One of the most difficult forces to fight against in a service-oriented business is commoditization, or the reduction of comparison shopping to price alone. Who’s cheapest is a decision-making process we default to when something is too complex for us to understand. For example, if you know nothing about web hosting, then your decision will likely be swayed by whoever has the lowest price tag.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could make a choice based on things that matter to you? For example, in web hosting, server technology is more or less the same across the board. Bandwidth costs are more or less the same, especially when you’re talking about the low end of the market. What really matters to the average small business or personal web site owner? Price is still a factor, of course, but service tops most people’s lists. If my site goes down, what do I do? Who do I call? How can someone help me fix it in a timely manner?

In the days before social media, there was no simple, fast way to do this. You relied solely on word of mouth or reviews written by people you didn’t know or trust. Today, however, you can test this for yourself very quickly, easily, and fairly publicly. Today, in just a few minutes of time and work, you can comparison shop on service and get reliable results using social media.

Here’s an experiment I did as an example. I went around to the various hosting companies I could find on Twitter and gathered up their Twitter handles. Next, I headed over to FutureTweets and scheduled one tweet to each of them asking, “If I were hosting a site with you and had a problem RIGHT now, would you help in the middle of the night?”

Christopher Penn (cspenn) on Twitter

Initially, I had thought I scheduled them all for 1:38 AM, but I missed a time zone setting and they fired off at 1:38 AM GMT, or 7:38 PM ET. Still, that’s a period of time when I like someone be listening and fixing my problems.

Our contestants in this little exercise were @westhost, @spiralhosting, @site5, @mediatemple, @justhost, @hostway, @hostgator, @hostdime, @dreamhost, @bluehost, and @asmallorange.

In order of response time:

  • @mediatemple: 2 minutes.
  • @dreamhost: 4 minutes.
  • @hostdime: 15 minutes.
  • @site5: 17 minutes.
  • @asmallorange: 74 minutes.
  • @spiralhosting: 11 hours.

No response from the others yet 12 hours later.

mediatemple (mediatemple) on Twitter

If I were shopping around for web hosting and one of my primary concerns was service and how quickly I could get a response if I was having trouble, I’d have a pretty definitive answer for myself. Are there plenty of good hosting companies that aren’t listening to Twitter? Probably. Is this a fair test of them? To me it is, but only because I invest a lot of time in social media, so it’s one of my preferred methods of communication. I’d rather do business with companies in the same space as me if possible. Most important, I would pay more for great service.

The lesson for companies here is that if you’re going to use social media, it can’t be a half-assed effort. As Yoda quipped, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Listening to Twitter and responding costs time, employee resources, and a functional Internet connection. If you’re going to be in social media, be here when people need you the most. Food for thought: for the 5 companies that didn’t respond within 12 hours, have they basically wasted all their marketing dollars since, if this were a true purchasing decision, they would no longer be in the running no matter how much they spent on marketing?

The lesson here for everyone isn’t who is the best hosting company in terms of service. If these tweets had gone out as scheduled at 1:38 AM ET, the results probably would be different. The lesson here is that social media provides you with another set of tools you can use to make decisions based on things you actually care about. These tools are available to everyone, to you, and if you make use of them, you’ll get better results than trying to guess what all the features on an endless supply of marketing collateral mean.

What do you think? Was this a fair test to you? Would you have done it differently? Will you try it the next time you’re making a purchase where service is important?

p.s. I’m glad to see that the companies I do business with currently were ones who responded in a timely manner. Thanks @mediatemple and @asmallorange!

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