Note: this article was originally posted in ClickZ.

The need to delight customers is nothing new – obviously, to keep customers buying, we need to keep them happy. But growing trends like social networks and user-generated content such as customer reviews allow consumers to share any experiences they have with a brand with hundreds (or thousands, or hundreds of thousands) of other potential customers. Ad campaigns can’t drown out bad word of mouth the way they once may have – delivering excellent customer experiences is now more important than ever to sustaining a strong brand.

Many brands are experimenting with ways to offer a better customer experience using social tools. These initiatives take many forms: customer service accounts on Twitter, Facebook fan pages, live onsite chat functions, customer Q&A on products and categories, mobile apps…with so many shiny objects for companies to choose from, it’s hard to decide where to start and what will be most effective.

My common recommendation is to think about any program or initiative in terms of ongoing profit and loss. Good projects will have sustaining value, like a business that has sustaining profits. Great projects’ value will grow in impact over time. Ideal projects are these great projects that also take fewer resources to maintain as they grow.

For example, take the traditional one-on-one customer service model. In this model, every customer contact is added cost. You respond to each customer who calls or e-mails on an individual basis. You may deliver an excellent service experience, and hopefully the customer will share this experience with others via word of mouth, building positive associations for your brand.

But the resources you spent to satisfy that customer do nothing to better other customers’ experiences – every new customer with a similar issue will need to be individually satisfied, meaning more resources. The same is true for tools like onsite live chat: when the chat session ends, any information you shared dies with it, unable to help another customer.

Facebook and Twitter offer a more public forum for customer interaction. Many brands are using these social networks to effectively answer shopper questions and respond to complaints, delivering good experiences. Best Buy’s Twelpforce is a great example – tweeted customer questions about electronics are answered by members of Best Buy’s team, helping customers while building the brand’s image as a knowledge leader. And other shoppers with similar questions are helped as a result, amplifying the program’s value.

It’s important to remember, though, that content on social networks has a short shelf life. Tweets and posts on Facebook walls are quickly replaced by more recent posts. Anything good people say about your brand is quickly lost in a sea of user-generated content, as are the helpful conversations you’ve had with customers.

Rather than letting the resources you’ve spent to satisfy these customers expire along with these conversations, use the information you learn from these online interactions to continue to help other shoppers. Build the answers to common questions you encounter on social networks into the product copy on your site. Syndicate the positive feedback and Q&A you generate on these networks back into your brand site when possible.

Onsite community Q&A is a good example of a project with growing value and decreasing cost over time. Shoppers post their questions to product or category pages, and receive answers from other customers as well as retail and brand reps. The content not only helps the shopper who initially posted the question, but it lives on your site in a searchable form, helping future shoppers with similar questions.

The community becomes more valuable as you gather more questions and answers, as many shoppers will find their questions are already answered on your site – community Q&A decreased support costs for one retailer by 81 percent. And the cost of answering new questions no longer falls solely on your customer service teams – your customers will do the work for you, answering shopper questions out of their desire to help other people like them.

Prioritizing your customer experience efforts like profit and loss will help you uncover the ideal programs for your company – those that increase in value and decrease in cost to your business over time.

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