“Twitter is the fastest-growing customer service channel.” I hear this frequently, most recently during one of the keynote presentations at Dreamforce last week.

There are a lot of reasons to love Twitter — or at least the idea of Twitter — for customer service. For a customer, Twitter represents an opportunity to connect with knowledgeable, supportive, and humanized help. And for companies, Twitter is a way to publicly resolve public complaints.

I’ve used Twitter many times for service-related issues. These interactions fall into two buckets:

  • The times I contacted a company because other channels had either failed, were less convenient, or Twitter was simply easier.
  • The times I vented on Twitter and someone intervened.

My hopes for assistance on Twitter were a gamble; I never knew if or when I would get a reply. Sometimes there was radio silence. Other times there was speedy and friendly assistance. These companies delighted me. They also trained me to tweet them. I don't need to spend a few minutes on my airline's Web site to find out what terminal to go to or check online for the right printer cartridge for my printer; I can tweet and someone will answer.

I'm not sure if my "delight" is in line with the cost of providing live help through Twitter. But certainly a lot of companies feel there are potential business benefits to offering customer service on Twitter: There are hundreds of companies on Twitter representing travel to financial services to retail to utilities, and the list is growing.

But the reality is that our data doesn’t support Twitter as growing in consumer usage. 2009 and 2010 data show the number of online consumers to use Twitter for customer support to be under 1%. (Source: North American Technographics Customer Experience Online Survey, Q4 2009 and US Online Omnibus Q4 2010.)

This has led to my theory: The number of consumers using Twitter for customer service is small and flat, but the frequency and range of companies with which this small group uses Twitter for service is growing.

I believe there is extremely valuable market insight to be gained from listening to conversations on Twitter and a small proportion of customers who will be satisfied — occasionally delighted — by using the channel.

eBusiness professionals who are evaluating Twitter and customer service should listen and analyze conversations about their brands to gain insight into two essential questions:

  • To what extent are consumers using Twitter for service because other channels have failed?
  • To what extent are your customers' or prospective customers' brand impressions and purchasing decisions influenced by service problems and resolutions they see on Twitter?

If you do use Twitter for customer service, my advice is to go for it. Follow the examples of companies like Xerox and X-Box, and promote Twitter as a legitimate front door customer service channel by including Twitter on your Contact Us or Support pages.