Customer Support on Twitter with Nurph

Slicehost customer support is the best I've experienced on the Web. It's the main reason why I and many other happy Slicehost customers have used them as our go to host for all our web applications over the years. So it's not surprising that Slicehost was acquired by Rackspace in 2008, which, in their own words, was because of Slicehost's fanatical customer focus and great service. I can attest to this; I've queried them many, many times on technical issues, and they've always answered my questions almost instantly. But you may be surprised to hear that I've sent them next to no emails in this time - and it's all thanks to is the backbone to Slicehost's awesome customer support. It may be listed among several Slicehost Customer Community options on but it's far and away my preferred channel with which to communicate with the company.

Here's why: As a Slicehost customer you can enter a chat room in just a few clicks, meet the Slicehost team and the other customers in the room at the time, and ask a question to a group of people who will answer you in real-time. You get instant feedback to your question versus sending an email off in to the ether with no idea of when to expect a response, and the "virtual destination" experience means that if one Slicehoster can't answer your question, another will pitch in and share their knowledge. In fact you'll usually get at least two Slicehosters joining in with any one question posed in the room. And all this adds up to a very satisfying customer experience. Why? Well it's for the same reasons that people choose to queue up outside Apple stores for the iPhone 4S rather than sitting at home alone making a sales phone call to a telephone operator. Destination, community, and group conversation with like-minded people.

In any customer in the room can watch the conversations happening between the participants. They can watch out of interest, they can learn a thing or two about another customer's problem that they may have to tackle themselves in the near future, or they can add their two cents to a discussion and feel good for sharing some knowledge and to help out the Slicehost team.

Now you may be wondering why a company would want to allow customers to chat to one another, or to overhear some of conversations going on around the business - but I've only ever seen this as a significant opportunity that most businesses choose not to benefit from. If you've ever worked in a retail store, or worked on a website with a thriving discussion forum community, you'll realise the benefits to cultivating a strong sense of community around your products & services, whereby both customers and company representatives can mingle and chat to one another in the same space.

A strong community encourages people to hang out on your turf in close proximity to your products & services, to help each other out, to discuss things about your business that might not have come out of a strictly transactional sales phone call, and to create brand evangelists like the ones you'll find on the Apple discussion forums (the ones who've become an extension of Apple's own sales and support team). Apple doesn't pay these people a penny, yet they're probably performing on par with people on the pay roll. We may be talking about virtual destinations here, but the benefits are very real.

Slicehost's "destination-based" approach to customer support makes the one-to-one silo of email-based customer support seem a bit daft. When you send an email to a generic "support@" email address only the recipient can help to answer your question - no one else can observe or overhear the conversation, and the whole experience feels very sterile. Yes, you may have multiple recipients on the end of a company wide customer support email address, but the email protocol's TO & CC design is unwieldy at best, and conversations are quickly channeled away from a place where interested parties can participate in and observe them. And you can forget about any opportunity for people outside your company to have any input. is the antithesis of this - it's like a virtual store front where the Slicehost team and the customers can get together to form a community and help each other out at the same time. The chat room timeline keeps everyone in the loop, and the company benefits because important conversations aren't tucked away in a hidden email thread and instead are kept visible at the front of house.

In interviews about Slicehost and their successful acquisition by Rackspace, Co-Founder Matt Tanase often cites their chat room as playing an important role in how the company connected with their customers. In a Mixergy interview he states how they always had a team member hanging out in the chat room to answer queries, and in a 37Signals interview he states how even before they launched the Slicehost hosting service people were "hanging round our Campfire room asking when we were going to launch". And as Rackspace continues to consume the Slicehost brand there have been discussions of them killing off the Slicehost chat room - but as a testament to how highly valued the chat room is, a post has cropped up in the Slicehost discussion forums in which customers are rallying support to keep the chat room running. But this isn't the only time the customers have shown their appreciation of the chat room - they've also been sharing their positive experiences in tweets, discussion forum posts and blog posts such as this marks-to-slicehost-support/ ever since the company started.

Now as much as I've been promoting the benefits of, I still believe there are several problems and opportunities with how it works as a customer support channel, and they're all heavily tied in to the concept of online identity.

This is where Twitter comes in to the equation.

As is the case for most companies with an online presence, Slicehost is using the @SliceHost Twitter account to broadcast their latest news, service updates, and any other notable information that would be of interest to their customers.

As Twitter continues to grow as the best public messaging platform on the Web, @Slicehost is inevitably handling more and more customer support queries in tweets. Further to this, @Slicehost is regularly tweeting at followers and telling them to stop by to free their conversations from Twitter's limitations and to chat with multiple members of the Slicehost team simultaneously.

However, numerous issues arise from the current combination of Twitter and
1) Identity: doesn't leverage the Twitter API as a platform and that means the chat rooms visitors have to choose a new nickname every single time they log-in, leaving behind all their existing Twitter profile information. Where's the persistent identity? Where's the profile pictures? Where's the bio information? Twitter users should have the option to jump in to the chat room with their identity in tow so that the customer support staff know exactly who they're dealing with.

