Comcast was one of the first companies to attract mainstream attention because of its use of social media, and particularly Twitter, for customer service.
Frank Eliason, Comcast's director of digital care, has become probably one of the only customer service personnel known by name.
In early 2008, Eliason recognized the potential of using Twitter to connect with Comcast customers.
Eliason started using Twitter's search feature to look for the word "Comcast" -- and, as reported in numerous news outlets, for the word "Comcrap" -- and discovered he could identify Twitter users that were discussing the types of customer service issues he was paid to address -- and so address them he did.
In a recent BusinessWeek profile, Eliason stressed that Twitter was not a replacement for phone and e-mail help: "This is just one way people have gotten to know us.
"It's a little more personal. More back-and-forth discussions and it's less formal. And it gives immediacy to interactions."
Comcast's usage of the service is probably most notable for the cascade of media attention it drew to Twitter. But the fact that Comcast has had nearly 30,000 Twitter-based interactions with customers in little more than a year hints at the scale of customer service opportunities which large business-to-consumer enterprises not using social networking for service are missing out on.
That volume also makes it clear that a solution that would allow those interactions to be handled by a contact centre could be very valuable, as long as the interactions were able to maintain their "personal" touch.
Natural food retail giant Whole Foods makes an interesting case study because the company's use of Twitter points the way for enterprises such as retailers to keep both a national or international presence, as well as a local presence on social networks.
Whole Foods maintains a corporate presence on Twitter that has over 550,000 followers.
While many of the interactions between this national Whole Foods and its customers concern corporate policies and the company's social activism, many more interactions involve customer service issues related to specific stores. This has led to a prevalence of messages from @WholeFoods like these:
"Sorry to hear that your soup was cold. Let me know which store it was and I'll see if I can get you in touch with the [store team leader]."
"You'll have to check in your local store about that since they determine product selection. Thanks."
To address local concerns such as these, Whole Foods is bringing many of its local stores to Twitter. So far, almost 30 US stores have their own Twitter presences and are handling customer interactions with a local flavour.
These branch accounts can directly respond to issues such as what the store stocks, issues around service or product quality in the stores, etc.
Airlines, crunched first by high fuel prices and then by decreased travel due to macroeconomic conditions, have not been beacons of brilliant customer service over the past two years.
Virgin America, an upstart US domestic carrier that is separate from Virgin Atlantic, has worked hard to craft a service-first, fun brand image to differentiate itself from its bedraggled competitors.
That brand image has extended to its use of Twitter. Virgin America, therefore, is an interesting case study in how to marry the freewheeling atmosphere of Twitter with business.
Virgin America's Twitter presence is heavy on marketing, using "fun" language and attitude while giving details of new routes, new deals and overall corporate "feel-goodery".
It is also the home for some marketing stunts, including live Twittering on a flight (via in-air WiFi) by airline founder Sir Richard Branson.
But the airline also handles customer service issues addressed directly to its user name. Here is a recent exchange with a customer.
Customer: "I flew flight 110 yesterday. One of my checked bags was damaged. Didn't report at the time due to tight schedule. Suggestions?"
Virgin America: "Hey XXX what's the status of your luggage? I'll loop guest care in if the issue is still outstanding."
As that interaction illustrates, jumping interaction channels -- from Twitter to a contact centre, for example -- requires the manual intervention of a social media specialist.
It is also notable that the airline has successfully managed to blend the straight ahead tone of its customer service interactions with the frivolous tone of its other interactions, accurately reflecting corporate branding, while attempting to maintain customer satisfaction.
Because it is a free service for users, Twitter can be used as an inexpensive form of outbound broadcast communications.
This is the model for the Mountain View, California Police Department's use of the social network.
The city's police have used Twitter to alert city residents of road closures due to serious automobile accidents, major celebrations closing streets, high profile arrests and the presence of United States Census Bureau workers knocking on residents' doors.
Mountain View sits in the heart of Silicon Valley and so its residents are likely disproportionately heavy users of Twitter and other social networking services. But the Mountain View case also shows how services like Twitter can function as a low-cost, outbound notification engine for public sector entities.
Residents of Los Angeles started turning out in droves to buy food from Kogi, a roving taco truck that created a fusion of Korean meats and spices with Mexican dishes.
That truck used Twitter to alert customers to where it was going to be stationed next. The model proved so popular that Kogi expanded into a multi-truck operation and has inspired Twitter-powered imitators.
This model of micro-commerce driven by Twitter has spread and the city of San Francisco now has at least three street food businesses that utilise Twitter as their primary means of communications with customers and prospective customers. This includes the Magic Curry Kart.
These very small businesses have no formal customer service and support organizations, nor do they have the volume of customers to make such an organization a necessity. But even small businesses do get customer service inquiries. The Magic Curry Kart, for example, recently answered a customer query via Twitter thusly:
"Yes the magic curry kart offer[s] both vegetarian and chicken options..."
The report also warns that companies who ignore social media could find themselves obsolescent, but here is Datamonitor's analysis of those who are leading the field.