Today, we tweet about the latest books we’ve read. We let our friends know where we’re eating lunch via Facebook. We Instagram pictures of our latest purchases. We post reviews of the businesses we frequent on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Angie’s List.
As consumers, many of us have gone “social.” That means companies that aren’t embracing social media today are missing out on huge opportunities to capitalize on the voices of their customers.

Companies should be saying to their customers: “If you did not enjoy our service, please tell us. If you did enjoy our service, please tell someone else.” Engage them. Tell happy customers to go ahead and be social about their great experiences and encourage unhappy customers to come to you via social media so that you can make it right and improve your overall service.

The truth is customers like helping other customers. They’ll go out of their way to help a fellow customer find a solution. The trick, of course, is encouraging your customers to use social media in the most beneficial way for your company. In other words, how do you keep them spreading great things about your company while bringing their complaints only to you?

1. Make it easy for them to go social. How many times have you received an e-mail survey after a pleasant hotel stay but it didn’t include a link encouraging you to share your experience? It’s like companies don’t know if their customers are happy or not, so they opt not to give you the link. When you provide those links, you show confidence in your service and open up your company to the possibility of great word-of-mouth publicity.

2. Say thank you. It sounds simple, but showing a little appreciation for the loyalty your customers show you goes a long way. All it takes is a message of gratitude that says, “Thank you for spreading the word. As one of our happy customers, when you tell other people about us, it helps us grow and serve you better.” Or, “Your voice counts. Thank you for spreading the word. You make us love what we do.”

3. Invite them to reach out. Imagine the number of flights that took off today. Each had a captive audience of approximately 200 people or so, but it’s unlikely many of them were encouraged by the flight staff to tell their social networks about their flight.
It’s amazing how rarely companies acknowledge their customers’ social networks during service delivery. The moment of delivery of your product or service is a great time to capitalize on your interaction with your customer and turn that into a positive invitation for them to share their experience: “If you enjoy our service, please let the world know.”

4. Ask how you can improve. A recent article in UK’s The Observer points out that social-media-savvy companies are using Twitter to get instant feedback and resolve problems. It’s a great way to encourage customers to bring their complaints directly to you so that you can begin the service recovery process right away.

Companies might be afraid that customers will say bad things about them online. But really, you should encourage your customers to bring their complaints to you. Always explain to them that you are looking for ways to serve them better and that their feedback matters.

5. Encourage them to recognize great one-on-one service. United Airlines recently began its “Outperform Recognition Program,” in which MileagePlus members can participate via the company’s mobile app. The program encourages customers to let United know when its employees have provided great service. Customers simply enter the employee’s name via the app and then both the customer and the employee become eligible for a random drawing for cash prizes, mileage points and even roundtrip tickets.

Through this program, United is showing it understands that getting customers to recognize great service leads to more great customer service. And they’re making it easy by running the program through their mobile app. Social programs like these boost employee morale and get customers focused on what employees are doing right. An added bonus is the content—for example, specific complimentary comments—that can be used in internal and external publicity campaigns.

6. Funnel customer questions through social media, then share the best answers. Much of the feedback you receive from customers on a daily basis comes in the form of questions, and when you funnel those questions through social media, the benefit is twofold.

First, this enables you to easily share useful information with other customers. If you ask your customers to post those questions on your Facebook wall, you can answer the question there for others to see. Secondly, it provides a perfect opportunity for your company to build its informational capabilities. You find out immediately what information isn’t clear and what you need to do to clarify messages and information so they are easy to understand.

7. Make talking about your brand irresistible. Of course, the best way to ensure your customers are spreading positive, encouraging messages about your company is to provide such great service that they simply can’t resist telling people about it.

That’s exactly what Ritz-Carlton recently did.

In a blog on The Huffington Post, Chris Hurn, CEO of Mercantile Capital Corp., shared how a hotel staff went above and beyond after his family accidentally left his young son’s favorite stuffed animal behind after a recent stay. Not only did the staff find and safely return the stuffed animal, they took pictures of its extended stay to show Mr. Hurn’s son what a great time his stuffed animal friend had while staying a bit longer at the hotel.

As you can see with Mr. Hurn’s story, going that extra mile was a great way for Ritz-Carlton to get people talking about their brand. Your customers’ voices are vital to your organization. Social media provides an incredible opportunity to engage those voices, to turn one customer’s great experience into an advertisement that attracts new customers and gets current ones thinking positively about you. And it’s an inexpensive way to address customer concerns and improve your company’s service culture in real time.

Ron Kaufman is a columnist at Bloomberg’s Business Week and the author of 14 books on service, business and inspiration. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today.