2) User Experience: Twitter and are world's apart in terms of user experience. Twitter has @replies, hashtags, and search - all of which add up to a what makes Twitter the mainstream platform it is today. has none of those, and that creates a huge contrast in user experience when you move between Twitter and We're typing out a new username every single time we log-in - and that's just for starters!

3) Conversation Archives: Conversations are quickly lost on because the chat room doesn't save them, and this means the conversations rarely provide any benefits past the point at which they're visible on screen. Problems are answered in conversations on but no one else benefits. Customers and support staff are repeating the same customer support issues again and again, and as a user I can't go back and view the conversations I've already had or even view conversations that might answer my current questions.

4) Conversation Sharing: Visitors to can't take conversations with them to use them at a later date, unless of course they copy and paste the conversation in to a txt document (and that's hardly ideal). Wouldn't it be great if the conversations were saved on URLs? URLs make the Web go round, and Web users are constantly sharing URLs - so why aren't we doing this with our conversations?

5) Keyword Search: Visitors can't go back and search through their past conversations on @Google has taught us about the importance of search.

6) Private Messaging: There's no quick & easy way for people to share private information with each other on You can drop back to email or telephone, but you need to find a way to share contact details to do so.

7) Community Building: just doesn't have the fun experience and feature list that could turn the destination with a buzzing community on par with the Apple discussion forums.

8) Branding: Aside from the domain name and the banner at the top, has inherited very little of Slicehost's branding and corporate color scheme. It feels a like a very different experience to both Slicehost's Twitter account and their home page.

9) Ease of Use: isn't something that's easy for other brands to get started with - there's lots of clicks, DNS editing, sign-up forms, and configuration - when really it should be as simple as tweeting a URL.

10) Adoption: Slicehost shouldn't be the only company using this approach to customer support but their usage of needs to be packaged in a way that articulates the value proposition and makes it easy to purchase.

This is where Nurph comes in.

Nurph Channels provide a Twitter-based, real-time conversation platform that fixes the issues outlined with Slicehost's current customer support combination of Twitter and If @Slicehost was tweeting instead of they would gain the following benefits (and so will you):

1) Identity: Nurph is all about the Twitter users - so rather than simply dealing with a new user with only a fresh "nickname" and no reputation system and additional information attached, every user in a Nurph Channel makes the jump with their Twitter reputation in tow. This saves Twitter users from having to type out a nickname every single time they join in. A ton of useful information is lost in the transition from Twitter to, but with Nurph Channels you can see each users' Followees, Followers, latest tweets, home page URL, 160 character bio, and so much more.

2) User Experience: Twitter and feel completely unrelated in terms of user-experience, but Nurph Channels are built specifically for Twitter and subsequently make much more sense for Twitter-based group chat and customer support. @Anywhere integration, @username auto-complete, Follow links, tweet-streaming - you name it, Nurph's got it.

3) Conversation Archives: Nurph Channels build up a conversation archive which are accessible companies and their customers. If your company had a thriving discussion forum you wouldn't hide it away and delete all the past threads would you? Apple has one of the best discussion forum communities on the Web, and it's a fantastic resource for both the company and the customers - now Nurph gives you a more advanced tool discussion tool that's built for the social Web of 2011.

4) Conversation Sharing: The daily conversation archives on URLs Nurph make it easy to share conversations. Had a conversation in Nurph that you'd like to share on Twitter? Just tweet the link!

5) Keyword Search: Keyword search is baked right in to Nurph. Need to refer back to a past conversation? Just search for a word you can remember and you'll be reading through the conversation transcript in no time.

6) Private Messaging: Nurph uses Twitter's Direct Message feature, so hey presto - you have instant private messaging without the need to share contact detail in public, or to find back channel workaround (as is the case with

7) Community Building: Nurph Channels encourage participation and community building via tweets, retweets, and the fact that people feel more connected with other participants in the chat room who have long-standing Twitter identities than they do with random nicknames with no persistent identity. Customers are more likely to chat to one another when they see a profile picture, a bio, a link to a home page, and lots, lots more information. This helps to cultivate a real-time discussion forum style setting, and it might also lead to conversations that are extended outside your own Nurph Channel.

8) Branding: Nurph Channels are styled with the customisations you've already made to your Twitter profile. So not only do you have zero extra work to do to get a Nurph Channel up & running, you also get a Channel that fits right in to your coporate colors.

9) Ease of Use: It's incredibly easy to get started with Nurph. Just tweet a link to we do do the rest.

10) Adoption: Nurph is focusing on a real-time Twitter Channel offering that is packaged in completely different and much more approachable way than Our goal is for every company who's using Twitter to also have a Nurph Channel.

By combining the tried & tested customer support chat room approach used by Slicehost with the widely adopted Twitter identity platform, Nurph Channels can revolutionise your customer support and give you a destination in which to channel your Twitter community. So if you're using a Twitter account to communicate with your customers, tweet a link to your Nurph Channel and start connecting with your customers in real-time, nurturing the community, and building the conversation archives. It's all about the conversation.