Comcast video customers in several parts of Seattle suffered a TV outage Monday that was just classic in terms of timing. The outage knocked out the end of Monday Night Football and started a couple hours before Conan O’Brien made his debut on TBS. We couldn’t have planned it to be more irritating.
The outage was in the heart of Seattle Twitter Country. If you live in Seattle and adopt tech as a lifestyle, you might think everywhere is Twitter Country. That’s not so, not yet. We here even in high-tech Washington have seen it’s possible to have an outage in a city and not see a thing yet on Twitter. This actually makes us sad, but we’ll talk about that in a moment.
As has been noted in accounts of the outage, Comcast started issuing updates about the outage and engaging with customers via Twitter. In general, people seemed to appreciate that. We were impressed how quickly the traditional news media, such as TV and radio, but even the big blogs, used our updates to inform people. Steve Kipp here and I wanted to share some thoughts of what we learned that night. You might be tempted to say something snarky when I type this, but in fact we don’t get this chance that often. There are not outages like there were in the old days, and there are not usually outages in the heart of Twitter country. So we wanted to share these lessons now (and pray there won’t be an outage in Twitter Country now that we just hit ‘publish’ on this post)
We’re inspired to post by something we received that night: something very, very old-fashioned. A customer actually wrote us a letter. Sure it came in the form of email, but during the Twitter storm, it arrived long-form and we count it as a letter. I wrote back and enjoyed a dialogue with the customer. The he wrote something that reminded me of something true of everyone: how we see ourselves is not how others see us. His comment came toward the end of the night:
Your Twitter response team did fine and held it together as well. Social media is one of the only ways we have to balance the power between customers and large companies. The customer should always be right, but sometimes they are not listened to quick enough. Social media and twitter helps get things reacted to.
Steve and I found two things interesting about that comment. First, we learned we are a ‘Twitter response team.’ We both want buttons that say that because they’d look cool. But second, we found it interesting the customer viewed social media as a tool that benefits the customer. Of course it does. But social media often benefits the company in a big big way. Unless a company is ignorant or stupid, it embraces social media in a big huge way. We wanted to talk about that.
What social media allows us to do today is immediately post an update to the world. You don’t have to visit a bunch of media outlets, and the word gets out instantly. It’s a bit of a secret in PR is that because Twitter is instant, it doesn’t have to go through an approval process like, say, a news release that has to be read by 35 people at a company and then 36 lawyers. A Tweet is instant.
We love that.
So that’s of course why we were Tweeting during the event. Steve got on a call with our engineers who were working the problem and reported
In the old days when I was a reporter, it might take a day to get information in front of the public. That’s changed, for the better. Media ask questions publicly, and the world gets the answer. One of the most wide awake news outlets these days is the West Seattle Blog, and that was sure true that night.
What was interesting about that question is that even in asking the question, the blog was providing information: West Seattle, or their part of it, was not affected. Notice the question is to the public, but of course it’s expected a company will reply. Or, at least, we assume it’s expected.
Now while repairs are under way, this is where a company needs to make a decision. At this point, workers were working on equipment and fixing the problem as quickly as they could. No amount of Tweeting will make the process faster. So you can argue the company should just shut up. It’s wrong to predict an exact time for service to be restored, because if that time passes, people will just be angrier. They were angry enough.
Now at this point, there’s no manual on what to do next. But we’re human. So for good or for bad, we typed this
This very human statement had some interesting consequences. It became the quote that the news media used. The popular tech blog TechFlash even posted a screenshot of the Tweet. It was shared instantly, along with other updates. To circle back to our original point and the letter writer, it’s absolutely true that customers can get attention via social media. What’s cool is companies can get attention as well, even if they’d rather not be in the spotlight.
By this point, so many Tweets were coming in we were more or less randomly picking some to respond to. We had some fun exchanges – and again, that’s not to make light of the outage, but to show that people make the best of their situation. This post is already pretty long so I won’t explain the history of Conan O’Brien lately, but if you know it, this exchange makes sense:
There were also some sympathetic Tweets, which we weren’t soliciting, but which shows people have different reactions to situations.
So it went. TV came back up before Conan’s program, so we didn’t have to see what customers thought of missing his show. We’re glad about that. In the spirit of sharing, I did want to share one serious mistake I made when I got too casual. It came later when we were going back and forth with customers. Needless to say, after all this, I was going to watch the Conan debut. I Tweeted what I thought was funny, that after all this fuss, Conan made a point of referring on his show to ‘basic cable” as his salvation (or if you saw the segment, you heard Larry King offer that ray of hope to him) So I Tweeted that, but without explaining where the comment came from. Without context, the Tweet made no sense and could be misread. What I love about this exchange is the Tweeter not only corrected me but told me how to do it better next time. That was cool.
So we end on a note of forgiveness, but also humbled that an outage can get so much attention so quickly. Comcast invests an enormous amount of expertise, time and money into making our network more reliable, but that’s small comfort when people are anticipating a TV show and the service goes down. We were sorry. We did appreciate how we could ‘talk’ directly to those affected. And hopefully we don’t talk to these customers, including the devoted members of #teamcoco , again in these circumstances for a really long time.