Video may have killed the radio star, but technology hasn’t killed customer service. As non-profit organizations (NPOs) slowly begin to embrace social networking, there are still those who feel that using technology to interact with customers is impersonal and diminishes the level of service offered. Strictly relying on auto-generated responses when dealing with customers online is a bad idea, but used properly, social media can actually improve your interaction with clients.

Social media opens a new door for contact with donors and volunteers. While more traditional methods of direct mail, email marketing campaigns and face to face meetings aren’t going to be put out to pasture anytime soon, there is certainly room for new approaches. Creating social media profiles, blogs and chats, in addition to your website, opens up the possibility of delivering more information to more people in a succinct fashion.

Engaging in social media for nonprofits doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. Taking the time to post and tweet a couple times a day and keep an eye on what others are saying about you online can be very beneficial. Consumer use of social media is skyrocketing and the likelihood is that your customers are using it. When unhappy customers turn to social media to vent their frustrations it can have a snowball effect that leads to much bigger issues. If your NPO isn’t engaged in the conversation you could be missing an opportunity to rectify the problem. Speaker and author Sam Davidson’s blog about the Red Cross exemplifies this point.

Davidson wrote a blog in December titled, “Why I’m Breaking up with the Red Cross.” In the blog he discusses the absolute lack of customer appreciation exhibited by the organization on multiple occasions and why he finally had to say enough was enough. He goes as far as to say that he will no longer donate to the Red Cross but that he will be donating his blood to a named organization. The very next day Davidson wrote a follow up blog titled, “The Red Cross is Listening (An Update).” Turns out his blog had stirred up quite a bit of online conversation among people. Those people happened to include Red Cross employees, which came to the organization’s defense. The Red Cross went a step further and reached out to Davidson via Twitter and email to discuss the situation. It made a huge impact and quite possibly saved the organization from losing many donors.

The fact that the Red Cross was active online and in social media allowed them to catch wind of Davidson’s blog and the controversy it was stirring up about the organization. Because of that they were able to react quickly, neutralize the problem and recover beautifully. There’s nothing impersonal about the way social media aided their customer service.

While responding to customer service situations is one way to use social media, being proactive is even better. Something as simple as using a blog to answer some of the most frequently asked questions of your organization not only helps current donors and volunteers, but attracts new ones. By providing the answer before the question is even asked, potential donors are given a sense of security that the NPO knows their audience and anticipates their needs. That effort in and of itself goes a long way toward cultivation and customer satisfaction. Having an archived set of blogs also provides substance for customers seeking information.

Moving away from long telephone wait times, companies are beginning to utilize new technology and offer customers the opportunity to chat with a representative online. Most NPOs don’t have the manpower to implement technology like that. What NPOs can do, however, is host online chats at specific times on a weekly or monthly basis. Twitter chats are gaining popularity and are a great way for NPOs to connect with current and potential volunteers. Using hashtags you can create a stream of conversations for people to follow and join. Neal Schaffer’s article What is a Twitter Chat gives you a good introduction to learning more about what they are and how to join one, while Mashable’s article “HOW TO: Start and Run a Successful Twitter Chat” walks you through the process of setting up and hosting a chat on Twitter. Chats give you an outlet to address concerns, answer questions and brainstorm great new things on the horizon for your organization.

As with any technology, social media has its limitations within customer service. While it’s a great tool to help cultivate relationships, dispense information, and keep an eye on what’s being said about your NPO, you need to know when it’s time to take it offline. Sometimes addressing a concern face to face is still the best approach. It’s also important for nonprofits to realize they can’t respond to every complaint launched at them online. Determining where your efforts will make a difference and improve your customer interaction is key to maximizing ROI. It’s all about the balance of knowing what your audience needs and where to find them.