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Sour Tweets Get Sweet Results

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Don't be surprised if a comment left on Twitter gets a faster response than a call to customer service. Companies are increasingly monitoring social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs for negative customer comments and then responding directly, even publicly, to those comments within minutes.

Companies including Southwest Airlines, Boingo wireless and Edmunds.com have developed speedy, informal response teams to deal with the fact that consumers are happy to air brands' (often entertaining) dirty laundry in public. Most started their monitoring projects within the last year.

Sylvia Marino, for instance, switched her cable TV service to Comcast only to find the picture flickering and stalling just before the Olympics. Frustrated, she wrote a post on Twitter that said Comcast was "blowing chunks." She didn't know that Comcast monitors Twitter for negative customers. Within five minutes, Comcast sent her a reply with a service phone number and "we were able to switch things around and resolve most of the issue," Marino said. "It was great in one sense and in another sense it was Big Brother-y."

The incident was telling because Marino's job is executive director of community management at Edmunds.com, the car sales site, where she monitors customer complaints and dealer responses on Edmunds' bulletin boards, and on Twitter.

A look at Edmunds' dealer review boards gives a taste of the new, transparent reality of customer feedback. One man took his Nissan Maxima to the Michael Jordan Nissan dealership in Durham, N.C., after his "check engine" light came on. "Big mistake," the driver wrote on Edmunds. "They kept it overnight and the next day charged me $100 just to tell me that the gas cap was not on tight enough."

The dealership responded: "We explain the process and the cost, up front, and the customer agrees before the work is done . . . The $95 charge was a standard one-hour labor charge."

Edmunds gets 12-13 million visitors a month, so responding quickly and diplomatically is important, Marino said. Edmunds posts a dos-and-don'ts list for dealers to follow, which include: "It is always best to agree to disagree in civil terms rather than permanently shun a customer."

Southwest's evolved out of its A&E show, Airline. "That was a big risk, we had no editorial control over that show," said Paula Berg, Southwest's manager of emerging media. "There were shows where we would just cringe." But job applications to the airline rocketed after each broadcast. "That was our first step into the transparency and authenticity that's required to be successful in the social media space. Airline