Social media has the potential to kill bad customer service… or at least to level the playing field between brands and their consumers. Social media has made it possible for corporations to address customer concerns in real-time. Coincidentally, social media has also created a new standard to which these corporations are held. In some cases, a brand’s ability to pacify frustration on social media can trump other negative experiences like a bad in-store experience or an undelivered product.

Social platforms like Twitter facilitate a two-way conversation between brands and their followers. Recently, I used Twitter to try and solve a customer service issue with two separate clothing brands. The problem at each was the same: a missing clothing shipment. The outcome between the two, however, was vastly different. One, Brand Win, successfully used Twitter for customer service. The other, Brand Fail, failed miserably. Now I hold two completely polarized opinions about each brand. It’s also worth noting I discovered both brands on the same day and had no opinion of them prior to my experience.

Using my Twitter customer service experience with Brand Win and Brand Fail as a loose framework, let’s take a look at five keys to effective customer service on Twitter.

Move as fast as Twitter.

Twitter moves fast and brands on Twitter need to move equally fast. Brand Win successfully used social media for customer service. They promptly followed me and reached out via DM. Brand Fail took over a week to respond to my first tweet. Imagine calling a customer service hotline and being put on hold for a week. By that time, you’ve probably decided the frustration isn’t worth getting to use the product or service. There is a good chance you’ll look for (and probably find) a suitable replacement. Brands that do not respond to customer complaints on Twitter within the first 24 hours are asking for lost business. But hey, at least your competitors will thank you!

Avoid the social media cold shoulder.

As human beings, we crave interaction. Conversely, we hate being ignored. The same holds true for brands using Twitter for customer service. If a follower reaches out, respond! Complaints deserve to be addressed and can be figured out by DMing the Twitter user. Or, if a follower tweets praise at you, make them feel good by retweeting what they had to say! Ignore your users on Twitter and they’ll ignore you right back when it comes time to purchase in your category. Ouch!

Have a separate customer service account.

Maintaining good customer service on Twitter is important but you don’t want to dilute your brand’s messaging. Start a separate Twitter account for your brand that you can use to address customer complaints. Potential followers who visit your official brand page will be more likely to follow if they see that the content is sharable and not only customer service interactions. Also, this technique makes it easier for customers to get the answers they need more quickly.

Stay honest with your interactions.

Honesty on social media is key and consumers can tell when you’re lying. Brands using social media for customer service need to maintain a high level of honesty. If a Twitter follower sends a message asking about a product shipment that hasn’t left the warehouse, don’t tell them it shipped yesterday! When your social media promises go unfulfilled, you will lose followers and also the potential for sales in the future. For an example of a quick and successful social media customer service effort, check out this story on a delayed American Airlines flight.

Keep talking!

Even after you’re done solving the customer service issue, your work is still not done. Develop more brand loyalty by continuing the conversation with that particular Twitter user. By connecting with them after their initial customer service complaint, you’re proving to them that they are indeed important. Brand Win happened to be from my hometown of Pittsburgh. When we were done discussing my shipment issue, they even sent me a message about the Pittsburgh Pirates playoff appearance! Clearly, they took the time to check out my profile and connect with me on a personal level.

Thirsty for more of Eric’s social media marketing expertise? Go check out the DayFire blog and Follow Eric on Google+!