TORONTO - Sometimes the distance between a customer complaint and the perfect resolution is just a tweet away.
At Via Rail, that's the objective as the railway strives to resolve any onboard dissatisfaction before travellers step off the train.
It's also one of the many ways that social media is taking a lead role in how businesses interact with their customers.
Even though Facebook and Twitter have been around for years, there's still plenty to be learned for companies who want to engage with the people who pay for their products or services.
"As it evolves, we're trying to adapt to what customers want in terms of platforms to communicate with us," said Sylvie Bourget, the chief marketing and sales officer at Via Rail.
"We want to be the more human way to travel for Canadians, and that really inspires the whole approach."
Whether it's a refreshment shortage or a problem with the Wi-Fi connection, a quick message to Via's Twitter account gets customer service representative's attention, Bourget said.
The goal is to answer tweets within 10 minutes during Via's operational hours and, if the matter is urgent, Via will call the train's service manager to ensure the passenger's concern is handled at their seat, she added.
Sincere and personal interaction are major challenges for some businesses, suggested Patrick Tomasso, associate director of creative content at Grip Ltd., a company in Toronto that creates content for corporations to use on social media.
He said some companies forget that social media was designed for friends to engage with each other, and not just to post advertisements hoping that customers will respond.
"A human voice is so key to social, it shouldn't be robotic," he said.
"A lot of businesses just take that as the essence of 'Let me just make a Facebook page' ... and then all the sudden they're talking about the weather."
Tomasso suggests companies rethink how they promote their brand on social media and treat it as a form of creative entertainment, rather than the latest product launch.
"You've got to loosen it up a bit," he said. "Advertisers have a duty to not ruin the experience."
One of the most common mistakes companies make is falling back on their public relations department to craft answers to customers.
Those constantly recycled responses clog up their Twitter feeds and make companies look lazy, said Sidneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen's University in Kingston.
"There's a worry about reputational damage that can happen in an instant online and that stems from the fact that companies have to give up a lot of control over the conversation," she said.
And sometimes, business should learn to control themselves, especially when it comes to timing their social media posts during a PR crisis.
During the holidays, Porter Airlines was criticized for sending out seasonal greetings while dozens of travellers struggled to get answers about their misplaced baggage.
Ezra Hansen, a Toronto resident whose luggage was lost for several days, said his opinion of Porter was soured when a "Happy New Year" message was posted by the company on Instagram with its cartoon mascot holding a glass of champagne.
"They continued with other communications that neglected the fact that they're facing this issue," he said.
"It's a little insulting."
Also, companies need to think beyond Facebook and Twitter for ideas. Many alternatives can offer more appealling visual components for customer interaction, such as the photo sharing website Pinterest and microblogging website Tumblr.
Mobile photo messaging app Snapchat is one of the latest programs to make waves at smaller businesses experimenting with how to engage their customers.
The app allows a business to send an image or 10-second video to recipients who can view the "Snaps" for a limited time before they disappear forever.
"Visual content marketing is such a big trend right now," Matrix said.
"Ephemeral qualities for certain target markets (are) perfect."
It's easy for businesses to get swept up in the array of social media options, but inexperienced users should keep it simple and strategic.
Via Rail has six customer service employees across the country who answer Twitter questions on a rotating schedule along with other responsibilities. Another team is responsible for editorial content of social media, like advertisments and special offers, said Bourget.
Each week, the Via Rail team convenes to discuss the successful posts and any mistakes made along the way.
"It's a bit daring as a way to do it, versus having social media experts only," she said.
"But we're finding extreme satisfaction."