You may be aware of Twitter, the 140 character news and status channel where Twitterers around the world are over-sharing what they're doing. Hopefully you've already set up a business account and are actively using Twitter Search to mine for product and service mentions, and taking advantage of the platform as a customer service resource. If you're not, you're missing a huge opportunity to connect with an ever-growing population of consumers and professionals who respond well to Twittering companies with a purpose.
Here are 5 additional simple ways, some obvious and some obscure, to help small businesses leverage social media to provide stellar customer service. The social web is a place for everyone, but with the right tips, tricks and tools, savvy small businesses can redefine the nature of customer service.
1. Always Be in the Know
Ask any community, social media, or branding expert what you should do first, and every single one of them will tell you to listen. It may sound cliché, but the reality is that you need to understand the landscape of the space you're contributing to before you do anything else.
So, for a customer service strategy that leverages social media, the first thing you can and should do is set up a tracking and listening system that works for your business and hinges around mentions of your product, services, and those of your competitors.
Given that Twitter is just one of many places for mass social expression, you can't rely just on Twitter search services to do your work for you, though it definitely can help. You can grab the RSS feed for your favorite search queries from Twitter Search, or install TweetDeck, a Twitter desktop client, to keep an ever present eye on Twitter's always updating stream. Even if you're averse to tweeting, you should set up a few columns with custom search queries and filters for everything involving your business. You'll receive automatic notices every time there are new tweets that match your results.
Even if you do nothing more than read tweets, you'll start to learn a wealth of information about your product. Plus, if no one's talking about your product or service, you should be checking out broader searches related to your space. Let's say your product is a data analytics software for the enterprise, you need to be searching for more than just your product name and pinpoint what does get mentioned. Maybe it's a hot new online tool that does something similar, or a single person searching for data analytics software, finding the information that is getting talked about is the key.
You should also be doing everything in your power to keep up with the blogosphere. So find a reader you like, Google Reader and Netvibes both work well, and start subscribing to feeds related to your industry. You should also register an account with comment tracking site Backtype - it boils down to a Google Alerts service for comments. Even if you don't plan on leaving a single comment (which is a missed opportunity), Backtype is essential for keeping up with conversations happening in the blogosphere in the same vein as Twitter Search. Take the keywords you're tracking on Twitter and use them in Backtype for automated alerts. The service will send you an email with highlighted mentions of search terms as they happen, or on a daily or weekly basis.
You should also check out Yacktrack for comment search, Social Mention to query the entire social web, and Filtrbox for relevant and credible mentions of your company.
The bottom line with listening is to make the tools do the social media tracking for you, so you can have the information come to you as it happens.
2. Talk Back
This is the simplest method of customer service that's often underutilized. Now that you're using tools to stay in the know, you should invest time in using that information to put out customer service fires and address business related matters.
This isn't a blanket invitation to tweet your marketing material or trash a competitor in blog comments to make your business look better. The vocal contributions you make on behalf of your business should always be informative and helpful; otherwise they appear spammy and will ultimately make your company look bad.
Simple, honest, and straightforward responses on social platforms like Twitter, FriendFeed, and blogs is always the right way to go, especially if you're responding to something negative about your company or your product. Make it clear that you're open to helping, make your contact information available, and always be genuine.
3. Get creative
Once you have the basics covered, you can start experimenting with outside the box customer service ideas. Since the point is to connect with customers, your social media customer service strategy should be a natural extension of your business, so feel free to get innovative but just do so in ways that make sense for your business.
To get creative, take inspiration from the best and make the ideas your own. A number of big brands like Southwest, Jet Blue, Zappos, Starbucks, and Ford have turned to Twitter for offering impressive customer service and providing Twitter-only deals. Watch what they're doing if you need ideas, but what you'll notice about each big business doing it right is that they aren't afraid to take risks.
One small business trying something incredibly cool is Pelotonics. Their product is an online project management solution that competes with more well known products like Basecamp. They're using Ustream.tv to broadcast PeloTV, accessible from the website, which is their simple way of always making themselves available to their customers. With just a web cam, a desktop sharing camera tool (like CamTwist), and Ustream, Pelotonics is giving every single customer and prospect the opportunity to engage with them live during business hours. In this particular example it's less about views/recognition and more about value, so even though the channel only gets a few concurrent viewers at a time, Troy Malone, Pelotonics founder, is there for real-time product demos and customer support issues.
If you aren't ready to make yourself available via live web cam, you can try less intrusive options like setting up a product support or FAQ room in FriendFeed, or use Seesmic to record and share daily product tips. Did you know that the Chargers streamed press conferences live via Mogulus this past season? You could try something similar and stream live information-rich conversations using your phone via Qik, Kyte, or Flixwagon. Plus, pretty soon 12seconds.tv will have support for real-time rooms, which means you could encourage and promote live short-form video conversations with customers, clients, and fans.
With the state of social media these days, your options for original customer service are pretty much endless.
4. Do Your Research
When your customers are your clients and you have a sales or lead driven business, stellar customer service goes hand-in-hand with how much you know about each client and their individual needs. Thankfully, you can harness the social web for timely information that can keep you educated about your clients, their companies, and all related news items.
For this purpose, take a look at Gist, a free web-based tool in private beta for power networkers. Essentially the site combines your email communications, your Outlook calendar, and your Facebook and LinkedIn connections to give you a view of your contacts like no other. Each contact and each company has its own profile-like view within Gist that includes contact info, news mentions, email exchanges, and other related data so sales and marketing types can effortlessly research leads and existing clients to better cement important relationships.
5. Share Everything
Now that you're in the know, you're chiming in on related conversations, you're thinking outside the box, and doing your homework, it's the right time to start talking about what you're doing on your blog (try WordPress), on Twitter, at conferences and events, and anywhere else that makes sense.
The point of sharing everything is to make your customers, clients, partners, friends, and even competitors aware that you're always accessible, that you're learning from your mistakes, that you want to involve and encourage community participation, and that you're doing all this with the same enthusiasm and passion that motivated you to start your business in the first place.
So what should you share? Share the big wins like new product releases, new partners, new hires, and the like. Share the bumps in the road, like why your site was down for a few hours, or why you can't implement a commonly requested feature. Share answers to frequently asked questions. Even share the products and services that make your life easier.
While doing all of this sharing, make sure that you're asking for a response as well. You won't get comments or responses unless you ask for them, or you're doing something terribly wrong. So ask for help, ask for feedback, and ask for advice on how to improve your products and your customer service efforts. And when you get answers, highlight the people and companies that are helping you. Give them credit, thank them, make them feel acknowledged, and they're likely to share the experience with their friends both online and off.