Twelpforce: Best Buy’s Social Customer Service Perspective


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I had the good fortune of having John Bernier of Twelpforce on my inaugural BlogTalkRadio show on Monday. For those who don’t know, Twelpforce is Best Buy’s Twitter helpline. You can listen to the full podcast and download it to iTunes by clicking the show link.

John Bernier started his Best Buy in traditional marketing and communications at Best Buy, and had also performed similar job functions before. I asked John how he transitioned to being a Social and Emerging Media Manager at Best Buy. John is living proof that the most amazing careers are created and not found. John basically volunteered for various social media efforts, and ended up pioneering the Twelpforce efforts. He did so, because he believes, and I agree that social media is the natural ‘evolution of marketing & communication” that connects companies to customers “in different and unique ways.” John always loved the challenge of breaking through to consumers in a way that was relevant and helpful, and he believes that social media is just that way.

John understands full well that no company, including Best Buy, can project THE voice of the brand, as 1000s of employees and millions of customers (if you are lucky) represent it. “It’s not the 1950s”, says John “we don’t have control of it anymore. Do you want to participate yourself and shape it? That’s up to you!” Twitter and other social technologies remain one of the ways to influence a customer, but not the only way: email, in-store presence and other efforts, are still going strong and work well together to provide a well-rounded experience for the customer.

Gaining support:

Many companies, especially large enterprises, struggle with getting senior management buy-in for a social media program, especially when it’s on a large scale like that. In answering how he gained alignment within his enterprise, John shared that he is lucky in that Best Buy, as a tech company, has a natural propensity to adopt technologies early. “There was a ground-up upswell, as well as a top-down movement, with social media adopted by management to flatten the organization,” said John. He talks to companies about this all the time, and he likes to ask the following questions to overcome inertia of social inactivity:

  1. If you don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook page page – why? You need to at least have an understanding before deciding it’s not right for you. Leadership needs to stop hiding
  2. How many future employees are going to come to the table with experience and intimate understanding of Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In? This new generation of employees is well-versed in social technologies, has grown up with them, and incorporated them into their lives years ago. They will keep using them, and you can’t ignore that this is happening.

About Twelpforce:

For those unfamiliar, Twelpforce is the Twitter customer service channel for Best Buy, as well as a place where Twelpforce team members can share relevant information with customers. There are over 2,600 Twelpforce team members who have answered over 28,000 questions so far, with an average time to answer a question of 12 minutes or less. John himself has answered 1,000 questions so far since he facilitated getting Twelpforce off the ground. Anyone can participate in Twelpforce (it doesn’t “live” in customer service), and they don’t require a minimum time in the job, with the intention of Twelpforce becoming a learning opportunity for each participating member: you can look up the answer you don’t know, learn something new, add your “flavor” to it, and share it back with the community. The process of learning from each other is powerful, and he says it’s “fun to watch this community police itself, govern itself, evolve itself into something that’s efficient and effective”. They are striving to be worldwide, with Canadian team members already participating, and the UK team slated to join soon.

In his job as the Twelpforce chief cheerleader, John acts as a champion for Best Buy employees, helping them remove barriers and empowering them to learn from each other, help each other succeed and collaborate with the rest of the organization. He is always thinking of how to capture the tremendous digital footprint that the questions and answers create: “A question and answer create a nice digital pod that can be used by future customers” (By the way, “digital pod” is now my favorite term 🙂 It’s not a perfect system, because it’s a system run by humans, but they approach it “authentically and with the best of intentions”.

