The riddle of replying on Twitter


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I read an article in the FT the other week by Lucy Kellaway – Twitter is no way to manage a smelly mess (published 5th September). In the article, Lucy* (@lucykella?way1) shares her thoughts on an exchange of tweets (the correct term for this amongst the cognoscenti I believe is ‘authentic conversation’) between Armando Ianucci (@aiannucci) and the MD of Starbucks UK, Darcy Willson-Rymer (@starbucksukmd).

Lucy goes on to make the observation that ‘this exchange does not seem like a good example of anything’, with the crux of the article being that social networking is perhaps nothing more than a distraction that focuses management on the ‘wrong things and boring everyone else in the meantime’.

I enjoyed the article; but I did come away feeling confused. Let me try to explain why.

My job is to help organisations deliver customer service through the use of social media. I live in a world of empathy, complaints and openness. A world where customers now drive the relationship. A world in which companies can no longer talk about being customer-centric, but are having to deliver on the aspiration as well.

I’m passionate about social media and its use within a customer service environment, but at the same time I am realistic about it and know it has a time and a place. I work in a bubble, albeit a small one, and Lucy’s article nicked the surface of that bubble.


*I was unsure how to address Lucy Kellaway. I emailed her, and received the following reply: I do so understand your conundrum about how to address a person. But “Lucy” is just fine.


Mr Willson-Rymer describes himself as: ‘managing director of starbucks UK & Ireland. Father of 2. I love coffee and great service’.

The reference to ‘great service’ is an important one. With only 140 characters in which to describe himself, Mr Willson-Rymer shares with us a little about his work, his life and his loves – ‘coffee and great service’.

After reading through his Tweets, I can see the dedication with which @starbucksukmd responds to his customers. There is no doubting his active pursuit, passion and belief not only for his work, but also to ‘great service’.

On the day in question, 27th August, @starbucksukmd tweeted 29 times between the hours of 11:00am and 22:46pm. While on 2nd September, when @lucykellaway1 tweeted him, he tweeted 44 times between the hours of 06:21am – 22:32pm.

His tweets are helpful, informative and polite. There are tweets thanking people for being customers, or apologizing when Starbucks UK have got something wrong. He is definitely engaging with people – acknowledging them and responding where necessary. Would I say his tweets are actually engaging – probably not. (Rhetorical question: Should they be?).

Lucy herself writes: Social media experts will tell you that this is a perfect example of how companies should reply to customers on Twitter. The response should be made quickly and politely by someone senior. That way, customers get heard and corporate reputations get protected.


If we look at the actual exchange of tweets from a different perspective, perhaps customer service, then the story, in my humble opinion, is a slightly different one.

The first tweet from @aiannucci was sent at 11:34am, 27th August, with the last one being sent by @aiannucci at 21:05pm that day. In all there were five tweets sent over a period of 9.5 hours or so, with anywhere between 50 minutes through to over three hours between tweets.

Here are a few of my observations on the mechanics of the interaction.

  • Social media challenges the traditional 9 – 5pm business day
  • What impression does a company give its customers when their use of Twitter is predominantly linked to one individual who tweets intermittently throughout the day?
  • If the person tweeting is a senior manager, and is responding to customer service type queries, am I justified as a customer into thinking that it will be the senior manager who will deal with my issue, query or complaint? If I as the senior manager am simply passing on that tweeted concern, complaint or query, what are the implications of this on the customer and the organization?
  • If only the MD is tweeting, why is this – does he or the company not trust anyone else to tweet responsibly? Does he not have anything better to do?


The final tweets from each in the exchange were:

STARBUCKSUKMD: @aiannucci Thanks for your feedback – will look into it

IANNUCCI: Good news. Starbucks are now looking into their pervasive lavatory smell.

On the surface of it, the whole thing ended on a positive note. But I am left with further questions.

