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Connecting with service representatives helps ease frustrations

At 4:38 p.m. on Jan. 3, a woman named Michelle Kuppersmith, using the Twitter ID "jetsforlife6," posted this note to the micro-blogging service:

"@TWCableHelp @twxcorp official time warner is THE MOST INEPT COMPANY IN THE HISTORY OF CAPITALISM. I want @verizon back."

One minute later, the company's "TWCableHelp" account wrote to Kuppersmith to ask, "Is there something, in particular, regarding your TWC service that I may help you with?"

Three minutes later, Kuppersmith wrote back to complain she was put on hold for 45 minutes when she called customer service before being told to leave a message.

TWCableHelp replied, "My apologies for this, there is a higher than anticipated call volume. Depending on the reason for the call, I may be able 2 hlp."

At that, Kuppersmith responded it was a billing-related question, and the public portion of the conversation ended.

The employees who used Twitter to respond to "jetsforlife6" and other Time Warner Cable customers, known as the Social Media Customer Care Team, are based in the Buffalo office.

The representatives search for references to Time Warner Cable on Twitter and, if they find complaints about the company or its service, do what they can to fix the problem.

"Social media and just the Internet in general, because of the anonymous nature of it, allow people to be increasingly vitriolic," said Alex Dudley, a Time Warner spokesman. "But we have found it's an expeditious way to get people's opinion of us turned around."

This is one example of how telecommunications companies are using Twitter, Facebook and other social-media tools to reach customers, improve their service and market themselves.

Officials with Time Warner Cable, Verizon and DISH Network all say they recognize the value of having a strong presence in the social-media realm.

"These media are, for the most part, very effective at meeting individual customer needs," said Ira Bahr, chief marketing officer for Dish Network. "I think, most importantly, in today's world people expect that you should be able to respond to them, and we do."

Communication between companies and their customers used to be more one-sided, said Gregory R. Wood, a Canisius College associate professor of marketing, who studies how businesses use social media.

The Internet and, in particular, these social-media tools make it easier for customers to share their thoughts with a company -- and with others on Twitter and Facebook.

"This is a big deal now, getting companies to realize that the communication environment has shifted, from a broadcast model to having conservations," Wood said.

Social media can expose companies to rants about long phone waits or spotty cable service, and these complaints can fly around the Web.

Unlike Dell and Comcast, Time Warner Cable hasn't been the subject of a service rant that went viral. But the provider of cable, Internet and phone service realized it had to change how it provides customer service to meet the evolving expectations of its customers.

Some customers want to talk to someone in person, or over the phone, while others want to chat with a representative online or reach them through Twitter, and Time Warner has to be flexible enough to handle them all, Dudley said.

Time Warner went onto Twitter about two years ago, and set up its five-member social media care group last March.

The members of the group have access to customer account information and they have to ability to, for example, dispatch a technician if a problem calls for it, Dudley said.

If members of the care group need to get account information from a Twitter user, they ask the user to respond in a direct message, which cannot be seen by others on the site. "We cannot just say we're sorry, but we can begin the process of resolving the issue," Dudley said.

Verizon has had an active presence on Facebook and Twitter for about 18 months, said Beth Mulhern, director of interactive marketing for every Verizon division except wireless.

The Verizon FiOS page on Facebook, for example, has 47,556 people who "like" the company.

A Jan. 4 post about Verizon's Connected Home service, which allows FiOS subscribers to control functions such as their lights and thermostat, drew 24 "likes" and 12 comments, ranging from praise to "I already do all this with Homeseer."

That comes with the territory, Mulhern said. "One of the things we're most proud of with our Facebook page is our level of engagement," she said.

Verizon has 12 dedicated "digital advocates" in customer service and marketing who represent the company on these sites, and Verizon's "At Home" blog is produced by its media-relations team.

Dish Network has had a presence on Twitter and Facebook for about four years, said Bahr, the chief marketing officer.

A small but growing share of Dish Network's subscriber contacts comes through Twitter.

Sending a tweet to @dishnetwork, for some, can be preferable to trying to get through an automated phone menu to reach a customer-service rep who must follow certain protocols before addressing a problem, Bahr said. Twitter "doesn't have the barriers that voice communication does," he said.

The companies use social networking for marketing as well, often to promote a contest or other special event, but customer-service remains Twitter's best use, Bahr and others said.

Matt Hames, however, said even simple acts of engaging customers can be effective.

When someone sends out a tweet saying he is enjoying an ice-cold Coke, Coca-Cola can resend that tweet to a wider audience, he said.

That user, Hames said, may feel a stronger connection to Coke and may decide to follow the company on Twitter or sign up as a fan of Coke on Facebook.

"Before social media, people never had a chance to talk to a brand. They couldn't talk to a logo," said Hames, a social media strategist with Eric Mower and Associates.

But does establishing a toehold in the social-media world really have a major impact on these telecommunications companies and their business?

The number of people using Twitter still is relatively small -- about 8 percent of all American Internet users, according to a December report from the Pew Research Center.

"As a smart marketer, we know we need to be there, but I can't say we have it all figured out," Verizon's Mulhern said.

Tech-savvy consumers like Adrian Roselli almost expect companies today to have a social-media presence.

Roselli said he recently decided to complain to General Electric about the company's practice of selling their compact fluorescent light bulbs in hard-to-recycle packaging.

Eschewing a phone call or e-mail, Roselli tried to find a Twitter ID for GE but was unsuccessful -- and annoyed.

Still, Roselli said it's important for companies that do enter the social-media realm to do it the right way: with a dedicated staff of employees and a commitment to respond to queries.

Transparency, too, is important, and companies can't misrepresent who they are on Twitter or Facebook, he said.

He singled out ThinkGeek -- a retailer that sells geek-friendly clothing, gadgets and other items -- with praise for its consistent Twitter presence.

"There's a human interaction there. It feels like there's a real person on the other end," said Roselli, a founder and senior usability engineer with Algonquin Studios, a software and technology company with offices in Buffalo and New York City.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com