Consumers are progressively turning to social networks to contact the brands they buy from. According to research from Fishburn Hedges, over a third of UK consumers now turn to their social networks as a primary point of contact with businesses they buy from. Nearly two-thirds also believed that social networks were a better way to connect with businesses than using their call centres.

Eva Keogan, head of innovation at Fishburn Hedges, said: "Many people are currently enjoying the VIP treatment from brands on social media. As millions more catch on to this great route into traditional customer service channels, the challenge for brands will be maintaining the same level of service. Over the coming years, will Twitter become the next call centre? We are urging brands to think about this now, as there are some clear and simple ways to use these new customer service channels to great effect."

Fishburn Hedges also has six basic guidelines that your business can follow when using social media as a customer services platform:

  • Don't be paralysed by uncertainty - Where call centres arguably erect barriers between brands and customers, social media can remove them and bring proximity. It shouldn't be a psychological straitjacket, so dive in – but clearly define your strategy first.
  • Don't let social media define you - Your brand must define it. It must be a continuation of a brand using the appropriate channels and not a knee-jerk reaction to following how others are using it.
  • Make more of the emotional insight you have - Customer data offers insight into behaviour, but social media takes that to a different level, enabling brands to tap into emotions.
  • Pick your battles – but enter them fast - Speed is critical in the real-time world of social media, but brands should not feel the pressure to answer every query put to them.
  • Address structural barriers in the business, not headcount - There are many ways to resource social media, and new hires are not always necessary. Try sharing expertise and removing structural barriers first.
  • Fear not the #fail - No one is perfect and sometimes, just sometimes, it is simply a flash in the pan.

Also, some of the largest brands including Ford are actively searching and monitoring social networks for opportunities to connect with their customers. With the social media monitoring tools that are now available, any size of business can do the same. Making proactive connections with your business' customers can deliver brand advocacy that no amount of advertising or promotion can buy.

140 character customer services

One of the key factors that have been affected by the use of social media as a customer response channel is speed. In the early days of e-commerce, customer services was handled by phone and email with responses measured in days. Today, consumers are likely to use Twitter and demand an immediate answer.

What's more, according to research by ZenDesk, over 60% of consumers have used a social network to make a customer services complaint. How many of these complaints did your business pick up and deal with? It's a question that many businesses are asking themselves, as they build their customer services to cope with a shift towards more connections via social media.

Indeed, a report from Virgin Media Business revealed that companies are also increasingly looking towards automation and the development of e-services to allow their businesses to be available around the clock.

"As we all become more digital, we expect to be able to contact businesses at any time with questions, queries or complaints," said Phil Stewart, Director Customer Services at Virgin Media Business. "For businesses this poses a real problem in terms of staffing this demand. In part because of the way social media works, people want to be engaged as quickly as possible. Yet for most businesses, they simply can't afford to have someone staff a customer helpline 24/7."

Social power

There is no denying that social businesses are the future of online commerce. If your business can connect with its customers using their preferred social networks the relationships these conversations will develop will have a clear and positive commercial value to your enterprise.

With the headlines regularly filled with stories of companies that ignored the customer services aspect of their social network paying with damage to their reputations and profitability, it's vital that your company places social networks at the centre of all your customer services activity.

Customers now expect almost instantaneous responses to their questions and an even faster response to their complaints. Those companies that have the systems to handle this level of communications will be the winners in the social commerce space.