Communities have changed a lot in the past few years, having manifested online in ways no one could have previously imagined. Still, some things have stayed the same. Social networks allow people to broadcast their views much the way they do in person, but often with much greater reach. Much of the time those opinions are positive, is your brand ready to respond when they’re less than complimentary?

As more companies are realizing, online conversations are varied and complex. While this fact is daunting, it also points to a great opportunity: To join conversations and provide value to customers who are asking for it, and even those who aren’t.

One of the best ways to join these conversations is to create a Twitter handle dedicated to serving customer needs that is separate from your business’ main account. Not only does this approach prevent dilution of brand messaging on your main account, it also gives you a way to provide meaningful content and tips from a valid source. It’s the same reason most companies have dedicated customer service numbers.

We think one of the brands doing this right is GM, so we chatted with Michael Savoni, the company’s social media business process lead. In his combined customer service, marketing and PR role, he oversees the @GMCustomerSVC, @ChevyCustCare, @BuickCustCare, @GMCCustCare, and @CadillacCustSVC accounts from headquarters in Detroit, MI. Here are his tips for maintaining a strong customer service Twitter handle.

Jump in First

According to Savoni, customer service on Twitter is as much about listening to existing conversations as it is about reaching out yourself. In GM’s command center, social media agents track social chatter across numerous screens, where they follow everything from specific brand mentions to tweets about searching for a new car.

When someone reaches out for advice or with concerns, agents respond with an answer or suggestions to resolve the problem. But simply responding to customer concerns is not enough. Savoni encourages reaching out to people on Twitter before they ask for help.

“We don’t want to just be a robotic team responding to people who have issues. We want to be out there and help them,” he says. Recently, GM expanded its social media team with 15 new hires, whose job it is to jump in when an individual on Twitter expresses a request or concern that can be addressed by the brand.

“We hired these 15 new social media agents who are out there building relationships with our customers so that from a pre-sale and post-sale perspective, our customers know that they can go to them,” Savoni says. “From the pre-sale side, somebody may just say, ‘Hey, I’m heading to the dealership tomorrow. I’m excited to look for a new car,’ and our team is out there to say ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’”

Be What You Are: Human

While different brands have unique voices, when it comes to customer service on Twitter, putting forth a friendly, helpful persona is essential. GM did this by taking its five best call center representatives and training them to respond to customer concerns online back when it created its dedicated accounts in 2009. Today, three of those original five oversee GM’s Customer Care team.

The lesson here is to look for people who are comfortable creating a professional yet approachable rapport with customers in person or on the phone—odds are that personality will translate well online, too. Savoni describes those call center representatives as professional, playful and understanding. In an industry where issues such as safety and recalls are serious concerns, it turns out that the majority of the 700 monthly customer care conversations focus on less serious issues.

“In a typical customer case, the customer is not coming with a major problem, they’re just looking for something that they can get a little bit of help with. From a pre-sale perspective, it is a very fun conversation,” Savoni says. “We want our agents to get in there and have a little fun with them.”

To take the human touch to another level, GM Customer Care agents sign tweets with their initials to indicate who has responded to each query. Plus, Savoni says each of the backgrounds on the company’s Twitter pages will soon include photos of the social media agents, as well as their personal handles to show that they really are human.

Coordinate, Coordinate, Coordinate

At GM, the social media team members are assigned to different initiatives, such as Marketing, PR and, of course, Customer Care. Those teams engage in more than 70,000 conversations per month on Twitter, Facebook and online forums. With such a high volume of interactions, it is essential for each leg of GM’s self-proclaimed “three-legged stool” to be aware of the others’ actions.

This is especially important in times of crisis, such as recalls, or during key marketing campaigns. “When Marketing and PR are launching new vehicles or building out programs that maybe have a large social component to them, it’s important to keep our social customer care team involved. That’s going to drive a lot of conversations and traffic that could potentially stem some opportunities for our Customer Care team to get involved pre-sale or post-sale,” Savoni says.

Customer service is all about answering questions, so when your company is pushing new information into the world, it’s important to keep track of the questions it may create. With regular meetings bringing together all these teams, your customer service agents will be aware of new information before it gets to the public, allowing them to be ready for whatever may come.

When it comes to serving customers, Twitter is a fast and easy way to respond efficiently to consumer concerns. What’s important, though, is to treat managing your online customer service strategy the same way you would a phone strategy. By creating relationships based on helpful, earnest conversations, a customer service Twitter handle can help your brand show your customers you really care.

[Image credits: GM]