Weathering the Customer Service TweetStorm

Web hosting outages are proving the power of Twitter as a real-time customer communications tool, and Los Angeles hosting provider Media Temple is a prominent test case.

Rich Miller

May 7, 2009

2 Min Read
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Web hosting outages are proving the power of Twitter as a real-time customer communications tool, with Los Angeles hosting provider Media Temple serving as the test case. When Media Temple experienced an extended outage in its grid hosting platform in early March, it was surprised to find that frustrated customers were seeking information on Twitter, rather than the company's status blog or forums.

"We always prided ourselves on being good communicators," said Media Temple CEO Demian Sellfors. "But we weren't ready in March. We had not yet gotten around to dealing with Twitter. It hit us like a ton of bricks. We needed to be in this channel, because this is where our customers are. We now have a full-time department that deals only with Twitter."

The company retooled its customer service operation, dedicating two full-time employees to monitoring Twitter and training eight other staffers to respond to customers via the microblogging service. That effort was tested this week, when Media Temple's grid hosting service crashed again, and customers began Tweeting their pain.

Scaling the Update Infrastructure
MT's team of "Twitterologists" has been manning the company Twitter account throughout, responding to complaints and directing customers to hourly updates on the system status blog, as well as the company's promise of a one-year service credit to all customers whose sites were knocked offline by the incident.

It's too early to say whether the company's Tweeting will salve customers' anger over two lengthy outages. But Sellfors believes the improved Twitter response made a difference, and justified the company's dedicated staffing. "Twitter is a fantastic platform for (responding to) incidents," he said.

As we noted in March (see Data Center Outages and Staff Scalability), the growth of Twitter is remaking the nature of data center outages on the web. The speed and volume of customer chatter on Twitter and other social media channels during outages is becoming unmanageable, presenting big challenges for service providers who may find their reputations made or undone in a matter of hours.

Social Media A Double-Edged Sword
Media Temple hosts many prominent blogs (including TechCrunch), most of which were unaffected because they use the company's shared hosting or dedicated server offerings. But MT customers' familiarity with social media can be a double-edged sword.

"When we're doing well we get a lot of word-of-mouth business," Sellfors said. "When we do badly, our reputation takes a hit. We're trying to communicate well, and be judged by the way we deal with service disruptions. There are people who feel really burned. They've let us know, and it impacts our brand."

Media Temple CTO Josh Barratt says the immediacy of Twitter updates may not get sites back online any faster, but assures customers that their provider is on the job and takes their concerns seriously.

"We understand that there's unhappiness whenever there's a service interruption," said Barratt. "That unhappiness is compounded if you're unhappy in the dark."

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