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Forget the Phone. Now Twitter is the Place to Get the Fastest Customer Service

"Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain." —Lily Tomlin

And man invented Twitter to make sure everyone had to listen.

It's pretty obvious that Twitter is a hotbed of whining about bad service. People fume about everything from politicians to their bungled latte orders. It's as if Congressmen care and the barista was online to read it.

But it's also true that many airlines, cruise lines, and hotels acknowledge the ongoing digital malaise on Twitter, and they have hired social media staff to serve as shields for the bullets. JetBlue has 30, and United employs 20. A few travel companies have special customer service Twitter accounts (such as @DeltaAssist) manned by dedicated staff who help travelers wherever they may be with on-the-fly questions about gate changes, missing reservations, and the like.

Much of the time, the company just gets into a back-and-forth with you and can't do much except tell you what they know, but at least customers are left with the satisfaction that they reached someone right away. 

All of that is standard knowledge by now. But what hasn't really sunk in about Twitter is this: Now, for some companies, it's almost pointless to write or call them directly using their standard contact information.

Case in point: Recently, I came across a Facebook page that purported to be giving away free tickets from Southwest. I wanted to verify this, of course, but the email form on the Southwest site said, archaically, "Responses to your comments may take up to 48 hours." I knew I could phone the toll-free number, but the reservationist on the other end was unlikely to know about much more than booking flights.

Good thing I'm on Twitter: I sent Southwest a tweet. Three minutes later, I had my answer: The Facebook page was a scam.

You already knew Twitter was ubiquitous. The news channels even think professional journalists reading random tweets from random people is something worth precious broadcast time. But it's time to start thinking of Twitter more practically, as the fastest tool in the the travelers' toolbox.

Frequent flyers, celebrities, and travel bloggers, in particular, make a frequent public fuss on Twitter whenever something goes slightly wrong at the check-in desk. That's because people are paying attention. Kevin Smith made headlines with Southwest in 2010 when he lobbed 140-character castigations at the airline for chucking him out of his seat for being too large. The same year, I myself found myself being interviewed by Good Morning America and a half-dozen more national news outlets after my tweets protesting being stranded by Virgin Atlantic at the start of a snowstorm caught a news producer's attention. 

On Twitter, the rants are public and social media managers know that to save embarrassment like that, time is of the essence.

One of the reasons quick service is still possible on Twitter is that in proportion to non-users, active membership is still low enough for major companies to manage the trickle of complaints.

Like every tool, though, it's all in how you use it. Usership is growing and in-flight Wi-Fi is more prevalent, and as tweeters increasingly kvetch publicly about minor issues as the speed of the beverage cart (an actual tweet to Delta I read recently), the response time could slow.

It only goes to underscore what you have been hearing for a few years now: Get on Twitter, at It's free. 

But be judicious about those complaint tweets—it's not just kinder to your followers, but it also helps the system run faster than the old forms of customer service.