By Kerry Bridge, Social Media Manager, Global MB Dell Marketing

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have meant the voice of the consumer has never been more powerful. Product and service issues are no longer behind-closed-doors affairs confined to the call centre, but can be aired publicly to huge audiences of potential customers. As a result, a company’s reputation is far more vulnerable and increasingly customer service forms a key part of the way your company is viewed.

Many larger businesses have been quick to realise that customers’ comments online can’t be ignored and have taken immediate steps to engage directly with them on forums and across social media channels. For example Dell launched a centralised Twitter account in 2010 — @DellCares — with the express purpose of helping customers in distress and has connected directly with more than 10,000 customers.

But any sized company can apply the principles of a successful customer service strategy via social media:

1. Choose the right medium: Before creating a forum for customer support it’s vital to evaluate your target market to determine which social media channels are most likely to reach them. Twitter provides a great opportunity for engaging one-to-one with the people talking about your brand, product or services while Facebook provides an effective means of connecting with your community members. Support forums and discussion boards also offer a way to connect your customers with experts but it’s crucial to find the right channel for your demographic.

2. Centralise your approach: Have a centralised tweeting process to ensure success and prevent confusion within your company. Make sure you have social media guidelines in place to help employees with their online interactions.

3. Personalisation is key: Social media provides a great opportunity to make your customer support more personable and give it a human face which in turn can help build customer trust. But it’s important to bear this in mind when engaging with customers. Let your customer know they are hearing from a person rather than a robot. Headshots and initials help customers know who they’re talking to.

4. It’s a group effort: Providing customer support through social media requires collaboration between customer service, marketing and product development to address an array of different problems. In order to respond effectively to issues via social media, it’s important that your customer service team is trained on your company’s brand messaging and your overarching customer experience strategy. If responses aren’t in line with your brand’s wider goals, it may create confusion and could impact customer satisfaction and retention.

5. Social media is a supplement, not a replacement: Social media won’t replace conventional support tools. It provides a way for businesses to connect with customers in real-time in the places where they’re already having conversations. While Twitter is great for finding customers and reaching out to them, the 140-character limit doesn’t allow for a fully detailed dialogue and it’s often necessary to migrate the conversations to a more appropriate medium. Once you’ve resolved the problem, always provide public closure on the original channel.

6. Define reponse process: While it’s important to send timely responses to complaints and questions posed on social media, not every problem needs to be addressed instantly. You have to take the time to understand the concern and think through a response to provide a working solution. That said, don’t forget to acknowledge the customer complaint and let them know that you’re working on resolving the issue. Keep them updated throughout the process and once the problem is resolved reach out the customer on the original social channel to ensure that they’re entirely satisfied. This illustrates that you care about your customers as people and not just about extinguishing negative public commentary on your brand.