By Jan Zimmerman, Deborah Ng

These days, businesses can’t sweep complaints under the rug. Before everyone was online and social media, it was easy to ignore negativity. Nowadays, customers can take their complaints public, and if businesses aren’t careful, those complaints can go viral.

Because so many people are on Twitter, it’s one of the best places to go to hear what customers are saying. Before you get into the nitty-gritty of how to use social listening, first consider some of the benefits. Here are some important reasons to use Twitter to monitor your customers’ online conversations:

  • Gain insight into how customers feel about products and services. You can search Twitter to learn who is talking about your products and services. By monitoring these conversations, you can discover how people are using your products, what type of experiences they’re having, and what, if any, improvements need to be made.
  • Respond to customer questions. Many customers find it easier to reach out on Twitter and ask 140-character questions than to commit to email. Sometimes, instead of reaching out to the brand, they’ll ask other people about their experiences and whether they recommend using your brand. Monitoring these conversations allows you to listen in — and even participate.
  • Handle customer complaints. Much to the chagrin of businesses everywhere, customers take their complaints online when they are disgruntled. Although no one ever wants to see her company associated with negativity, it’s a chance to show off customer service skills and gain new customers as a result.
  • Grow your online community. By monitoring conversations where people are discussing topics related to your brand, you can share wisdom, expertise, and product information, growing your online community and customer base in the process.
  • Gauge the effectiveness of your customer service. By monitoring online conversations, you can see how your customer service teams are handling online inquiries. Moreover, you can also see what customers and potential customers are saying about them on Twitter.
  • See how campaigns are working. One way to gauge how sales and marketing campaigns are working is to see how people are responding to them on Twitter. You can monitor to see what kind of buzz is happening and whether people are sharing.
  • Collect important demographic information. Use Twitter to determine important information about your customers. For example, do the people who talk about your brand fall into a certain age group?
  • Track sentiment on a regular basis. Start a spreadsheet and take note of sentiment for specific days, weeks, months, and years.
  • Learn your customers’ frequently asked questions about your company. Knowing what your customers are asking helps you to shape your campaigns, content, and business.
  • Note competitors. Monitoring Twitter chatter is a good way to gauge the popularity of competitors, how their campaigns are working, how they interact with their customers online, and online sentiment towards their brands.
  • Meet potential brand advocates. As your brand and Twitter account gain in popularity, you’ll notice a few diehard fans. These are your brand advocates. When you communicate and share discounts with them, they’ll continue to sing your praises online.
  • Improve upon products and services. Because people like to air grievances on Twitter, you can use social listening as a way to gather information and use it to make your products and services even better.

Twitter gives you a wonderful opportunity to move beyond customer service 800 lines and online support tickets. Many of today’s customers don’t have the patience to navigate a phone menu or wait for someone to respond to an email complaint. In fact, they might feel Twitter is the best avenue to get a response because they know businesses don’t want to see online negativity.

The best way to monitor Twitter conversations is with Twitter tools and third-party aps. Using apps such as Hootsuite or TweetDeck enables you to set up different columns for different search terms so you can see all your information at a glance.

Here are some searches to consider:

  • Your brand name: Always search for conversations centered on the name of your company. If several brands are under your company’s umbrella, search for all those names as well.
  • Searches related to your brands product or service: For example, if yours is a cereal brand, you might want to search for nutrition, breakfast, and recipes.
  • The keywords people use to search for your brand, product, or service: When people land on your website, what search terms are they using? Use these words and phrases when you search on Twitter. They might not necessarily be talking about your stuff, but you might find a good conversation starter and attract new people to the brand.
  • Your competitors: It’s always a good idea to see what people are saying about your competitors, what your competitors are sharing, and what new products they’re introducing.
  • Related searches that aren’t necessarily brand specific: Sometimes you can grow your online community by searching outside the box. For example, if you work for an umbrella brand, you can do obvious searches for umbrellas and rain, but also look to see what people are saying when they talk about weather, sunshine, and even vacations. (No one likes to be stuck in the rain unprepared while on vacation!)

After you begin searching, it’s time to take notes and take action. For example, if people are mentioning an aspect of an item that frustrates them, you can pass the information on to your design department so they can make the necessary changes. Also, if you see people complaining about not receiving an item or being charged the wrong price, you can delegate to the customer service department so they can reach out and rectify the situation.

Many of the people who complain on social media are hoping to catch a brand’s attention. Use that moment to do the right thing so you can turn a disgruntled customer into a long-term advocate.