Comcast received a lot of praise at one time for being an early adopter of Twitter for customer service. Really, people said nice things about the company. Look it up.

If you took to Twitter, you could get “escalated” help. Otherwise? Good luck.

We talk a lot about using digital platforms for customer service. Some companies use social as one more channel. Zappos, for example. Or Buffer. These are companies that prioritize their customers, whether that’s on the phone, via chat, email, or social media. Often, however, “public” Twitter is the platform of last resort. It’s the place you go to try to force a company into problem solving when their “private” channels (e.g., telephone, Web) are absent, ineffective, or unhelpful. Witness early Comcast. Or the time Sears couldn’t process a simple in-store Lands’ End return so I took to @LandsEnd to ask for help.

The role of private social media.

Gilded gate

Now companies are looking at “private” social media — beyond direct messages and “taking the conversation offline.”

The most obvious example is Facebook Messenger and the platform’s move toward chatbots. I’ve seen articles on how great it will be for everyone to automate certain basic functions (e.g., bank balances, tracking shipping, frequently asked questions). But will it? Really?

My concern about chatbots is that it sounds a whole lot like we’re trying to automate the very things that drive us crazy about voice trees. It’s a triage process when I don’t need to known the status of my package (I already clicked on the email link) or how to recycle my modem (I’ve done that 3 times already). I need help.

Meanwhile, I read an interesting article on whether chatbots make sense for smaller businesses. The author looks at the dichotomy between expediency and authenticity.

When does it make sense to sacrifice engagement?

Use chatbots, sacrifice engagement

It makes sense to automate certain functions. It’s helpful to be able to click a link and check the status of a package. To bank online and check balances or pay bills. To use an app to make an appointment or set up a meeting. But not every customer touchpoint should be automated.

The problem happens when organizations aim for automation first, whether that’s an annoying prerecorded set of instructions for a problem you don’t have, a multi-layered phone tree of irrelevant options, or even a fixed customer service script. Like earlier channels, your chatbot will work best if it comes with a skip-to-a-person-who-can-help-me option up front.