With Customer Care, Twitter Wants To Sharpen Its Profile As A Platform To Do Business

Twitter is on double time these days when it comes to rolling out new products and pressing ahead under new CEO Jack Dorsey — a strategy that will likely get a decent gust of air Wednesday during the company’s Flight developer conference. In the meantime, TechCrunch understands that there is another area where Twitter is looking to expand: customer care, positioning Twitter as a better replacement for 1-800 numbers and online contact forms.

Customer service should not come as too much of a surprise for those who use Twitter: the company already has a decent amount of traffic from people who take to Twitter to complain about (or praise) brands, or ask questions of them.

And even without any specific customer service products, Tweets to B2C brands are growing at 50 percent each year, Twitter said in August when it made an announcement about its intentions to do more in customer care.

Two companies, Sprout Social and Oracle, have been working to develop solutions for businesses who want to use Twitter as a platform for interacting with customers.

Gnip (the big-data group Twitter acquired in 2014) has been behind the data feed that businesses like Sprout and Oracle will use to power those customer service tools. Oracle declined to discuss the service it is building, while Sprout confirmed it has a live a Twitter-based customer service product, but would not specify how it’s priced or what the terms of its commercial relationship with Twitter is.

(Twitter also published a 122-page white paper when it announced the Oracle and Sprout partnerships, with case studies from companies like Hilton, T-Mobile and Nokia showing how the social network was already being used for customer service initiatives.)

The August announcement was light on detail and seemed to get little notice when it came out. But in the meantime we have picked up more specifics from from inside Twitter, which has been working internally and with partners on building a more formal set of customer care business tools.

There are several different areas that the company is considering.

They include the ability to search and surface real-time relationships between businesses and the individuals who interact with them, so that a customer rep can get a better sense of a customer’s tone and history with the company. (For example, to identify a persistent problem with a user’s phone connection versus identifying someone who straight up dislikes the company in question, no matter what.)

Another involves creating a way to better prioritize requests for help that come through on Twitter. This might be based on responding to Tweets more quickly if they are getting more engagement — especially if they are negative — before they have a chance to go viral and damage a brand more.

(There could be a snag with this one. Prioritizing based on engagement might mean that if you haven’t lucked out in inadvertently creating a viral sensation with your complaint Tweet, or if you have minimal followers who will see what you wrote, you may end up getting sent to the bottom of the heap and ignored.)

A third area is around the idea of how to structure conversations with customers. Often, the default progression of a Twitter conversation is to send someone to email or phone to continue the conversation after Twitter contact is made. The idea here seems to be figuring out how to both initiate but also complete the customer request without leaving Twitter’s platform but remaining secure and private, and potentially feeding into larger CRM databases.

Beyond what Twitter has announced, executives at the company see customer service as a key part of Twitter’s future business.

One source described it to TechCrunch as just as potentially important as what Twitter has been building in advertising. But even without that possible hyperbole, others are also hinting at the possibilities in public appearances.

Board member, former CEO and co-founder Ev Williams, speaking at a Re/code event earlier this month, highlighted how Twitter’s role as a place for customer interactions goes back far in its history, but also how it’s a big business opportunity for the future.

“In 2008 or 2009, before we monetized at all, we saw 1 million people sign up to follow Starbucks… That is incredible commercial value,” he said. “We saw companies large and small, Twitter formed a connection between brands that didn’t really have a community channel. Now it’s a major source for customer service and marketing, there’s a robust business there… That part’s always been very powerful [and] as the utility and business grows that naturally grows with it.”

You can see how this is a logical move for the company.

For starters, it could help position Twitter as a larger and more sticky player in the area of business services, as a platform to facilitate all kinds of B2C interactions, from customer service through to marketing and advertising and maybe even selling products, too.

A more formal customer care offering is also potentially filling a gap. According to analysts at SocialBakers, there have been 21 million questions asked on Twitter this year so far this year, with carriers, airlines and finance companies topping the list of those being contacted by customers on Twitter. But there’s a gap in how many get answered: just 30% on average, the analysts say.

And as more brands use Twitter as a customer care channel, it makes Twitter more useful to regular consumers, who might visit more frequently as a result.

Come to complain, stay for the Vines and news updates. For a platform that has faced criticism for lacking mainstream appeal, customer service could be one weird trick to help Twitter’s engagement.