Social Media Case Study: Sprint Falls Short [Updated with response from Sprint]
Social media is often considered the unexplored frontier for interacting directly with customers. For decades, we’ve relied on call centers and face to face interaction in retail stores. Then we added email and live chat. And now we’ve taken to Facebook and Twitter.
As consumers, we use social networks to keep in touch with our friends and family. We share all sorts of content, from photos and videos to politically-charged rants to hilarious eCards and humor. We support causes we believe in, and we blast those we don’t. Part of that cannon fire is aimed squarely at businesses who we feel do us wrong. That’s the power of the networks we create: we’ve established an online sphere of influence and we’re not afraid to use it.
As businesses, one of our never-ending challenges is to keep our finger on the pulse of our customers. We want to know what they think about us and what they think about our competitors. With that information in hand, we devise engaging and attention-grabbing marketing campaigns, loyalty programs and limited-time deals to attract new customers and retain existing customers. To that end, we go where our customers are. In days gone by, we knew we could reach the vast majority of them by having an ad in the Yellow Pages and running the occasional 30-second spot during their favorite TV shows. We’d supplement that with a few newspaper ads, radio spots and direct mail pieces and feel comfortable about calling it a day. When our customers needed us, they’d pick up the phone and call or they’d come visit our store.
The world has evolved. If you’re still stuck doing those things you’ve always done, it’s likely you’re already being left behind.
The rising popularity of the internet and social networks is the single greatest example of that evolution to business. Businesses that want to remain competitive (and who doesn’t, right?) build dynamic and powerful websites to provide services to their customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It wasn’t that long ago that you could get by without having a website. Now, I’d argue you’ll struggle to stay afloat in any industry without one.
Remember above, when I said that as businesses, we go where our customers are? In today’s world, that’s undisputedly the social web. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube dominate more than 15 minutes of every hour of time spent on the Internet. 2 out of every 3 adults in the developed world are members of at least one social network . So naturally, in the race to stay ahead of our competitors and to keep top-of-the-mind awareness with our customers, we, as businesses, are next to join the social web.
Now, more than two-thirds of the world’s largest companies are active on at least one social network. It’s become the norm, not the exception. If you’re not there, it’s likely you’re already being left behind.
From Private to Public
What once was a private transaction now takes place in the public eye. If a prospective customer had interest in your product or service, they’d call and talk to a representative on the phone, one on one. If they had a complaint, they’d do the same thing. Or maybe they’d visit your retail location and speak privately with a manager. Again, the times, they are a changing. If a business does a great job in service of the customer, they’ll tell their friends. If a business does wrong by the customer, well, you better believe they’re even more likely to tell their friends. With the social web, this is also done “publicly”, in front of hundreds, potentially thousands of other prospective (or existing) customers. Both sides of the equation are becoming equally more transparent. As a business, you have to keep up.
There are many great examples of companies who have led the charge into Web 2.0, full speed ahead, no holds barred. They push the envelope and live on the bleeding edge of new technologies and platforms. They inspire their competitors to be better, which benefits us as consumers many times over.
There are also many great examples of companies who have reacted too slowly to the changing landscape of the web, some who have reacted poorly and a few who haven’t reacted at all. This Case Study takes a deeper look into a company whose reaction is a combination of the former two examples.
Sprint: The nation’s fourth-largest wireless carrier
The wireless industry is a cut-throat business. Each carrier seeks to provide the most value for the best buck. The three main factors consumers consider when choosing between them: selection of mobile devices (choice), features and coverage (bang) and perceived value for their money (buck).
Sprint markets themselves on the premise of value. They’re were also once the hipsters of the wireless industry, proudly bragging about being the nation’s first wireless carrier with fourth-generation wireless (which they’ve since abandoned). The old adage “you get what you pay for” seems like it was meant for Sprint. Marketing all on the premise of value (buck), they leave a lot to be desired in the way of quality (bang). So naturally, they leave themselves open for a lot of complaints from customers.
In days gone by, we’d rely on the likes of J.D. Power and Associates to tell us how a business stacks up. In a certain capacity, we still do. So let’s look at what J.D. Power has to say about Sprint, just to establish some footing here.
- For J.D. Power & Associates’ “2012 Wireless Customer Care Performance Study” , Sprint was rated 2 out of 5 “stars” in a three-way tie for last place with AT&T and T-Mobile.
- For J.D. Power & Associates’ “2012 Wireless Network Quality Performance Study” , Sprint was rated 2 out of 5 “stars” in a three-way tie for last place with AT&T and T-Mobile.
Remember: you get what you pay for. These results make that more apparent.
With these low of scores, it’s to be expected that their customers will take to the web to voice their frustrations. It may also partly explain why Sprint lost nearly a quarter of a million post-paid subscribers (246,000) just last quarter .
