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5 Businesses That Will Live (Or Die) By Social Media

If you work in the retail business, you probably already know how important social media is to your company. But a new survey suggests several other industries are at a tipping point between interacting with their customers online and offline.

The study, conducted by the customer experience analytics company ClickFox, found five industry groups in which people have sought customer service in high numbers, which I define as more than 30 percent.

ClickFox concludes that social media such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter â€" once unheard of as a customer service channel â€" has now proven to be both an effective and cost-effective alterative to traditional customer service channels.

But as I review these numbers, I see a more ominous sign. If you're in one of these industries, it means social media isn't just a nice option for customers; it may, in many cases, be the first place clients turn when they want to contact you. In other words, you have to be there.

Here are the industries and their percentages, according to the survey.

1. Retail (45 percent) Sure, the next time you buy a pair of jeans at Target, you expect the company to be listening to your feedback on Twitter (@Target) or its Facebook account. Interestingly, the survey suggests customers of smaller companies in the retail sector are treated in a similar way. That, by default, many clients will go online and look for a social media solution.

2. Telephone (35 percent) There's an obvious reason why people turn to social media for phone problems. When your line isn't working, but you have a ready Internet connection, getting satisfaction is a lot easier by tweeting AT&T (@att). There's also a less obvious reason: Phone companies are notorious for making you spend a long time on "hold" and sending your through elaborate phone-tree mazes before you can talk to a real person.

3. Travel and hospitality (34 percent) People normally think "airlines" when you mention travel, but the truth is, most Americans get to where they're going by car. Of course, airlines get some of the lowest customer-service scores America, so passengers will try to reach them any which way. But this is more about hotels and restaurants â€" two key components of the hospitality industry. They've quietly made some progress in opening social media channels to their customers.

4. Cable (33 percent) Next to airlines, cable is one of the lowest-rated industries, when it comes to customer service. So, again, customers are reaching out to Twitter accounts like @comcastcares and Time Warner Cable's Facebook page for help. This seems more an act of desperation than convenience, if the numbers are to be believed.

5. Banks (31 percent) Here's another underperforming sector, thanks to the recent wave of defaults and ill-conceived mergers. But also, banks provide notoriously bad phone service, sending their customers through endless prompts, forcing them to verify their identities multiple times, and leaving them on "hold" for half an eternity. It's almost as if they don't want you to use the phone. Now they are getting their wish.

With the possible exception of retail and hospitality, it may not even be a question of living by social media, but dying by it. The social media channel is so attractive because it bypasses the phone, which for an increasing number of customers just doesn't work anymore. Their next step may be to take their business elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, I asked if your business really needs a Twitter account. Here's your answer. If you're in the retail, phone, travel, cable or bank industry, you probably do.

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Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Franco Folini/Flickr