I’ve never done a list before, but here’s my seven tips from using Twitter to provide customer service and online help and support. What are yours?

Listen with empathy. Try not to hear what you think a customer said and simply re-interpret it in your own words. Really try to understand what they’re saying through their tone of voice, their level of frustration, their sense of being let down. Don’t try to convince them otherwise.

Try to think of something similar that has happened to you – how did you feel about it? And remember: it’s not personal, it’s not about you; keep your focus on simply resolving the problem at hand.

Be upfront. Don’t try to fudge an answer. Social media is about being open, honest and transparent. That’s a hard act to follow all the time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. But don’t forget you can always ask a colleague or someone else on Twitter for help or advice.

Don’t be a victim. Yes, you work for a company, and yes the customer is usually, but not always right (did I say that?!). Sometimes, however, there’s absolutely nothing you can do for a customer. It can be a difficult line to follow between company policy and customer expectation.

There’s no easy way to tell them, and they’re probably not going to be in the mood to hear you say so. But it’s even worse if you simply don’t say anything. Imagine if it were you?

Be helpful. Look for opportunities to help people out there. If it means recommending a competitor’s product or service, so be it. A customer may go wherever they want to based on price, but they’ll often come back based on a memorable experience or thoughtful service.

Go fishing. It wasn’t me who came up with the ‘fishing’ analogy, but I think it’s an apt one. For the last decade or so, we’ve focussed our attention and resources on our company web site, and we’ve assumed that our customers will flock there.

Social media has changed the digital landscape forever and enabled each one of us to create our own spaces, networks and pathways. For a company, it means that we have to now go to where our customers and potential customers are, we have to seek them and their problems out, we have to engage with them on their terms and in their territories.

Customers can complain, seek advice or ask questions wherever they want and in whatever format they want: Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Friendfeed, YouTube, Audioboo, and yes, a company web site.

Don’t be afraid to follow in others’ footsteps. Customer service via Twitter is a whole new world for all of us. It’s evolving all the time, but there are great examples out there to follow: BestBuy and Twelpforce, Frank Eliason at ComCast, Zappos, as well as some great examples from the UK (please feel free to add to the list).

If you want to try something out, no matter how small it is – do. Whether it’s simply tweeting a link to a useful piece of information, letting your customers know stock availability or service downtime – it doesn’t really matter. It’s only from trying that you’ll know. Twitter is one of those things that until you actually try it out, it makes little sense whatsoever.

You’re not alone. Social media by its very nature is social: it’s about people, meeting others, helping others, breaking down barriers, working together, collaborating, sharing… It encapsulates so many things that we as individuals and businesses strive to achieve and very often don’t. Whether it’s a fad, or whether it’s called Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed or Posterous, doesn’t really matter.

What matters is to take the best characteristics of each of these and see how you can apply it to your business in a relevant and meaningful way that allows you to not only engage with your customers, but have a real conversation with them about things that matter to all of us.