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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Lowes and Home Depot are among the many businesses with social media teams. Companies big and small use Twitter for advertising and marketing - and also for customer service.

Southwest Airlines uses Twitter to learn about and alert its customers to them. Best Buy responds to customers who tweet questions and complaints.

Alex Schmidt reports on how the micro-blogging service is now a regular part of doing business.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Let's say you're thinking of ordering a pair of shoes online and you want to know the store's exchange policy. You could pick up the phone, but...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: To insure quality service, your call may be monitored or recorded.

SCHMIDT: Ugh. Ask Laura Hargrove and she says - just use Twitter.

LAURA HARGROVE: I use it to, you know, kind of compliment companies, ask questions about products and services.

SCHMIDT: She turned to Twitter, recently, when she and her husband were researching truck rentals for a move from Texas to California. They were comparing two companies - Penske and Budget - and wanted to know if they had CD players in their trucks.

Penske was the one that continually outshone budget by answering questions and getting back to us and, you know, the speed of their replies was just amazing.

Penske started their Twitter customer service program about a year ago.

Randy Ryerson is director of communications for Penske.

RANDY RYERSON: We want to be where our customers are, where our prospects are. And we see it every day. You know, I just sold my house, I can't wait to pick up the Penske truck and take a picture of it, and you see people standing there proudly next to the Penske truck.

SCHMIDT: The other company Laura Hargrove was looking at was Budget. They didn't respond to the tweets in time.

Budget's VP of communications says they're not a brand that's relevant to Twitter users' everyday lives. But number of followers really isn't relevant to customer service either, says Jordy Leiser. He's CEO of StellaService, which measures and rates online customer service.

JORDY LEISER: Because those twitter accounts are set up to be service-oriented communication channels, it doesn't really make sense for the average person, even if they're a customer of that company, to follow them on Twitter.

SCHMIDT: Laura Hargrove isn't following Penske, for example. But she is a customer, because the company responded to her.

HARGROVE: It's so easy, it's such an easy thing to do to, you know, answer a question posed by a customer. It means a lot. And I don't know why they wouldn't.

SCHMIDT: But Twitter isn't easy. Penske took an entire year to observe how their customers were using Twitter before diving in, then extensively trained folks in their call center on the platform, which is now monitored from 7 AM to 1 AM every day.

Smaller companies probably don't have resources like that. And, Jordy Leiser says, some big companies aren't sure whether it'll pay off for them.

LEISER: There's still been some skepticism as to what the true value of these social platforms can be.

SCHMIDT: A dollar figure return on social media investment can be tough to calculate. But recent studies have shown that the world's 100 largest companies get nearly six million combined mentions on Twitter every month.

Plenty of players - from Penske to LL Bean and Zappos - have decided that's a place they can do customer service business.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.

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