More and more businesses are now using social media as a means of communicating with their customers, utilising the variety of channels it offers. Whether it is via a simple Facebook post, a live Twitter Q&A, or a Google+ hangout, the opportunities for brands to speak directly to their audience are numerous.

Whilst effective social media management offers a direct route to speak to an audience, due to its instantaneous nature and the ability of content to go ‘viral’, there are many pitfalls to avoid when using social media to talk to customers.

Recent examples of social media customer service going wrong include Tesco’s apparently ‘scheduled’ tweet shortly after the horse meat scandal first broke, about ‘hitting the hay’, as well as Kenneth Cole, the fashion brand, tweeting content relating the uprising in Egypt during the Arab Spring to its latest fashion line.

These were clearly a result of ineffective social media management in place, which should have realised the sensitivities of tweeting around an event such as the Arab Spring, or checked pre-scheduled tweets after a major company scandal has broken.

Social media is now such an integral part of successful businesses online that not dealing with responses is as negligent as not answering emails or telephone calls. I have found there are certain parameters that are useful to follow.

An important one for me when using social media for effective customer service is getting the tone of voice right – whether you’re a large corporate or small one-man-band, it is vital to set a tone of voice and stick to it. This will help set guidelines as to the type of content put out via social media and help to avoid any unfortunate episodes.

Setting a response time for social media ‘replies’ is also key; most (successful) businesses with a reputation for good customer service have this in place for telephone calls and emails, so why not with social media? A quick response to a loaded tweet can often nullify a potential negative situation, and it is worth considering the impact response times can have on creating a good customer experience.

As the Kenneth Cole case showed, it’s a good idea to steer clear of politically-themed social media posts. There’s little to be gained from inevitably upsetting and provoking an angry response from the hordes of people who disagree with you.

Use an appropriate channel – so Twitter for fast responses, Facebook for more detailed responses, or LinkedIn when a more corporate tone is required. Whatever channel you choose, make sure it is relevant to the audience and designed to deliver your message effectively.

The way customers want to talk to you is changing, and you need to be able to adapt to this. Remember: the potential for a customer to wreak havoc online is significantly higher after a bad experience.