On the Wrong Track: When Social Isn't Really Social

I’m an Amtrak fan.

I’ve booked more than one hundred Amtrak tickets over the past couple of decades, and generally enjoy the experience. It’s an easy way to get from my home base of New York to my company’s base in Washington, D.C., and the trains (especially the higher speed Acela) usually get me to my destination on time, and without too much wear and tear.

So when I needed to make an itinerary change this week—a rare request from an easy customer—I was disappointed that the telephone agent not only wouldn’t accommodate me without an additional $60 fee, but seemed generally uninterested in helping me at all. (I wanted to board the same train I had already booked and paid for, but from a city closer to my destination.)

Since Amtrak has a Twitter feed, I thought I’d try to reach out to the company for help that way:

Amtrak 1

To its credit, Amtrak responded quickly:

Amtrak 2

But the link they sent me to was a webpage, at which I was supposed to fill out a generic customer complaint form. Not exactly the one-on-one customer service intervention I had hoped for — nor did they DM me (a rather standard Twitter customer service approach), as I had requested. I told them that in my next tweet:

Amtrak 3

Amtrak didn’t respond. 

Later that day, still frustrated by my experience (and still hoping to resolve my unsettled ticketing issue), I thought I’d try one last time:

amtrak 4

Again, Amtrak responded – but this time, they sent me to their main toll-free telephone number:

amtrak 5

I explained that the toll-free number was the source of the original frustration:

amtrak 6

Again, Amtrak didn’t respond.

So all of that leads to a question: What is the best practice for corporate “social” media? Does it really add any value to the customer experience to have a somewhat responsive social media team that only responds by sending people to generic online forms and toll-free numbers?

Many companies have now integrated social media communicators into their customer service teams. Those social-savvy pros monitor their company’s feeds, responding to customers with direct assistance. Amtrak, however, seems to see social media as just another medium through which to funnel customer concerns to other channels—even if those channels were the source of the original problem.

I’ve been a loyal Amtrak customer who regularly praises the company’s work—even when some friends and colleagues don’t—and felt that I deserved, at the least, a respectful and concerned customer service experience. I gave them three tries; once by phone, twice by Twitter. Even if they didn’t ultimately satisfy my ticketing concern, they had several opportunities to make a genuine attempt to hear me out. Instead, their uncaring handling of my concern led to this bit of negative press.

When it comes to social, it seems to me that Amtrak is on the wrong track.

UPDATE: June 12, 1:30pm: Amtrak sent a few tweets to me this morning apologizing:

I appreciate the reply, and asked them to please call me to discuss (they haven’t yet). But it’s also too late to remedy this situation. As a result of Amtrak’s inflexibility, I had to reschedule a client meeting, travel to a city farther away from my destination in order to catch the train, and lose two hours of sleep (really!).

So here’s another question to consider: If a brand doesn’t respond in any real way to your first three attempts to remedy a situation — and apologizes only after you post a blog story (your fourth attempt) — will the apology be perceived as sincere? I suspect many people would question the very motive of their apology – is a sincere attempt to do the right thing (hopefully, and entirely possible), or is it an attempt to placate an unhappy customer who also happens to have a blog? What do you think?

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