select around a dozen that suit his political purpose to reply to; all the others get ignored. A totally cynical ploy which simply doesn’t work.

Commute London’s report includes three highly pertinent recommendations for train companies on tweeting (see panels). For ‘train’ read ‘bus’.


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