Five weeks ago, I launched a research project called, “The Great Social Customer Service Race”–a real-life investigation into the social customer service savviness some of the biggest brands in the world.

These companies receive thousands of Tweets per day – in some cases hundreds of thousands. It’s impossible to expect they could reply to everyone. So I wanted to know which tweets would receive a response and what role the technology played. It’s up to leadership to guide their social listening software to know what, when, and how to traffic social media mentions.

About the Race

Four Software Advice employees used their personal Twitter accounts to send customer service Tweets to 14 leading consumer brands in seven industries every weekday for a month. Two out of the four weeks, we used the @brandname and two we just mentioned the brand without the @.

We created questions that we felt the brands should have responded to based on social customer service best practices. They fell into one of five buckets: urgent, I need help right this second; positive (“thank you!”); negative; a question from their FAQ page; and technical, or needs more than one interaction to solve.

From this experiment, here are four lessons I learned about social CRM from the The Great Social Customer Service Race.

Listen for @Brandname, Brandname and #Brandname

We were surprised by the overwhelming lack of response to tweets that did not include the brand’s Twitter handle and @ symbol. Less than 8 percent of responses came during the weeks when an @ was not used, or three of the 40 total responses.

The failure of brands to respond to tweets like these leaves a bad impression on me, the customer, as well as on anyone who follows me and sees I didn’t get a response. Not all mentions deserve a response – you don’t necessarily want to insert yourself into someone else’s conversation. But these situations do offer an opportunity to surprise and delight your customer.

To mitigate the risk of missing these interactions program your listening software to listen for mentions without the @, with the @, and #brandname. You should listen for all three.

Implement Prioritization Rules

There was many instances during the race where we sent a Tweet with strong emotional feelings, purchase intent or risk of changing brands. This includes messages with words such as “help,” “mad,” and so on. All of these messages should have received a reply, but few actually did. This could be an indication of a failure to use prioritization rules.

Many social CRM systems can be set to move certain messages to the front of the response line if they include important keyword identifiers, social clout or customer purchase history. This helps your agents find and address the most important tweets first.

Process Twitter  Requests Like a Service Ticket

One way your company can streamline social customer service is by integrating listening software with help desk ticketing programs, or using a program with ticketing functionality. This will enable your team to process social media requests just like interactions over the phone, email or chat. This includes marking a ticket as open, resolved or waiting a response.

At one point during the race, we received two responses to the same tweet, one day apart. The first response seemed robotic, and the second tweet didn’t address the question. If this question were treated as a help ticket, the first responder would have marked it resolved to prevent the duplicate response.

Track Interactions by Customer

Three race participants and I tweeted the same brand as many as seven times during the four-week experiment. One of my goals was to see if any of the brands would identify us as active socializers and improve their response time. Not one of the 14 brands did.

To track interactions by customer, ensure your software records every Twitter interaction with your brand in the corresponding customer’s profile. This allows the next responding agent to quickly see if that customer is a brand advocate or detractor. Also, program socially-integrated ticketing software to increase response priority if a user emerges as an active socializer.

The Technology Should Fit the Purpose

Overall, the brands only responded to a surprising 14 percent of total tweets sent. But this wasn’t a failure in technology as much as strategy. Many companies have long viewed social media as a marketing medium instead of (or in addition to) a customer service avenue. Now is the time leadership should take a hard look at their social media mission, then improve the technology.

Check out this CIO post for more on the race.

For more information about social customer service, check out our free ebook, Meet Customers Where They Are: Incorporating Social Media into Your Customer Service Strategy.