Businesses saw an opportunity to push their products, brands, and messages when social media emerged. Over the years, successful companies have learned to host open dialogue with customers via Facebook and Twitter. The positive implications for online customer service are significant. The risks are, too. Below are four tips for using your social media accounts as vehicles for smart customer service.

1. Share Your Business with the Customers
A personal connection with your customers is invaluable. You’ll build loyalty, and your social media followers will spread the word through Facebook shares and Twitter retweets. Don’t trust that simple one-way messaging will be enough. Make yourself accessible. Let consumers know they can contact you directly by way of Facebook and Google+ comments or Twitter mentions.

Chevy, Ford and GM – all of which have worked public relations miracles in the last few years – are known for engaging followers with pictures, videos and interactive polling. Southwest Airlines will answer follower questions, and Comcast employs Twitterers to constantly respond to outage reports and other concerns. These efforts work wonders for your company’s image, and customers often feel appreciated.

2. Get Consumer Feedback
Forget paid focus groups, and tell your consultants to sit this one out. You can take your products and services directly to the consumer. If you have an idea, bounce it off of your Twitter followers. Post your concept directly to your Facebook page and let the feedback roll in. Followers and fans could help you generate ideas and improve on existing ones.

The feedback you acquire can be very useful. You can identify trends early, and your customers will feel involved in your business’s decision-making.

Use caution. Because consumers can mention you in a tweet, you have little control over how your company name is tossed back and forth among social networks. McDonalds recently learned this the hard way with a hashtag snafu that left the company scrambling to get control of its own message. An attempt to engage followers with a hastag of #McDStories backfired, and the fast food chain suffered through a day of negative press and embarrassing Twitter mentions.

Know that when you invite feedback, bad comments will roll in right along with the good ones. However, don’t let this discourage you from engaging the users who could be good for your business.

3. Respond Quickly
Customer service is a two-way interaction. They express concerns, and you have a responsibility to quickly respond.  Gone are the days of grumpy complaints sent by mail (or email, for that matter) and a follow-up form letter with an attached coupon. Concerns are now aired publicly, and many times the response should be, as well.

If you spot a comment that warrants a response, answer it publicly so that other users can see that you’re quick to address concerns. Go even further. If somebody drops you a friendly note or a mention, it’s ok to send a public note of thanks or a retweet.

4. Avoid Traps
Getting pulled into a petty online fight is easier than you’d think, so respond to your users with caution. Be aware that some users are itching for a fight; they want something for free or they enjoy the attention. No attempt at courtesy will mollify them. Your best course of action in situations like these is to make an honest attempt to respond, and then leave well enough alone. Take the hit and move on. Don’t let angry spammers dominate your social media feed. If the problem persists, block the follower.

If you pay attention to your followers and respond with care, social media sites can serve as a very useful platform for your company. Whether you host a Twitter account to update customers about your new credit card payment gateway program or a Facebook page promoting aluminum fabrication shops, it pays to be interactive with your customer service efforts. Feel free to comment below and let us know how you’ve used social media to improve customer relations.

This guest post was contributed by Chris Peterson. Chris is a copywriter for Straight North, a leading Chicago Web design agency. He specializes in B2B and B2C marketing, with experience in informational blog posts, press releases, and website content that emphasizes Search Engine Optimization. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he earned a Master’s degree in journalism.