In April 2013, car rental company Hertz announced it had broken new ground by becoming the first in its category to offer customer support on Twitter. While it seems the company had been experimenting with supporting customers through Twitter at least since the start of the year, its official announcement placed the company on a growing list of trend-setting brands that are leveraging the instantaneously connective power of Twitter for outreach and service.

But with a great, global customer service platform comes great potential for an epic PR disaster. In our interviews with two Twitter trend-setting companies, JetBlue and ModCloth, we discover the must-have policies for preventing a brand meltdown in 140-characters or less.

1. Communicate Consistently

Joshua Marsh, whose team at Conversocial is working with Hertz on effective social media management, commented in an interview with Business Insider that Twitter has arguably become the most prominent means of online connection between companies and consumers. Specifically, he stated that “it’s time to get over this misconception that brands can ignore tweets about the brand.”

A new study done by J.D. Power and Associates in February of 2013 reinforces Marsh’s assessment. Data from the study highlights just how powerful Twitter can be for businesses: 67% of consumers have used a company’s social media site for servicing, and younger consumers are two times as likely to use a company’s social media site for servicing than they are for marketing.

But this study wouldn’t surprise the folks at JetBlue Airways, a company that has engendered significant goodwill and brand loyalty through its early adoption of Twitter for customer service. Morgan Johnston, manager of corporate communications at JetBlue, told Sprout Insights that the company started using Twitter in May of 2007, and had found it to be a highly beneficial channel to engage customers and provide support immediately — instead of hours or days after they reached out.

“The added benefit,” Johnston notes, “was also the growth of a connected customer who felt appreciated, informed, and invested in our business. They are also more likely to be receptive to our more traditional marketing messages, and also more likely to be an advocate for us in their communities.”

84,128 tweets later, those connected customers amount to close to two million followers of the company’s Twitter handle, @JetBlue. But Johnston knows that reaching such a large, interactive audience comes with equally large challenges, one of which is consistency. “From a support perspective, our biggest concern is ensuring the service we deliver online is reflective of the service a customer can expect of any crew member,” he says.

A major issue could arise if people receive different information or responses to questions, such as from a gate agent versus the Twitter feed on how to change a seating assignment. To manage this challenge, JetBlue has rejected the idea of having separate policies for social media support. Instead, it adheres to the same policies and guidelines as other, more traditional customer service members, such as phone support agents. “When a customer comes to us publicly through Twitter with an expectation we can solve their problem, we’ll work to do so within our outlined policies.”

2. Balance Personality and Corporate Messaging

Another company that has taken a strong lead in utilizing Twitter for customer service is @ModCloth, an independent and retro-inspired clothier that has developed a small but mighty fan base since its inception in 2002. We spoke with Martha Smith, the company’s social media editor. She said the goals of ModCloth’s Twitter presence are to engage, delight, and reward its online community. According to Smith, Twitter “communicates the ModCloth message and personality to new customers and serves as an efficient customer service tool.”

Smith and her team (referred to as “The Social Butterflies”) have developed a clear vision for how they want to engage customers on Twitter. “We want our interactions on Twitter to be deeply personal and engaging. It should be clear from every interaction that you are talking to a real person with her own personality.”

As a result of this service-oriented mission, Smith notes that in the last two years, ModCloth’s Twitter following has grown from 19,000 to almost 110,000. But this rapid growth has created challenges as the brand tries to balance personality and corporate messaging. “There’s a difference between a person’s voice on Twitter versus their voice when they’re speaking for ModCloth on Twitter,” Smith reflects.

When someone is using a corporately-branded channel, the worst-case scenario is that he or she communicates a sentiment that is damaging or publicly makes a promise that is impossible to keep. To manage this challenge, ModCloth has a simple but emphatic training policy that instructs “team members in how to be themselves and still be great representatives of the brand on Twitter.”

3. Maintain Audience Awareness

In his Business Insider interview, Joshua Marsh noted that a customer service best practice is to respond to customers in the communication channel they select. For example, if they reach out on Twitter, the service response needs to happen there as well.

But as Morgan Johnston at JetBlue reflects, there are limitations to how much can be done in the public eye compared to what can be accomplished in a private customer interaction through phone or email. “While customer support agents may be able to go beyond our policies when talking with a customer privately, when asked publicly it’s important to manage the expectations of the larger audience for their benefit.”

To meet this challenge, JetBlue strictly enforces its social media policy. Private customer service agents may have the bandwidth to treat each situation individually, but Johnston notes that 24/7 Twitter-devoted support staff get one, clear message: “Stick within our policy.” While the policy may seem overly rigid, it’s hard to argue with the results it produces. As Johnston notes, “nothing is more engaging than a customized and personal conversation with an individual customer.”

Smith at ModCloth echoes his passion for using Twitter effectively with customers. “We call ourselves the brand you’re friends with. Being part of the conversation about the things our followers love is a fun and rewarding way to be just that.”

What policies does your company utilize to ensure consistent, personal customer service on Twitter? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image credits: NASA Goddard Photo and Video, MTCarlson, theilr, Amit Chattopadhyay]