11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Press 5 for Customer Service When You Can Twitter?

A few weeks ago, while having issues with my cable service, Comcast became my rightful target for a string of disapproving tweets. They didn't go unnoticed. "@ComcastBill" responded to my complaints, and asked if there was any way he could help. I did not seek his advice or counsel, but a survey around the blogosphere vouches for his legitimacy. ComcastBill's offer of help came on the heels of another from one of my Facebook acquaintances, also an employee of Comcast.

Social media portals are changing the ways in which companies are doing business, thanks to one-on-one interactions between consumers and employees, either within or outside the professional sphere. There is no denying that big corporations, including the telecommunications giant, are successfully using Twitter to respond to customer concerns and grievances. Gone are the days of merely using Internet monitoring and public surveys to find out what consumers want. Today, all retailers have to do is "listen" to conversations on social networks.

That social media are catching on in the business world is clear from Business Week's recent list of 50 CEOs on Twitter, from Virgin Atlantic's garrulous Richard Branson to the very influential Kevin Rose, founder of Digg.

It is not merely about having a presence on social media, however. Some companies use Twitter to simply send out a deluge of messages about products and services. Launching a Twitter page and letting the technology fend for itself is not what social media is about. Companies have to invest time, resources and personnel in order to do social networking right.

As Soren Gordhamer writes in this post on Mashable, businesses would do well to start embracing Twitter to increase accessibility and add a personal touch to their consumer interactions. And it works both ways. Customers can spread the word about both their good and bad experiences to hundreds of followers in an instant. This further emphasizes the need for corporations to address issues in real time.

Little wonder, then, that some CEOs are surveying the Twittersphere, and directly responding to people's tweets about their company's products. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, which was recently acquired by Amazon, is a great example of this, known as he is to personally respond to tweets from his over 1 million followers. This is also a great way for smaller companies to establish their brands. That's how Loic Le Meur, CEO of software startup Seesmic, reinforces his commitment to consumer interaction.

The important thing about Twitter use by these CEOs is that it is clear they are not just tweeting to push their products or applaud their companies. Their tweets about consumer goods come interspersed with those about the wines they like and the television shows they watch. Why do I care if Tony Hsieh plans to run 12 miles today? Quite simply, personal touch. This merely shows the human face behind the company, and increases trust and authenticity. It would be appropriate here to make a distinction between "prosumer tweeters," such as Hsieh, who tweet as individuals on behalf of a company, and brand tweeters, such as Comcast, whose employees predominantly use Twitter as a channel to serve customers.

Regardless of the purpose, interactivity is paramount. While Dell is best known to have promoted its sales on Twitter and amassed $3 million in revenue in the process, its Twitter page is mostly filled with @replies to customer questions. It also seeks suggestions and ideas for new products.

Another important aspect is content. Content in a 140-character tweet, you ask? Some of the most successful businesses on social media post tweets linking to material (preferably on their own Web sites) that their follower base would find interesting. A classic example is Whole Foods, which links to informative articles about healthy eating and organic lifestyles through its Twitter page.

Twitter is also a great channel to transmit real-time information that might affect customers, especially in the case of companies that provide services. For instance, Comcast used Twitter to communicate news of a power outage that had caused loss of transmission during a Stanley Cup playoff game in April.

While many businesses allocate specific PR personnel to manage their Twitter pages, the most successful tweeting companies, notably Zappos, have a freewheeling approach to social networking. Employees are allowed to tweet under the company's umbrella, and there are no set guidelines, which really is in keeping with the general philosophy of social media.

This distributed nature of online communication also means that bad news about a company is going to circulate as quickly as good news, as Starbucks found recently, when its Twitter ad campaign was seized by film director Robert Greenwald to spread word about the company's own anti-labor practices.

However, as with everything else Web 2.0, transparency and authenticity win out in the end. Organizations that are opening up their businesses to social networks are doing better and better with customers. This is more important now than it has been in the past, as people place higher priorities on customer service when purse strings are tighter.

Social media portals allow endless channels of communication. As long as businesses can find creative ways to use them, the possibilities, too, are endless.