The phone next to Tumelo Komape does not stop vibrating as we sit talking in the City of Johannesburg’s Braamfontein headquarters. This man in a plum-coloured suit is the city’s (in)famous TK, the man in charge of the city’s Twitter account.
In April 2013, the account – which deals with residents’ queries and complaints, and broadcasts information – had less than 4 000 followers. Today, that number sits at almost 110 000, with about 9 000 new followers each month.
TK, who has been with the city since December 2012 when he came on board as a webmaster, says that in 2013, “10% of the time, we were responding to customers. About 80% of the time, we were pushing messages – which is the behaviour of many government departments. In 2014, 82% was conversation and engagement, with 18% being one-directional messages.”
He gets animated when he talks about the Twitter stats, sitting up straight, hands tightening on the laptop in front of him. “Our focus is a 100% response rate, not only on a monthly basis, but on a daily basis,” he says.
“In the first quarter of 2015, from January to March, we were sitting at a 99% response rate to every tweet that comes in, and the exciting thing about this stat is that it … [includes] public holidays and Sundays.” Within 12 hours, “we still do 99% … within six hours, it’s 96%”, he says. About 84% of tweets are responded to in an hour, and 74% in 30 minutes.
“That 74% shows that sometimes we are offline because we’re sleeping or in church or whatever the case,” TK says.
Until March this year, the city’s social media team comprised TK and his colleague Ntombi Blaai, until “we recruited one of our colleagues to assist us in the realm of social media. That’s because our numbers started growing and we were under pressure, and we had targets to make and we had a lot of tweets coming in.
“People don’t realise that this is only one of the jobs we do,” TK says, adding that the team also manages the Pikitup account, the intranet and a number of other communication channels within the city.
“We’ve also created forums within [all] the city depot managers – City Water depot managers, City Power area managers, social media around the city. We have a virtual office where we can chat any time.
“If you send me an issue, I’m able to send it to a depot manager on WhatsApp and say: ‘What’s happening?’ and they give me feedback.”
TK acknowledges that it is a “very, very stressful environment”, being the interface between the council and its residents, but that his four years as a call centre agent trained him for the task and, most importantly, not to take people’s complaints personally.
“I’ve learned since then never to take it [personally] and to understand where the customer comes from and always put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Imagine how you would feel, and understand that the customer has every right to be frustrated. They are paying for a service that they are not receiving at that time. You cannot take it personally … they are not swearing at you.”
And they swear often and loudly, often in capital letters.
TK – who has a journalism degree from the University of the Western Cape, studied music production and web design, and is currently studying software development – says he has been without electricity for 11 hours and understands how frustrating that can be.
“There are two approaches when I’m responding to you as a customer. There is a business process-driven response, which will say that: ‘This is the process for logging a call. Do one, two, three.’ But there’s also a customercentric response that says: ‘Hold on a second, the customer has had no power for 20 hours. How would you like to have been responded to if you were in that situation?’
“So instead of shouting the business process … I respond to the customer. I make sure … to appreciate the customer and make them feel that I really, really feel what he or she is going through … before I push the business process tweet to them.”
This empathy is part of what sees TK tweeting in the early hours of the morning or late at night. “I put myself in the customer’s shoes, and say to myself: ‘I have the platform here. I’m not restricted to assisting the customer at any time. I’m awake, so why can’t I help the customer [now]?'”
The strange hours that TK is online are aided by the fact that he and his fiancée have a three-month-old baby who he tries to get back to sleep while tweeting.
The 30-year-old says that growing up in the Limpopo village of Early Dawn Farm helped instil the work ethic that enables him to juggle his work, studies and family. “I grew up in a very rural area where we used to pick up water from the river; we used to plough. We grew up working really, really hard, waking up at 3am to go and look for our livestock. All those things that I [had] been doing within that 20-year period have actually helped me to get used to the lifestyle of working hard.”
But that does not stop irate customers for blaming him for problems with the city’s service delivery.
Asked about horrible tweets people have directed at him, TK takes a moment to think: “I remember [one of the meanest tweets I’ve received]: I was sitting on the couch on a Saturday. There was load-shedding that day.”
At the time, @cityofjoburgZA was helping @CityPowerJhb with its social media, he says. “Someone tweeted saying that we were ‘incompetent, we’ve had no power for such a long time. After load-shedding, the power didn’t come back and you guys are so incompetent.’ I had been sitting on my couch [for hours]. There were so many tweets that I couldn’t move.
“I was a bit frustrated, thinking: ‘Do you know how much effort I put in? I’m not claiming overtime for what I’m doing. It’s Saturday morning. I’m sitting on the couch and someone mentions that we are incompetent.’ For a second I took it personally.
“I sat and I started thinking: ‘The customer probably doesn’t know. He probably just jumped on Twitter and tweeted. He hasn’t looked at our timeline. He doesn’t know how much effort I’ve been putting into solving queries, and a lot of people don’t realise that there is a lot of background work. When you tweet, I don’t just reply. I go into action: I call someone, [if I’m at work] I run to another office, I send someone an email.”
Throughout our conversation, his hand keeps going to his cellphone, an involuntary reflex.
But when asked if he has a “Twitter problem”, he fervently denies it. “I can manage it very well. I am able to put my phone away, and play with my son.”