The beginning of the end of Twitter as a customer support channel?

In one of my earlier agency-side stints, there was a particularly tough person at a client, a large, technology company. Tough would be putting things mildly given the relentless barrage of pointlessness directed at us, the agency. At some point during the engagement, one of the team members was curious enough to search for this person on Twitter and figured that they were using the platform exclusively to complain! And the complaints were laced with generously angry missives and expletives. Of course, this lined up perfectly with the personality we were dealing with on a daily basis, but it was a striking use of Twitter, as a platform: only for customer complaints!

Eventually, I got to know of more people who signed up on Twitter only to interact with brands/companies, or as it happens in the case of India, many Government bodies since the Indian Government has onboarded a lot of Government-run departments to address questions via the platform.

Back in the mid-2010s, the Indian Government launched many Twitter ‘seva’ channels for assorted Government departments ministry of commerce, railways, external affairs, and so on. All this was before the relations between the Government (led by BJP) and Twitter soured in the late 2010s, but those Twitter seva channels continue to exist.

So do many, many customer service channels for brands on Twitter.

But, on April 28, 2023, Air France announced this on Twitter, about stopping customer service via Twitter direct messages!

On May 1st, KLM made a similar announcement!

More than Air France, KLM dropping Twitter as a channel of customer care is particularly symbolic because of how much effort the brand had put into this channel – KLM was the first airline (or any brand) to display live response time on their social channels like Twitter and Facebook. They did that by updating the cover picture to showcase wait times!

Since Twitter made changes to how companies access its API (application programming interface) that allows two software applications to share data and communicate with each other, a few organizations have dropped Twitter as a platform for assorted user-level communication.

The first announcement came on February 2, with February 9th as the deadline when free Twitter API will die.

On February 5th, Musk tweeted that bots providing “good” content (perhaps defined by him?) would get the API for free.

As we have to expect by now, the deadline whizzed past on the 9th, and Twitter posted another deadline.

New access tiers were finally announced on March 30.

The change means, in simple terms, this:
Free tier: 1,500 post requests per month
Basic tier: 10,000 GET/month and 50,000 POST/month for $100/month
Enterprise tier: About $42,000 per month!

What does this mean for Twitter as a customer service channel for companies? Air France, I reckon, is just the tip of the iceberg.

WordPress (through its Jetpack app) has dropped Twitter.

Microsoft ad platforms has dropped Twitter too.

Xbox too!

Intercom, a popular software that helps companies use social media platforms (among others) as a customer service channel has dropped Twitter too!

This is a bit ironic because Twitter promotes the use of its platform as a customer service channel to companies!

San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District system (BART) tweeted that they lost API access for their automated alerts!

NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) ditched Twitter too, for automated alerts!

When companies use Twitter as a customer service channel, they don’t employ a large team to login to Twitter the way we individuals do. They subscribe to the API using their own customer service software or work with software companies like Sprinklr or Intercom that enable customer service on scale. This simply means that customer service representatives can have an easy interface where they see incoming tweets that can be tagged, archived, responded to, and so on.

Why do I think Twitter as a customer service channel is on the way out for most companies? After all, large companies can afford to pay $42,000 (or more) per month, right?

To explain that, I need to share some context about how Twitter became a channel for customer service over the years.

In the early 2010s, I was on the agency side, handling digital strategy, and the predominant thinking around that time was to use one brand handle on Twitter for both brand communication and customer service. But this amplified negative sentiment around the brand since people @mentioned to the brand handle directly and sentiment-tracking tools ascribed all the complaints-related negativity to the parent brand itself (rightly so).

I then moved to the client side (Flipkart) and we took a conscious decision to split the 2 activities – a separate brand handle, and another separate customer service handle, on Twitter. What would happen if people continued to tag the parent brand handle itself? No problem – the response would come from the customer service handle, gradually training people that the response may be prompt if they write directly to the customer service handle.

Over time, brands have chosen either of the 2 tactics (single handle for everything vs. distinct handles for brand communication, and customer service).

I have written about Twitter as a customer service channel way back in the early-2020s.

Should brand responses on social media be real-time? You have a choice!

The redundancy of phone customer care

From a customer’s point of view, Twitter made things far easier than any other mode of communication when it came to customer service. Why? Simple:
1. Customers don’t need to search for a number or an email.
2. The logic goes: customers already spend time on Twitter (meaning: have the app on your phone). They simply need to search for the brand, find the handle instantly, and simply write to the brand handle.
3. Twitter made it seamless to talk to brands in the name of customer service, for queries, or complaints.

Additionally, Twitter complaints were, at least in principle, public. Unlike a phone call that happens between people, or an email that remains hidden between 2 email inboxes, a complaint on Twitter is out there for any/everyone to see (though most other people don’t particularly care). It gave a bizarre kind of satisfaction to people – made it look like they have visibly complained and the world is the proof 🙂

From the brands’ point of view, things were quite different, and I can attest to this because I happened to be on the PR agency side when Twitter launched (in 2006) and when brands started thinking about using social media tools for PR (and eventually advertising). In the earlier days of using Twitter for customer care, brands were paranoid about this whole thing. Every complaint was seen as an affront to the brand’s reputation, and quite a few complaints went viral those days. But over a couple of years, brands stopped caring so much about these because there were so many of them and people lost interest in reading or sharing assorted complaints. Only the most well-written or personally relatable or the most outrage-worthy complaint went viral.

The most interesting aspect of using Twitter for customer care is the fact that the platform has only about 300-400 million users around the world, far lesser than other platforms like Facebook.

For a platform with such a small active user base (relatively) to be used as a customer service channel and even wooed by the Indian Government to port many of its departments to the platform is quite an achievement.

But, with the new expensive API access, companies would probably rethink if the money being spent is really worth it… given the actually low user base. When the access price was low, it made sense for companies to add Twitter to the channels through which they could offer customer service: email, phone, and Twitter. But if the new pricing makes it the costliest of those 3 options, companies would gladly drop Twitter since people already have access to phone and email (which they would need to find with a Google search) and deal with the complaint directly, personally, confidentially (unlike a visible Tweet).

As expected of Twitter under Musk, who is known for changing his mind as often as his billions allow him to, Twitter has made a slight change in the API access tiers, yesterday!

This means public utility services that were using bots to communicate updates would continue to get free access to Twitter API.

But companies now need to really make a decision if it’s worth paying a LOT every month to Twitter for customer service. They would need to assess the number of complaints or queries they get via Twitter versus on phone and email, and then decide if that number tallies with what Twitter is asking them to pay in terms of API access, either directly, or the higher fee their own software provider would charge after the new fee structure.

Chances are, most companies wouldn’t really bother continuing to use Twitter as a channel for customer care; phone and email would do just fine. I’m assuming WhatsApp would jump into this opportunity and pitch itself as a cheaper, reliable option (even though, personally, I wouldn’t want to engage with companies on WhatsApp and be open to all their spam).

The X factor is the difference between MAUs (monthly active users) vs. people who use Twitter sporadically only to talk to brands for queries or complaints, like the former client I mentioned at the beginning of this post. While Twitter’s MAUs may be historically low, it’s possible that those who are accustomed to using the platform for brand queries/complaints may be fairly high.

Of course, if Twitter finds out that company usage falls drastically because they are unwilling to shell out so much money, it could always change its mind. But if it doesn’t, users would be left to tweet into the void without any response from companies 🙂