Many of the companies active on the social web have a dedicated Twitter account for helping customers. @SprintCare is one such account. The Twitter bio describes it as “Sprint’s official account for customer care.” Ok. Fair enough. They have separate accounts for corporate news about Sprint (@Sprint and @SprintNews) and even one for news about their sustainability practices (@SprintGreenNews). It’s fairly easy for customers to recognize the different purposes for each of these four accounts. Some may blindly tweet to @Sprint without realizing @SprintCare exists, but in many cases, @SprintCare responds anyway. As of this writing, @SprintCare follows 15 people and has 20,937 followers.
@SprintCare does this by monitoring tweets using two social SaaS (Software as a Service) platforms: Salesforce.com’s Radian6 product and ExactTarget’s SocialEngage product. Having used both of these products myself, I’m familiar with their capabilities. They’re good. So, it’s safe to say Sprint is at least using quality tools to manage their social channels. So where do they fall short?
@SprintCare Falls Short
What many social media marketers forget is one of the things I preach the most: the key word (not keyword) in social media (or social network, for that matter) is social. Forget ‘media’ and forget ‘network’. Social networks are best utilized for building relationships and gaining customers’ trust and loyalty. The marketing elements are just an added bonus.
When a customer has an issue with their service and tweets to @SprintCare for help, they expect someone to respond accordingly with an offer to help. That’s part of the expectation that’s been created by the pioneers who pushed into the [previously] unexplored frontier of social media. In fact, 60% of customers expect brands to respond to them in social channels .
Once the customer tweets to @SprintCare, two things matter:
- Response time
- Quality of response
More times than not, @SprintCare falls short on both accounts.
They do clearly state, as part of the @SprintCare Twitter bio, that they have people available to respond to tweets Monday thru Friday, from 8am to 9pm (CST) and Saturday from 7am to 4pm. The fact that they’ve set this expectation is wonderful. More companies offering support on Twitter should do this. Setting the correct expectation from the beginning (and then following through) is the best way to gain trust on the social web.
There’s no “one size fits all” answer to how fast a response time should be, but it’s safe to say: the sooner the better. In the wireless business, a customer is likely tweeting about a problem affecting them right then. Slow speeds, no service, dropped calls, etc. Considering that 15% of Americans would give up SEX before giving up their iPhone , urgency is definitely a priority.
Upon Further Examination
I examined 76 tweets to and from the @SprintCare account from yesterday, August 15th, 2012. Here’s what I found. (Note: I compiled all the data from this examination into an Excel spreadsheet, available for download here.)
- 76 tweets were sent by @SprintCare and 17 customers combined. 36 tweets were from customers, to @SprintCare. 40 tweets were from @SprintCare, to customers.
- Of all the interactions with the 17 customers, @SprintCare ended the conversation in 9 of those interactions (53% of the time) by not continuing the conversation after an initial response, effectively leaving the customer “hanging”.
- The average response time for @SprintCare’s first reply to the customer was one hour and 13 minutes.
- The fastest response time was two minutes and the longest wait time before @SprintCare replied was over four hours.
- Of the 17 customers who had interactions with @SprintCare yesterday, each had an average of 2,799 followers. Excluding one customer with an extremely large amount of followers (40,406), each had an average of 448 followers. The 17 customers had a combined total of 47,584 followers.
- The quality of @SprintCare’s responses to customers was low. In many interactions, customers would reply indicating their original question wasn’t answered.       
Why it Matters
Who are these tweeters, anyway? They’re everyday, normal people, just like you and me. They’re people who pay for a service and expect to receive that service as advertised. Since a customer service function which was once only a private, one on one interaction, now has public transparency, people are watching . And they’re spreading their bad experiences like wildfire . Just as you wouldn’t hang the phone up on a customer who calls your call center, or you wouldn’t boot them out the front door of your store, you shouldn’t ignore them or let hours (days, even) elapse before responding.
The combined total of followers for the 17 customers who tweeted @SprintCare yesterday was 47,584. That doesn’t include the 20,934 people who also follow the actual @SprintCare account and could be influenced by negative sentiment. We’re going to exclude them for this next example.
It’s reasonable to assert that a mere 5% of those 47,584 people saw their friends having problems with Sprint, and more problems getting a quality answer to their question or a resolution to their problem yesterday. In fact, that number is probably higher than 5%. But, assuming just 5% for this example, that’s almost 2,400 people - in just one day - who are now conditioned with negativity about Sprint. Annualize that and you get 868,408 people. Now we’re talking about the kind of numbers that can make - or BREAK - a business. Monetize that on Sprint’s ARPU (Average Revenue per User) of $63.38 and you have a potential [annual] financial impact of $660.48 million.
Yes, proper management of your social media channels can make you - or cost you - more than half a billion dollars a year. Just ask @SprintCare.
[Update: A representative from CEO Dan Hesse’s office called me about an hour ago to let me know they’d seen this post. Then I got a follow up email recapping our conversation a few minutes later. In it, she writes:
“We discussed that I will forward the feedback that you have provided in regards to the website. Please know that we take this information seriously and we are working diligently to make improvements.”
Go, Sprint, go!
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