By Laura Edwards, Head Of aSocialMediaAgency.co.uk

If video killed the radio star, then what is the internet doing to retail customer service? In our eyes, it is helping, but hey, we are kinda biased; we love the social side and think it suits nearly every type of business.

First and foremost, as a small business owner, one of the best ways in which you can out-fox your bigger competitors is via excellent customer service and social media is one of your biggest tools for this.

Social media platforms, and let's be honest, for most small and medium sized enterprises (SME's) these will be Facebook, Twitter and maybe LinkedIn, are a great vehicle for shouting about satisfied customers, quickly fixing the rare disgruntled customer tweet or Facebook post, and even identifying new customer opportunities via careful monitoring.

By the time a large company has applied its social media process, got legal sign off for a tweet and then thoroughly investigated the potential pitfalls of their social media message an SME can have fired of a whole day's worth of social media messaging and reaped the obvious rewards. You need to harness your ability to react first, react fast and react with style (everyone remembers someone with a bit of pizazz).

Not every large company is slow though, in fact, we can learn from some of the bigger players who have had success via social platforms. Dell reported that they made $6.5m worth of sales via Twitter alone in 2009 and (for transparency reasons I should declare: our own client) MyVoucherCodes generated £24.1m in sales for their partners in 2009 via Facebook and Twitter. This equated to an impressive 12% of its total revenue for 2009.

With the above examples in mind, why not take a look at the social media tactics that your competitors are deploying in the social arena and then cherry-pick the areas that can work the best for your own business?

Another reason that we love social media channels is the fact that you can quickly and easily road test new product and service ideas.

The likes of Twitter and Facebook are platforms that facilitate immediate feedback from cold audiences, along with your own communities. You can utilise these to see if that new product or service idea that you all came up with during a wine-based team building event actually has legs.

This kind of research is not just limited to products and services though. Social media channels, especially Twitter, give you real-time and immediate access to influencers and journalists in your sector.

You should be following these types of people, along with using "hashtags" for key media phrases such as "journorequest". Of course, if phrases like "hashtag" and "journorequest" are making you think; "What are you going on about Edwards?" then maybe it could be time for some research into social media training. There are lots of people about who can help. Cough, hi.

Finally, one of the best things about social media is the fact that brands can build up a network of "ambassadors" from their online communities.

These are probably going to be customers who absolutely love what you do; love your products, love your approach and more importantly, won't have a bad word said about you.

In the unlikely event that something negative happens online, your ambassadors can be a great way to turn this situation around.

Quite often the ambassadors will say the type of things that you want to say, but that the "customer is always right" mantra prevents you from saying.

They are also perfect for testing new product ideas, as mentioned above, but remember, they are in love with you and your brand so their feedback may not always be unbiased.
This last point leads me nicely on to the one area that us social media folk forget to say. Social Media platforms are not actually fully mainstream yet. Many in business rave about tweetbooking our facespaces, but the average consumer in the street may not actually be on Twitter or Facebook and you need to keep this in mind when thinking about your marketing.

An idea that may work on a social platform may not work so well for those not using the web. This reinforces the point that you need to make sure you spread your marketing across as many offline and online formats as possible so you are not just reliant on one.

Laura Edwards heads up aSocialMediaAgency.co.uk, a new brand of social agency that actually concentrates on delivering a Return on Investment from a brands social activities.

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