Order something online from your favorite retailer only to receive the wrong product? Stuck at a crowded airport after multiple flights were cancelled?

In a perfect world, the common occasional mishaps that are to be expected when engaged in commerce wouldn’t be such a big deal. They’d be resolved appropriately and quickly with little effort. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and such mishaps are frequently just the start of a major headache that is caused by poor customer service.

From emails that go unanswered to long hold times on free phone customer support numbers, there are plenty of ways that customer service often lets us down, even when the companies that are providing that service try their best to do a good job.

If only there was a semi-secret, exclusive customer service channel in which problems were solved efficiently and painlessly…

Thanks, Twitter!

In some cases, there just might be. It’s called Twitter.

When Cindy Morrison was having difficulty using her frequent flier miles to book a flight on American Airlines (AA), she wasn’t getting anywhere with AA using the airline’s traditional customer service channels. So she tweeted, hoping that somebody at AA might be listening. They were, and they did more than that: “I’d been messing with these dang tickets for a week and American Airlines’ social media department had me taken care of in mere MINUTES!!”

Morrison’s experience isn’t all that atypical. Do a search on Google, or browse the customer service Twitter accounts of major brands, and you’ll quickly find plenty of examples of companies using Twitter to respond to customer service inquiries and rectify bad situations.

In many cases, companies don’t just seem to be responding more rapidly to customer concerns on Twitter; they’re also doing something meaningful about those concerns. That’s really, really important given that the primary objective of any customer service interaction is to address an issue to the customer’s satisfaction (within reason of course).

Why Twitter customer service works

Twitter’s rise as a VIP customer service channel makes sense for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s an asynchronous channel, so companies aren’t burdened by the often-impossible expectation that a live person will be available immediately.

There’s also the issue of expectations: for many customers, Twitter is a customer service channel of last resort. When phone, email and other channels fail, a desperate tweet is all that’s left so companies able to keep a customer from slipping through the cracks using Twitter have a great opportunity to redeem themselves.

And last but certainly not least is the fact that Twitter is a semi-public customer service channel. Companies that don’t respond to customer service-related tweets can wind up looking bad; companies that do can earn a free testimonial in the process.

Challenges going forward

The good news for companies looking to turn Twitter into a customer service channel is that it’s increasingly easy to do so. Numerous vendors offer tools for managing customer service interactions on Twitter, some of which are integrated into larger customer service platforms.

But providing a high level of service through Twitter — and maintaining it — may not be so easy. Not every company using Twitter to help their customers gets high marks. In fact, despite all of the examples of Twitter customer support wins, a recent study found that most customer service tweets go unanswered in the first 24 hours.

As more and more customers avoid the phone and email, and instead turn to social channels to get assistance, companies could see the volume of customer service inquiries on Twitter rise substantially, creating the same sorts of problems seen in other channels.

With this in mind, companies may want to consider one of the lessons Dell has learned from its Twitter customer service initiative: social media is a supplement to existing customer service programs, not a replacement. So if your overall level of service is lacking, chances are you’ll have a hard time providing VIP-level support on Twitter.