As people begin to rely on social media for more than just catching up with friends, businesses need to prepare for a growing number of interactions with their customers on those channels. Customer service is one of the most important departments for a company to develop into a social media presence. However, many businesses have a long way to go in getting their customer service tasks up to speed with the social media world.

With a little bit of planning, incorporating your company’s social media strategy with its customer service team doesn’t have to be hard. Keep in mind that you may have to adopt a slightly different approach for each network, because each has different strengths and capabilities. Here are a few tips that can help you maximize the service and support potential of your brand’s Facebook Page.

1. Consolidate and Delegate

Customer service requests on Facebook are visible to the public, usually in the form of Wall posts or comments on statuses. Since helping these customers may require a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, you should try to move the more complex issues off of your brand’s Wall.

One downside to the switch to Timeline is that companies can no longer send or receive messages, so any interactions on Facebook must be conducted in the open. Instead, a good approach might be to leave a comment with the phone number or email address for a specific sales rep who can handle the problem directly. Toyota USA did this in its reply to a woman who was unhappy with waiting for her car repairs.

Another option is to reply to multiple commenters in a single response. If a few people seem to have similar questions that have easy answers, combine them into one comment and use direct mentions to make sure all concerned parties are notified. This approach can cut down on the sheer number of comments and streamline the process of managing your responses. This exchange on the Facebook Page for clothing company, Threadless, is a good example of how to consolidate multiple questions into a single response.

2. Don’t Hide

Removing messages with negative customer feedback may seem like a good idea, but be cautious about your use of that delete button. Since online interactions are so rapid-fire, there’s a good chance that an angry post will still be seen by a substantial number of your followers. Deleting a post or comment just because it raised a concern or complaint makes your company seem unhelpful and unwilling to admit to error. Be forthright and courteous in your interactions, even when your customers are not.

Another concern about deleting posts is that the person who originally left the comment may notice if it gets taken down and will return with resentment and more questions. Even if you respond to the concerns given, it’s best to leave the exchange on your Page so that other customers will get a sense for your how your company copes with challenges.

3. Be Prompt

The public expects a fast response from online interactions. Just as you would not want to leave a telephone call on hold for hours, try to be quick in issuing replies to any customer service needs on Facebook. Depending on the size of your business, that may require having at least one employee dedicated to fielding online customer service requests.

Remember that on Facebook in particular, the longer you delay in answering customer questions, the more time you leave other disgruntled folks to respond first and fuel further displeasure. If you act as soon as possible, you have a better chance of nipping a problem in the bud. Speed can turn a bad customer service story into a good one.

4. Acknowledge the Happy Customers

If you’re successful with your Facebook customer service, you’ll likely see comments and posts from satisfied customers. Don’t just leave these folks hanging; acknowledge that you’ve received the message and appreciate the person’s business. It’s a good way to conclude your interaction with a customer and keeps up your online engagement.

For instance, Zappos responds to every single post on its Page, and the majority of those are simply a sincere “Thank you” to customers raving about the company’s excellent service. Another good policy of the company is to respond to company-related questions that aren’t just about the product. Zappos has fielded comments from information technology job seekers and people who read CEO Tony Hsieh’s book.

5. Ignore the Bad Attitudes

One unfortunate element to doing business online is that there will almost certainly be people who leave unproductive comments. From calling your product photos “ugly” to complaining about prices, these commenters don’t have a problem with your business so much as they have a bad attitude. You won’t be able to change their minds by explaining your design process or budgeting needs. Don’t bother responding to them directly; it will only encourage them to continue spamming your page.

You’ll need to learn to tell the difference between a negative attitude and a negative experience. Look for comments that mention a specific product or service you offer and a specific issue that person is having. That’s where you should focus your energy.

Do you have any other tips for customer service on Facebook? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credit: David Boyle, Rocky LubbersLuigi Crespo, Hanny R, Arne Hjorth Johansen]