  • @aiannucci is left with an undertaking from @starbucksukmd that the matter will be looked into. But what, if any, was the final outcome of this issue? Was it looked into? Or has it simply gone away along with all the other complaints, queries and concerns? We may never know. Do we need to know? Does it matter?
  • How much of what @starbucksukmd is doing is for PR, how much is actual customer service? What’s the difference now as the two become increasingly intertwined?
  • It is obvious looking at @starbucksukmd Twitter behavior that he tweets at various points throughout the day, perhaps between meetings? There are definite spikes of activity when a flurry of tweets are sent. What happens outside of these times? Do tweets go unanswered? What impression does this give of the service a company provides? How closely does @starbucksukmd work with his customer service or marketing team?
  • What’s the point of all of this? Who benefits? What are the benefits? Am I simply thinking too much about it?


And what of @lucykellaway1 in all of this?

At 09:39 am on 2nd September 2010, @LucyKellaway1 tweets @starbucksukmd the following question: “do you always tweet back to people who say bad things about starbucks?”

An ‘authentic conversation’ follows:

STARBUCKSUKMD: @lucykellaway1 I think it is important to listen to customers and learn from the mistakes we make so i try to respond to all. 10:43 AM Sep 2nd via TweetDeck in reply to lucykellaway1

STARBUCKSUKMD: @lucykellaway1 however I never respond to unreasonable or malicious rants 10:44 AM Sep 2nd via TweetDeck in reply to lucykellaway1

LUCYKELLAWAY1: @starbucksukmd but doesn’t it take ages? there are so many of you get your staff to reply in your name? 2:31 PM Sep 2nd via web in reply to starbucksukmd

STARBUCKSUKMD: @lucykellaway1 No all replies and tweets are from me. No outside help. occasionally i get told off by the team for saying too much 2:47 PM Sep 2nd via TweetDeck in reply to lucykellaway1

Lucy gets straight to the point with her questions. Questions that many companies I am sure have asked and continue to grapple with an answer.

I sense though that Lucy comes away from this ‘authentic conversation’ scratching her head, still wondering to herself, as a bemused silence hangs on her last tweet: But what is the point. Everything you say makes sense, but none of it makes sense.


It has now been a few months since the original tweet from @aiannucci, and as far as I can see nothing has been done about the smell.

What he said was nothing more than a throw away comment, an observation. The clue is perhaps in the way he describes himself as a ‘comedy satwitterist’ and not the fact that he has 80,000 followers.

But where does this leave businesses operating in a more digitally social world? A 24/7 world characterised by convenience, immediacy and the perceived threat of reach or influence. A world that promotes and elevates impulse behavior to the fore.

I’m not sure; each one will have to answer that question themself. But what I do know is that businesses that truly listen to their customers, put them at the centre of what they do, and refuse to compromise on that will get closer to the answer than those that don’t.

I truly applaud @starbucksukmd for engaging with customers via Twitter. He is helping to break down the traditional barriers that have been built up over time between companies and their customers, and in doing so showing others that there is a better way.

Twitter has brought people and their lives into the open. It is a diary on a scale we have never known before, recording our vulnerabilities, frustrations, annoyances, boredom, desires, joy… It publicises what was once private and in so doing celebrates the detail of our mundane lives in a way that has never happened before. The skill comes in understanding this, in being able to discern between the different types of mundane detail, and navigating between them.

But in the final analysis, are we simply making too much of all of this? I’m really not sure, which unsettles me, but I do know if @aiannucci had tweeted that he saw a rat, it would have been a completely different story…

Final Tweet on the matter:

I was on a train from Guildford to London Waterloo this morning. Not my usual train as I had to drop the car off to get its bumper fixed; backed into by some unknown driver one morning. I ended up Tweeting the following:

Standing by the toilet on train into London, faint smell of Starbucks in the air…

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Guy Stephens
Guy is a social customer care trainer/consultant who has been in the social customer care space since 2008. He is also the Co-founder of Snak Academy, which provides online social customer care microlearning for individuals and SMEs.


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