Smart businesses (ahem Zappos) realized years ago that providing amazing customer service is an excellent tool for customer acquisition and retention rather than a profit-dampening expense that needs to be minimized at all costs.
The challenge for today's companies is that the nature of customer service is changing dramatically. The days where you could just set up a call center to field complaints and be done with it are over -- today's savviest companies aren't waiting for customers to come to them, they're going to where their customers are and engaging with them directly.
In fact, if you wait until someone calls you to let you know they're unhappy, in a way you've already failed.
Why would someone complain about a product on Twitter rather than contact the company directly? Well, decades of poor customer service have taught consumers that when they call to get help they're probably going to spend 20 minutes on hold, only to get the runaround from an ill-informed customer service rep who doesn't seem at all interested in solving their problem.
Is it any wonder that the first place someone turns when they have a problem is Facebook rather than an 800 number? If you don't think you're really going to get help, or that you only will if you make yourself enough of a pain, it's a lot easier and more gratifying to simply voice your complaint online.
That means actively monitoring social media, including blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, for mentions of your company and then reaching out whenever a customer complains or voices an issue. One company that has taken this thinking to heart and turned a lot of formerly irate customers into brand evangelists through smart social media engagement is Comcast, with their Comcastcares Twitter outreach. Headed up by Comcast's head of customer service Frank Eliason, Comcast's team of twitter reps actively seek out complaints about Comcast (i.e. searching for the word "comcrap") and try to help those frustrated individuals resolve their problems.
John Batelle did a great interview with the man behind Comcastcares, Frank Eliason, back in 2008 that shows just how much brand goodwill can be created from little pro-active tweeting.
My own personal experience with proactive customer service comes through Inhabitat's webhosting company Liquidweb. The Michigan-based webhosting company has amazing, bend-over-backwards, 24-hour customer service through almost every channel you can think of (something that you really need if you are a publisher running multiple websites). Not only do they have great 24-hour phone support, email support and IM support, but they do a similar style of proactive social media outreach as Comcast, where individual support reps seek out and answer comments / complaints / questions via twitter.
Pretty impressive for a company that is 1000 times smaller than Comcast (145 employees versus 100,000) As you can see from my above gushing, I can attest to the goodwill and desire to evangelize that can be created through great, proactive customer service.
Of course, it is more labor intensive for a company to provide this type of proactive service, and it means doing more than just fielding calls and running down a script, but it also gives your brand the opportunity to stop the spread of negative word-of-mouth in its tracks and get a customer who may have otherwise abandoned you to give you another chance. Keeping tabs on social media mentions of your brand also gives you a chance to get unvarnished feedback about your product or service that may not rise to the level of a call or email, but that will help you improve things and prevent future issues.