There’s certainly not even a remote bit of controversy in saying that customers are truly the lifeblood that sustains the survival of businesses today. But are you doing everything you can to stay connected?

Once that relationship with the customer is solidified, you are there for them through thick and thin. You take all of their phone calls, meet in person to talk strategy, respond to emails on a dime, and do everything in your power to make sure they are happy and the relationships grow.

But you might be ignoring one incredibly important channel to connect with your customers in the 21st century: social media. It’s a mistake to be made at your own peril, and a significant opportunity to cultivate good will toward your brand if used correctly.

You’ve probably heard the ever-climbing statistics by now:

  • Facebook has approximately 1 billion users worldwide
  • Twitter has approximately 500 million users worldwide
  • LinkedIn has approximately 200 million users worldwide

It’s not a stretch to say that many of your customers are active social media users, and there’s also a good chance they may be talking about you on their social avenue(s) of choice. In terms of Twitter, specifically, a recent study showed that 56% of customer tweets to companies are being ignored.

Would you ever not return a phone call from a customer? Would you ever ignore his or her emails? Of course not! So why would you miss out on offering a meaningful response to a tweet?

Listening is Key

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With Twitter smashing previous records this year with 33,388 tweets per second issued around the New Year, it’s easy to view the channel as a messy, impenetrable mass of information. Because of that, using Twitter on its own generally isn't enough for brands.

You might know that you should use a person, place or thing’s Twitter handle whenever referring to him, her or it in a tweet so that the relevant party is informed and can respond, but not everyone is a social media guru like you.

However, there are some great, free tools available to help you make sense of the madness and start engaging your clientele.

Two of the more common social media dashboard applications available are TweetDeck and HootSuite, and they both offer simple ways to filter the stream (or perhaps more appropriately: ocean) of tweets to see what people are saying about your brand.

Use these tools to set up search columns for the name of your brand, the names of your products, and any other key terms or hashtags related to your company. Now, you have a clear window into what is being said about your brand and you can create a strategy to respond appropriately. And remember: you must respond!

Develop a Response Strategy

Now that you have your social “ear to the ground,” it’s time to determine how you will respond to customers and others who tweet about your brand. While massive companies like Microsoft have entire teams dedicated to monitoring and responding to tweets, you may be a lone ranger in your growing operation.

Don’t fret, though: with the right strategy in place, you can still maintain a robust social media presence. In terms of the tweets you may encounter, you could narrow them down to questions, criticism and compliments.

Questions should be answered as quickly as possible, and if Twitter’s allotted 140 characters aren't enough, you should respond and let the inquirer know where to send an email and that you will be happy to help answer his or her questions that way.

Of course, you may not have all the answers to all of the questions that could be asked about your business. Odds are you don’t. Be sure to engage subject matter experts at your company who can help you answer questions and craft helpful responses. Put a process for engaging them in place and let them know you will be knocking at their door when relevant questions arise.

You may want to shrink and hide away when you see a criticism or negative tweet about your brand, but you need to respond. Let them know how you are addressing the issue as succinctly as possible. For instance, if they are complaining about receiving too many sales calls, apologize for the inconvenience and ensure them that you are going to make sure the issue is resolved.

Compliments should be responded to as well. Don’t just bask in them and don’t simply retweet them, as that can be viewed by other Twitter users as braggadocios. Thank the individual for his or her kind words and keep the conversation going. What does he or she like best about the product? What was his or her favorite part of an experience with your company? Continue the dialog and keep it meaningful.

Encourage Brand Advocates

With the right response process in place, you will begin to create and foster brand advocates on Twitter. You should view all of your social relationships with customers with this goal in mind. How will you keep them engaged, let them know you’re listening, and cultivate the relationship so it reaches this status? There are few things as valuable as third-party praise in the eyes of a potential customer, and Twitter is swarming with potential brand advocates.

Is someone asking for opinions about your products? Include the brand advocate’s Twitter handle in your response to the inquirer. The proverbial “bat signal” will go up, and the customer will have the opportunity to share his or her positive experience and give a valuable recommendation.

You may even have the opportunity to leverage your thriving social relationship for additional value outside of Twitter. For instance, your Twitter brand advocate is a prime candidate for a case study. Twitter can be the perfect place to get the conversation started so it can continue offline.

Be Seen, See Results

Remember that it’s called social media for a reason -- so be seen, interact as much as possible, and watch your customer relationships begin to grow. It’s up to you to get the conversation started, but once you do, you may be surprised at just how much your customers have to say.

So are you ready to recruit your army of brand advocates on Twitter and send them into battle? There’s never been a better time than now to listen, strategize and engage.

Image courtesy of Brian A Jackson (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Want to learn more about using social media for customer care? Read Jim Belosic's Providing Exceptional Customer Service Through Social Media