When customers are unhappy with your products or service, who hears about it first?  Probably not you: many customers head to the keyboard to air their gripes on Twitter and Facebook after a bad customer service experience.  Who can blame them: if your phone or in-person support failed once, why should they waste time trying again?  Poor social media publicity is an early warning alert that something's amiss with a company's customer service.

That sort of bad publicity can be devastating.  Research in 2009 found that just "one bad Tweet" or other social media post could cost a company 30 customers. Social media is even more popular now and businesses ignore it at their own peril. 

Unfortunately, many seem to be in peril: a 2012 Stanford University study found that, while many top executives claim to see value in social media, their interest isn't "translating into systemic use at their companies."  Less than a third of companies monitor social media to detect risks to their business activities and half of companies don't collect any summary information or metrics from their social media activity.

Turn enemies into evangelists

In spite of a few well-publicized PR disasters, social media can have a positive effect on a company's relationship with customers – and potential customers.  A company must be responsive to criticism and complaints.  Silence and stonewalling just doesn't work in communication channels that are based on personal communication and quick responses.

Bob Garfield, who publicized his dissatisfaction with Comcast in 2007 with the Web site "Comcast Must Die," says his effort paid off for him personally and for others who shared their complaints with the company at his site.  Even the company benefited, he noted:

"Comcast learned that they could immediately convert people," Garfield says. "When they flew into Comcast Must Die and took care of people, those people became instant converts—you can turn your enemy into an evangelist in a five-minute phone call."

Blogger Heather B. Armstrong took her dissatisfaction with Maytag's customer service to Twitter and urged her million followers to boycott Maytag.  It got her an instant response from the manufacturer and even an offer of a free washer and dryer from Maytag competitor, Bosch.

In both cases, the angry customers first tried to resolve their complaints the old-fashioned way: by phone and email.  Their reward was the frustration of dealing with opaque phone systems, endless waits on hold, and recalcitrant customer service reps. Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo noted the lackluster nature of many customer service departments: "The companies seem to notice something's gone wrong only after you broadcast your complaint to the world."

Proactive customer service is the best strategy

Social media has become an important early indicator of customer service problems and failures because too many companies are failing to effectively monitor their own service levels.  In many call centers, representatives are graded on how quickly they get a customer off the phone, not how effectively they resolve the customer's issue. Similarly, a company that focuses too much on its online reputation risks allowing more traditional forms of customer service, like phone and email support, to languish.

Oh, the irony!   While some companies ignore social media entirely, other obsess about protecting their online brand while ignoring other channels. They're inadvertently training customers to publicize complaints online instead of first trying to resolve them with company staffers.  This places a company in the uncomfortable position of reacting to criticism because it hasn't proactively invested in efficient and effective customer service. 

Even as social media becomes an important channel for two-way communication, many customers will still pick up the phone when they have a problem.  The reality of telephone customer support is that some of those callers will be put on hold.  Use this time to provide value to customers by offering product information, answering frequently asked questions, and providing alternative ways to get information, such as the company Web site. Strategic on-hold messaging and marketing can serve as an ambassador for a company while callers wait for a service representative to answer the line.

Social media gives good companies a chance to shine.  Thrill your customers with outstanding customer service and you won't have to grovel when they diss you on Twitter and Tumblr.

Good, proactive customer service through all channels isn't just a better way to protect your bottom line.  Out in the new frontier of social media, it's the only way.