Every year the ad industry descends on Cannes, in the south of France, to hand out a few trophy cases of work for the best efforts of the year. In typical French fashion, the ad festival’s relationship with the real day-to-day business of marketing is flirting at best. That June week is a time for pink wine, pinker skin, long, sweaty nights of networking, and the celebration of big, flashy ad campaigns. Extended, careful rumination on marketing’s eternal questions — what makes people buy, or simply like, your brand — does not exactly flourish in that tropical sun.

One of those things that doesn’t get much attention is the hard business of customer service, something that changed this year that changed with the handing of the Titanium Lion Grand Prix to Best Buy and agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky for their work on Twelpforce. The program takes the business of customer service, so often confined to call centers located in the land of God knows where and the return counters in stores, and opens it up for all to see. Employing Twitter — hence the “Tw” — and open to hundreds of Best Buy employees who can tweet from a single account, it’s the mobilization of the retailer’s army of experts to deal with customer complaints or question as they’re expressed in real time.

After the award was handed down on Saturday, I spent some time with Twelpforce. What impresses isn’t that it does the yeoman’s job of answering reasonable questions about electronics and their components. In this day and age, that’s nothing special. What’s striking is how it’s equipped to handle even the shrillest consumer, the kind who, for better or worse, makes Twitter the giant bitch box that it is. These aren’t people who are particularly wired or famous, even in an internet kind of way. They have one qualification: They have been, or feel they hacve been, dicked around by Best Buy and they’ve decided to let loose in short form.

For instance, a Twitter user knowsn @heathrmichelle let loose this one:

@twelpforce Thanks again Best Buy & Geek Squad for the worst customer service. In store and on the phone. Again. When will we learn?


@twelpforce Thanks again Best Buy & Geek Squad for the worst customer service. In store and on the phone. Again. When will we learn?less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

This, to be sure, is not the stuff of big viral, antibrand campaigns. Heather has just 45 followers and her problem is too non-specific to merit a retweet. But that didn’t stop a Twelpforce agent from getting into a several Tweet exchange that resulted in the consumer sending a presumably detailed email to a complaint address. All this doesn’t make for a magic fix to the original in-store problem. Instead, it’s a way of at least funneling the often raw emotion that comes from being dicked-over in a commercial setting into something potentially positive.

Not too long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a major multinational brand like Best Buy worrying too much about these people. Even at the relatively late date of 2007, Bob Garfield, my former colleague at Advertising Age, was able to make hay — massive bales of it — by instigating a war against Comcast when it short-shrifted him on his home cable service and failed to respond. It was called “Comcast Must Die.” And despite that headline, the cable operator was stunningly non-responsive and it took some real doing to engage them.

Perhaps having learned from Comcast’s mistakes, Best Buy seems incredibly attuned to even the smallest, most ephemeral beefs. It’s hard to prove, but I think this personal attention matters. I recall maybe two years ago idly complaining about my own cable provider’s crappy website in a Tweet. Within a few minutes, I got a reply from an digital marketer there. At once he asked me what my problem was AND rightfully chided me a bit for being so lazy with my digital whinging. That reminder that a brand is really an assemblage of the work of real live people — who, you know, have bosses and feelings and all that –made me promise to myself to make my criticisms sharper and more meaningful.

By incorporating a large group of tech types, Twelpforce is a stab at scaling that sort of micromanaging of the customer relationship. I can’t sat whether it is or will regarded a success and some, especially those who these sorts of accounts should be handled by a small group of people, already regard it as a failure. If nothing else, Twelpforce is a move in the right direction, as an example of brands listening to their customers and thats’s where advertising needs to go. The Titanium recognition from Cannes, which is designed to award strong business ideas as opposed to ad conceits, should help people in the ad business further bring customer service into their purview.

Naturally, the concept has its critics, as this recent Tweet attests:


Still cannot believe that “twelpforce” won the Titanium lion. It’s as if the award has no meaning anymore. #canneslionsless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Naturally, there was a reply:


@GautamRamdurai I’m sorry you feel that way, we strive to provide the best service possible. via @Agent3321less than a minute ago via Twelpforce

Matt Creamer is executive editor of Breaking Media. You can follow him on Twitter at @matt_creamer.