Customer Service:

Musing on customer service, we discussed what multi-channel actually means in social media today. It used to mean that you talk to the social customer in her preferred channel, whether it’s email, phone, Twitter or online chat. However, that notion has evolved, and for Best Buy it means that a customer may be trying to get a hold of someone simultaneously through many channels. This is a fascinating development, and I asked John how he prevents a customer from getting 5 responses from a bunch of employees across a bunch of channels. His take, and I hadn’t thought of it that way before (so thank you, John), is that it’s perfectly OK to get more than one answer. I think that’s appropriate for Best Buy’s products, when I am evaluating a Mac vs. a PC (example given by John): this way I can get a take from an Apple fan and a PC fan, for a well-balanced view. However, when I talk to an airline about my reservation, I still only want one right answer 🙂

There’s been quite a bit of discussion going on recently about customer service on Twitter, and the relative importance of those who are vocal with more followers vs. those with less followers. Does social media reward the whiny customer with a lot of followers? Are we a little too scared of the Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines type of debacle? Should you treat all your customers the same? John thinks so! He wouldn’t treat a rewards premier member in any way different from another customer. “It doesn’t matter who they are and where [what channel] they are coming from.. We provide value and service that’s valuable, going out of our way to service the customer”


When asked about what it takes to motivate his team, John simply commented that participation levels mirror any other social media channel. Some people are just natural power users, and the people that rise to the top of Twelpforce are driven there by passion for service, passion for what they do, and passion for using social media to help. He says that instead of providing monetary rewards, non-traditional rewards work much better. Some of these rewards included the ability to contribute to upcoming strategy, having their name appear in a rewards zone mailer, and making it to the top 10 list sent to senior management. At the same time, Twelpforce members build their own local following and learn social media skills that the can lean on later in their careers.

John takes the same attitude with followers and fans on social networks. They never pay to follow or give a discount for joining a Best Buy network. They contribute useful information, and have earned every follower they have grown 100% organically. This is not to say that they don’t offer discounts to their members, but “there’s a time and a place for that”, says John.

Metrics of Success:

For John, measuring success is important. Twelpforce has noticeably pulled the brand metrics up, even though it’s still a “small-ish” platform for engagement. He uses proprietary and publicly available tools to measure:

  • number of questions and answers
  • ratio of questions to answers
  • sentiment
  • % of participating employees to total employees
  • Quarterly survey measures effectiveness of Twelpforce via a non-social channel (email)
  • Share of voice
  • Etc.

Social Media Policy:

Best Buy’s social media policy is simple: “Be smart. Be respectful. Be human.” I actually used it as an example to speak to my internal team about social media this week, because I think it’s brilliant in its simplicity. And to be honest, you don’t need much more than that in order to establish best practices. You need to trust your employees to do the right thing, and instead of posing restrictions, a social media policy that works, needs to “help [employees] fly their ship”. Social media evolves quickly, and so should your policy.

Lessons Learned:

When asked about lessons learned, John shared these key things with me:

  • Anonymity of the web “emboldens people to say what they wouldn’t say if they were standing in front of you”. John encourages his employees to keep reminding themselves that they are grownups and they can handle rough language. However, respect goes both ways customers need to also remember that on the other end of the tweet are real people.
  • Passion is a powerful incentive. For John, it’s been “magical to watch” how members of Twelpforce have grown into powerful communicators.
  • They will hear about a problem within their organization via Twitter than any other brick-and-mortar business owner would.
  • Be humble and respectful when you make a mistake. Own up to mistakes and fix them.
  • Trust is huge: he trusts his employees to do the right thing on behalf of themselves, Best Buy and customers.

“It’s fun to be part of an organization that empowers its employees to go be themselves with every ounce of their being.” Wow, seems like Best Buy actually walks the social media walk and talks the social media talk. Thanks John, for your awesome and unique perspective!

What about you? How have you been able to service your customers via social technologies? What roadblocks have you run into? What have you learned? Please share in the comments!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maria Ogneva
I'm the Head of Community for Yammer, the enterprise social network used by 100,000 organizations, including more than 80% of the Fortune 500. At Yammer, she is in charge of social media and community programs, fostering internal and external education and engagement. You can follow her on Twitter at @themaria or on her blog, and Yammer at @yammer and company blog.


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