Ringing a call centre to speak to a customer service operator is fast becoming an arcane practice. Research tells us that almost three quarters (72%) of consumers would rather sort out a query online than speak to someone over the phone about it – and for many of them, that means hitting their social media profile.

Since Facebook’s inception little over ten years ago, this – along with a number of newer social media channels – has grown and developed at a rapid rate. These platforms are connecting people like never before; thanks to Twitter, the humble hashtag has emerged as an unlikely hero in a kind of ‘filing system’ by which users can quickly identify each other based on common grievances. And one re-tweet from the right celebrity or public figure can see content propelled to stardom itself. If a brand fails to respond appropriately, that content could be reputation damaging.

But despite the fact that consumers are clearly empowered by these emerging technologies, the rise of social media is not something to be feared by brands. On the contrary, implemented correctly, communication via social media can be as much a marketing tool as a customer service channel.

– Customers expect brands to be around
According to a US study from 2012, two thirds of social media users expect to receive a response from brands within one day. Of these, 50% want to hear back within at least half an hour. The same study also found that over half of customers expect the same response rate whatever time of day or night they register their query or complaint.

It’s clear that there’s now an expectation for brands to be switched on at all times. Proving this to be the case is Dutch-based KLM Airlines, who pioneered 24/7 social media monitoring in the air travel market. Not only do they carry out constant monitoring of their channels, but they boast a much quicker response time than their peers according to a tnooz report. This airline currently sees around four times the level of engagement of its competitors on Facebook.

If brands can put themselves in the right place all of the time, whilst embracing the informal nature of social media, customer service can become a much more personal, productive and enriching experience for both parties.

– Take positive action
And it’s not just your brand’s profile you need to be vigilant about. It’s important to bear in mind that when people talk about a brand, they won’t necessarily do it directly. For example, if somebody’s unhappy with the quality of product they’ve bought from ASDA, it might be too much hassle to call up to complain or return the item to store – but they could well have a grumble about it online. And this can be more damaging.

We’ve already mentioned the impact of social media as an effective broadcasting tool, so the last thing you want to do as a brand is let negative commentary go unchecked. Search functions across social channels make monitoring brand names easy, so if somebody is complaining indirectly about your company, you need to be sure you intervene to give a negative situation a happy ending.

– Cultivate insight to get ahead
As well as monitoring their own brand, savvy marketers should keep a weather eye on the wider market. If there’s demand for a specific product that nobody’s catering for, it pays to be the first to know so you can consider the possibility of closing any gaps in the market or refining your products and services so they’re a better match for the target consumer.

Likewise, consumer involvement in the product development process can be greatly facilitated by social channels. Last year, ASDA did this in conjunction with soft drinks brand RC Cola, who wanted to launch a special Hallowe’en edition of their cola product. ASDA social media fans responded to a Facebook competition asking for brand name suggestions, resulting in ‘Dracola’ being selected. This not only received tenfold more engagement than the average ASDA status, but it was a great product awareness exercise.

Dracola ASDA social media

For any salesman, understanding who you sell to is the most important tool in your kit. Savvy monitoring on Twitter and Facebook can unlock unprecedented potential for those who seek it.

– Parting shot
In the connected world, almost 80% of consumers report that their purchasing decisions are based on peer-to-peer word of mouth, whilst only 14% base their purchase on advertisements. This in mind, it’s difficult to overstate how valuable positive feedback is. Given the sheer popularity and scale of social media, it’s easy to see why this is becoming much less of an option for brands and far more a necessity.

In the words of social media guru Dennis Stoutenburgh: “if you’re not engaging customers during the entire product life cycle through social media, you’re missing out. Because someone else will be.”