According to a report by information technology research firm Gartner, by 2014 “engaging with customer inquiries via social channels will be as important as phone and email.” Many organizations aren’t waiting around until 2014 to engage with their customers; they’re doing it now by using Twitter as another arm in their customer support channels.

We recently spoke with customer service representatives from email marketing service provider Mad Mimi, and trade association ARCSI (Association of Residential Cleaning Services International) to ask about their policies and best practices for communicating with customers through Twitter.

If you’re considering using Twitter for customer service, or if you’d like some actionable ideas on how to fine-tune your existing customer support process on the platform, try implementing some of the tactics used by these forward-looking support professionals.

Becca Brennan: Mad Mimi

Becca Brennan not only tweets on behalf of the email services company, but also looks after all of its other social media platforms. It probably helps that Becca comes from the technical support side of the business. She’s already versed with the product well enough to effectively deal with incoming customer support inquires on Mad Mimi’s Twitter account — @madmimi.

Becca says that as a routine function of her job, she makes sure to acknowledge people who are happy with the product in addition to those who are not. “Twitter is an easy way to make people feel special — all it takes is 140 characters.”

That positive focus is one of the things you’ll notice immediately on the @madmimi Twitter stream. “We don’t have any formal social media policy, but we treat customers on Twitter just like we do on our website, or thorough our email support, or live chat channels — always positive and upbeat.”

Interestingly, Mad Mimi’s whimsical logo (pictured above) adds to this expectation. “Some of our customers think Mad Mimi is a real person, yes,” says Becca. “But we always let them know that we are happy, positive, real people too — and we’re as happy to take care of them as Mimi would be.”

With more than 12,000 followers and 100,000 business customers, one might wonder how Becca and her team can keep up with all the support inquiries on Twitter. “Actually, about 95 percent of our support calls go through our existing email support channel but many customers will reach out to us on Twitter as well. Anything that we can’t effectively handle within a tweet or two on Twitter, we encourage those clients to contact us through email. That keeps the Twitter stream flowing quite well.”

Becca monitors the Twitter account continuously throughout the day. “I keep the ‘Interactions’ tab open all the time and I never let more than two or three tweets come in without responding to them,” she says. When asked what her best advice is for businesses conducting customer support on Twitter, Becca says “you should never be afraid to be a real person. Always be positive and as helpful as possible but don’t be too salesy or too corporate.”

How can a company find the right balance for its customer support tone on Twitter? Becca gives an answer Mad Mimi herself would be proud of: “Hire the right people, with the right attitude, and you won’t go wrong.”

Chris Zimmer: ARCSI

As Communications Director of the Association of Residential Cleaning Services International (ARCSI) Chris Zimmer says she’s “had fantastic and not-so-fantastic Twitter experiences” — both for her job and as a customer. She adds, “Here is what I know for sure about Twitter: It is much, much more about listening and responding than it is saying or selling stuff.”

Zimmer says its frustrating and disappointing when she uses social media to post customer support requests to businesses and they don’t respond. “I don’t ever want that happening on our social media platforms.”

This diligence to responding to customer inquiries in a timely fashion has become somewhat of a badge of honor for Ms. Zimmer. She uses a variety of social media tools to listen for mentions of her association and for a variety of relevant industry keywords. “If you set up your listening tools correctly, you won’t miss vital mentions of your brand.” She says you also don’t need to be “chained to your desk” to get the job done.

Like Becca Brennan from Mad Mimi, Ms. Zimmer has been given the authority and the autonomy to use her own professional discretion when replying to customer support requests on Twitter. “Both my Director and I have a background in association management,” she says, so there’s a level of understanding and trust between her and her boss. This ability to respond quickly to incoming tweets is not only a business advantage, it’s a necessity. “We live in an instant gratification world,” says Zimmer and in order to be effective “a business has to provide that instant gratification for its customers.”

What’s your best advice for using Twitter as a customer support channel? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image credits: Geoff Livingston, Mad Mimi, Chris Zimmer (FB)]