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Is BT behaving as a spy or a customer-focused business?

Victoria Tomlinson posted this on

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Salvatore Vuono

BT has today been portrayed as a spy because they are ‘listening in’ to conversations about them on the internet.

According to the Mail, ‘BT is using software, Debatescape which trawls social networking sites for keywords to identify anyone making negative comments about the company.  Angry customers are then contacted by email suggesting ways BT can help to solve the problem.’

It seems there are three elements to this issue

1. Monitoring the internet for negative comments

This is surely just plain good business sense?  If you care about your customers, the internet is a fantastic way to pick up problems, get involved and get it sorted in minutes or a few hours.  Rather than the hours, days or months that most large corporate customer service centres work at.

The internet puts pressure on corporates to get the problem solved swiftly, because otherwise these things take on a life of their own – blogs, tweets, Facebook comments all round the world before you can make a cup of tea.

Done well, this is giving ‘people power’ to consumers.

2.Trawling social networking sites

Further on in the above article, an un-named customer explains that he’d been making angry comments on his personal Facebook page – and suddenly got an email from ‘BT Sarah’ asking if she could help.

This sounds like the software is managing to get beyond the privacy protection on Facebook sites.

That is an issue for Facebook – and doesn’t sound great for BT.

3. Emailing the angry customers

This is the bit that sounds all wrong for social media.  First is the nub of this – how did they get hold of the personal email address if they were not a ‘friend’ of the angry customer?

And most of all, social media is not about taking these sort of issues offline, but they should be in there engaging publicly on the internet.

Apparently The Information Commissioner’s Office and the European Commission both voiced legal concerns about this system.

BT defends this.  According to Warren Buckley of BT:  “The key is we are only looking at what people are talking about in public spaces.”  He says it is like overhearing someone in a pub saying something negative.  And that a lot of people are wowed when they contact them to put things right.

Both Easyjet and Carphone Warehouse support this view – ‘people are blown away that Carphone Warehouse is listening and overwhelmingly positive about it’.

Cyber-Rights, the privacy group, says this could be breaking data protection laws – just because someone is on Facebook or Twitter does not give other companies the right to contact people unsolicited.

I have just this morning been writing a factsheet for a client about social media for businesses just looking to get into it.  There were a number of key themes, including

–        You must monitor the internet for negative comments and respond swiftly to put right any problems

–        Social media is about engaging with customers, not forcing yourself on other people uninvited

Having sophisticated software to monitor the internet is inevitable.  And individuals are foolish if they think there is any such thing as a private conversation on the internet.

And when you stop to think for a minute, aren’t these corporates actually delivering the dream for us all?  You’ve got a major problem contacting a business – BT or Carphone Warehouse.  You post a comment on Facebook or Twitter and seconds later they pop up to help you.  I can think of many times when I’d have loved that kind of service!

But the biggest problem here is surely how they follow up?  How can corporates find ways to engage with these angry customers, without intruding on their privacy?

What do you think?  Big Brother or fantastic customer service?!

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