In today’s Yelp and social media-saturated world, online reputation management is paramount to success. This is particularly true for Twitter, where even one negative tweet can instantly go viral if left unmitigated.

But there’s good news. Social media also provides the unique opportunity to surprise and delight your customers by responding to their messages in real time. A brand detractor can become a promoter with the right response.

Recently, Software Advice, a research consultancy, conducted an experiment to see which of the nation’s top 14 brands take advantage of this opportunity to manage their reputation on Twitter. The project called “The Great Social Customer Service Race” tested whether or not these top companies respond to negative and positive mentions about their brand.

Rules of the race

For the race, myself and three of my coworkers used our personal Twitter handles to send one tweet to each brand every weekday for four weeks. We timed how long it took each company to respond and the percentage of total messages that received a response.

We also did an evaluation regarding the quality of the responses. Were they robotic? Did they really answer the question, or did they just send a general link that left us digging for the best answer? Did they try and build rapport?

Three social media technology developers independently evaluated our questions to ensure they were queries the companies should respond to. They fell into one of five buckets: negative, positive, urgent (purchase happening now), FAQ and technical (likely needing more than one tweet to answer).

Overall, it’s clear that at least some of these companies realize the value in engaging on Twitter. We had several instances of brands responding in less than 15 minutes and continuing the conversation past one tweet. Also, several times one company would retweet the interaction, realizing the chance to market a positive interaction.

On the flip side, several of the companies didn’t respond at all, while a competitor did. Particularly in the banking segment, I received several tweets from outsiders suggesting I use a different institution. Even when we used keywords like “angry” or “#fail” we didn’t receive a response. This is a huge misstep and a potential online brand management disaster.

Below, you’ll find several lessons we learned along the way, along with an infographic on how each company performed in their industry bracket.

Lessons on interacting with your market on Twitter

Don’t Leave Us Hanging

Despite winning the matchup for response rate and time to respond, Coca-Cola committed a big error when one reply came four days after the question was sent. Taking four days to respond to a straightforward question “is basically the same as not replying at all,” says Anna Drennan, the marketing manager for social listening software Conversocial. Especially when you consider most customers expect a response within a maximum of two hours.

Instead, if your agent knows the response will take longer, or needs to be escalated, they should use a placeholder. For example “I’m looking into this now! I will get back pronto! – AV.”

Track Important Keyword Triggers

Customers that tweet requests on Twitter are seeking instant gratification. For companies that receive thousands of mentions a day, it’s impossible to expect them to catch everything, but businesses should have a system for picking out the most important messages. During the race, many of the participants missed messages that indicated huge risk of switching brands, or high purchase intent.

Social CRM programs allow users to customize prioritization rules with things like keyword identifiers, social clout and customer history. So a company could, for example, make sure a tweet with “help,” “mad,” “#fail,” “thank you” and the brand name, is moved to the front of the service queue.

Be Human

Customer service expert, best-selling author and speaker Micah Solomon told me recently that being human in your engagements with customers on Twitter is one of the most important considerations. Twitter is a social platform, your responders need to talk and act like they would interact with their real friends and family.

Listen for Your Brand, @ or No @

There was a huge disparity during the race for messages with the @ and those without. Certainly brands shouldn’t insert themselves in someone else’s conversation, but these interactions also provide an opportunity for the company to express proactive customer service. These interactions increase the likelihood that the customer will share the interaction and refer your brand to friends.

Social Support Still Not the Norm

When I started this project, I assumed that if any company was ahead in the social customer service game, it would be a major brand from this group. Whether the issue is one of strategy or technology, brands are still far from meeting customers’ expectations on Twitter.

Infographic: The Great Social Customer Service Race

photo by: wharman