NEW YORK: Major brand owners such as AT&T, Best Buy and Citi are leveraging social media to enhance their customer service.

In a recent study, Forrester argued the digital age requires a new set of skills, covering interactive marketing, public relations and providing pre- and after-sales care.

Diane Clarkson, an analyst at the research firm, suggested the corporate response to social media was initially "born and nurtured" in PR and communications, but is now moving in a different direction.

"The essence of social media is having conversations, and customers want to talk about their experiences and get resolution for their issues," she wrote in the report.

"While the public nature of these conversations means they fall into marketing and public relations' purview, the customer service implications are becoming more important."

Key considerations include developing a dedicated service presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter, alongside building peer-to-peer support communities, a tactic utilised by Hewlett-Packard, among others.

Establishing clear goals for each channel used, redirecting relevant matters to an appropriate staff member and creating bespoke metrics are equally vital.

"Companies that fail to recognise the unique objectives and metrics for a social support strategy from the outset will struggle to implement a meaningful collaboration," said Clarkson.

"Successful companies will shorten the distance between social marketing and social customer service."

Telecoms giant AT&T was cited as an example of effectively adapting existing approaches.

"After initially using social media for marketing and public relations, AT&T has shifted its focus to customer service in an effort to improve its brand favourability," Clarkson suggested.

Such a view seemingly accords with that of Susan Bean, who heads up AT&T's social activity.

"With marketing, we discovered that for social media to be successful we really needed there to be customer care," she said. "Otherwise, all anyone would want to talk about is: solve my problem.'"

Electronics retailer Best Buy also famously rolled out the "Twelpforce" in mid-2009, offering guidance and assistance to Twitter members, and which has resolved more than 35,000 enquires thus far.

"The overriding principle here was tied to one of our brand promises, which was to help the customer know what we know as fast as we know it," said John Bernier, Best Buy's social and emerging media manager.

"We thought about how could we best represent ourselves, and had observed that the Twitter platform didn't lend itself well to direct selling or one to many messaging.

"So we looked at our pool of assets and said, 'Our employees know stuff, we can share stuff and we can do it quickly.'"

Elsewhere, financial specialist Citi has also made moves into this arena, appointing Frank Eliason, previously leading Comcast's push into this space, as svp for social media.

"Many of the major banks are on Twitter, and they're servicing customers, but the way they service customers is kind of interesting," he said.

"It's, 'Hey, do you have a phone number to call you? And don't give us account information on Twitter.' That's virtually the response 100% of the time."

While Citi's had formerly operated a similar model, it is now introducing personalised Twitter accounts for its team, who can then continue discussions on a safe third-party site as necessary.

"You'll actually be still talking to the same person you were Twittering with, but it will be in a secure environment," said Eliason.

"We'll be able to write back, 'Click on this link, log in, and we can have a secure conversation.'"

Data sourced from Forrester, Ogilvy, PR Daily; additional content by Warc staff