By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

Do you know more about your customers than your colleagues? In some very big companies, social media is not only being used to learn about ‘external’ customers but connect with the ‘internal client’. In a truly customer-centric business, the client should be regarded as part of the team.

Ovo Energy, winner of the Huawei Customer Focus Award in 2011, demonstrated an innovative approach by inviting a voluntary network of 260 'customer champions' to be consulted on decisions about service and new products. My Ovo, a customer online account management system, and Ovoview, an online customer newsletter, has enabled Ovo to act more quickly on feedback while building a customer community.

Social media is enabling a new kind of customer service, bypassing social barriers and hierarchies to create communities of interest. Facilitating more natural communication, it allows people to connect using their inner voice. And with so many ways for customers to connect, tone of voice has become a major differentiator.

During O2’s two-day network outage, new Twitter followers leapt from an average of 155 to 13,500 per day, according to wired.co.uk, which reported that a mass of mainly angry tweets reached an estimated 1.7million at the end of the first day. But, because of it’s now legendary response – combining wit, honesty and a human touch – it turned a crisis into a triumph. Not only did its customer service team respond quickly to all tweets, but it shared the pressure and the pain of the situation through banter – in a tone people could empathise with.

The triumph was in giving a big business a human voice. While O2’s response has been praised as a masterclass in social media, social commerce has proved to be successful because it empowers customers to talk to each other – recommending and referring products and services.

Richard Anson, founder of social commerce specialist Reevoo, claims that the addition of customer reviews results in an average 18 per cent increase in sales or converted leads, with consumers also spending around 2.5 times longer on site. He attributes this success to restoring the social element to buying and selling, reassuring through recommendation.

This was demonstrated by several National Business Award finalists and winners in 2011. Lovehoney, shortlisted for the Huawei Customer Focus Award, has become a market leader by empowering customers to review products and share experiences - not only building trust but helping them to map demand. Naked Wines, WorldPay Online Business of the Year, profiles customers’ purchase reviews for advice on what not to buy so they don’t waste their money.

It’s no coincidence that those seeing the greatest impact have invested in community management. Digital marketing specialist Econsultancy, winner of the Advansys Small Online Business of the Year award, recruited a dedicated Social Media Manager to increase its Twitter and LinkedIn activity while boosting its presence on Facebook. The result was a substantial increase in referred traffic.

Some companies are taking this to new levels by using social media to pre-qualify customers for random acts of kindness – not just to instil loyalty but turn them into brand advocates. Among some of the best examples are KLM’s ‘Surprise Team’ which gave tailored gifts to passengers on arrival based on their tweets – including one who was given a Lonely Planet Guide to New York with all of the football bars highlighted because he was going to miss a PSV Eindhoven game.

This act of kindness isn’t random, of course, and not fully altruistic either; it’s simply a new way of selling through customer service. Roger Philby, CEO of The Chemistry Group – winner of the BlackBerry Business Enabler of the Year in 2011 – believes clients’ value content far more than a relationship. “In these tough times content is king; it's not who you know but what you know that will make you competitive,” he says. “What's the insight you can share that will rock your client’s world?”

A link to a story about a client’s company, its competitor or something affecting its entire industry will show that you’re thinking about them - and may give them something to impress their internal clients as well.