There are a lot of vendors pitching their social media listening capabilities. And, the more that I hear these pitches, the more it has made me think that a bunch of companies jumping on the social media bandwagon are going down a dangerous road of using it as a customer service escalation strategy — which is a horrible idea.

Let me illustrate with a recent story I heard. A woman discovered that the VIN number of her car was improperly recorded on her last visit to the California DMV. As she tried to get it fixed, she found out it was going to require a lot more effort than she hoped (perhaps it included a visit back to a local office). She tweeted about it. Remarkably: The California DMV was listening!! It tweeted her back, contacted her, and helped her resolve the issue in a fraction of the time and energy it would have taken. The result: a happy customer.

There are a couple of strange things about this story. First, the DMV can’t fix its long waits and broken processes, but it has people listening to Twitter. Hmm. Second, it rewarded someone who complained to the entire world about its broken process. The next time I want a quick fix to a problem I have with the DMV, remind me to tweet about it! 

Congratulations to companies that can respond to the relatively few tweets they get via this channel today. Are you prepared to scale this operation as you re-enforce people to get service from you this way? More importantly, is that really the venue in which you want to solve problems?

The irony is that most companies, if they did a better job of listening to customers and soliciting authentic feedback from them, would understand a significant chunk of what customers are saying about them through social media. And, by not listening to and taking action on those items internally, they force customers to escalate issues, making companies fight fires in public venues. After all, both of the aggrieved parties in two famous customer experience stories (United Breaks Guitars and Maytag crosses popular blogger) — both people made several attempts to get the company to do right by them. It was only after several attempts, in private, that their frustration spilled out into the public.

Most companies are too busy surveying customers on questions that are important to them and affect manager bonuses, not authentically asking for feedback about how they’re doing and what they could improve.  

A much better way is to build out a coordinated voice of the customer program that encourages and makes it ridiculously easy to give feedback. Rather than hiding feedback with grey text on a white background, put a bright red “cry for help” or “tell us how we’re doing” button on every page of your website. Rather than the multiple-choice surveys about things I don’t care about, how about making it easy for me to just say in my own words what I think you’re doing well or poorly.

Make sure you have many more empowered employees able to listen to customer feedback within your walls, respond to both the happy and the unhappy, and fix problems. Don’t dump social media — it’s an important tool. Just make it easier for customers to escalate problems and point out your dirty laundry in private, rather than air it in public.

I’ll be speaking about building the right customer experience strategy in my keynote address at Forrester’s Customer Experience Forum on June 22, 2011, in New York City. Hope to see you there!