customers on twitter by today are sending a clear message to brands, and they’re saying that they want to communicate via social media. Twitter, in particular, is often customers’ method of choice, due to its lightning fast form of communication. But according to new research, to compete in today’s social media marketplace, brands must not just join Twitter and create an account, they must actively monitor and engage with their customers on a 24/7 basis.

New Standards of Brand Communication

New research from Lithium Technologies indicates that customers expect a quick response on Twitter, and will punish brands that don’t react fast enough. Just how fast do they expect to be heard? An hour or less. It’s a lofty goal, but one that customers are increasingly expecting brands to meet.

Lithium’s research revealed that 53% of customers demand to receive a Twitter response in less than an hour, and if they have a complaint, 72% expect a speedy response.

When companies don’t meet these speedy expectations, the consequences are harsh. Over a third, 38% of customers, feel more negatively about the brand, and 60% will actually take action to voice their dissatisfaction. This, over just an hour of waiting for a response.

These standards are much higher than just two years ago, when evolve24 conducted a similar study. evolve24 found that 51% of 2011 Twitter customers didn’t even expect companies to read their complaint tweets. And only 29% of companies contacted Twitter users who lodged a complaint. But even with expectations and response that would be considered very poor now in 2013, there’s a good lesson in evolve24’s research: the users who did receive a response were happy to hear from the companies they complained about. When companies contacted customers as a result of a complaint tweet, 51.5% of them liked it, and 32% loved it.

But the bar is set higher now, and customers today don’t just expect an effective response, they expect one nearly immediately. Ignore your customers, or make them wait too long, and they might even advertise their complaints, like British Airways customer Hasan Syed, whose luggage was lost on a flight. Syed bought Twitter ads after British Airways did not respond to him quickly enough with a satisfying response. The British Airways Twitter account is manned during weekday business hours only, a policy that the brand may want to reconsider with today’s always-on expectations of brands on Twitter.

Masters of Twitter Customer Service

Clearly, an active and timely Twitter account is essential to customer service in the social media age. More than half of Twitter’s users engage with brands on the service, and nearly half of Twitter’s users indicate Twitter as their platform of choice for company questions. And with 74% of customers reporting they believe shaming brands on social media leads to better service, frequent interaction on Twitter is often needed to prevent positive customers from turning sour.

One major brand that is putting this quick-response Twitter customer service model to work is @McDonalds The brand has nearly two million Twitter followers just on @McDonalds, and receives 5 mentions per second on Twitter alone. In an interview with Social Media Today, social media team leader Kim Musgrave explains that McDonald’s operates on Twitter for listening and engagement seven days a week.

The team brings together customer service, communications, public relations, and agencies to make sure every tweet that needs a response gets one. In fact, the Twitter team routes customer complaints back to individual store managers within an hour of the initial post whenever possible. Though this may seem like service above and beyond what’s expected, Musgrave believes it’s just part of social media evolution, as she sees responsive, authentic interaction in the future of social media.

“I see the customer expecting brands to be very responsive (just like calling), but also authentic in social customer service—no auto replies,” says Musgrave. “For brands with increasing mentions in social, having the best social tool for prioritization and routing will be a necessity.”

Zappos, long known as a king of customer service uses Twitter to communicate with as many customers as possible, turning the social media service into a true customer service platform. On Zappos Conversations, the company uses Twitter’s Streaming API to highlight Tweets with conversations, comments, and solved problems. Zappos even created a TweetWall, which shares product finds from Twitter users that interacted with Zappos. Zappos is not just quickly responding to customers on Twitter, they’re actively engaging with them, and even using positive responses from the community for marketing.

How Brands Should Manage Customer Service on Twitter

What does this mean for brands, both on and off Twitter? First and foremost, a Twitter account is a must have. Twitter’s users have spoken, and they’re saying that they want to talk to you, for better or for worse. In addition to a warning for sluggish responses, Lithium’s study revealed that brands can positively impact their customer service by using Twitter. With timely responses, customers are 34% more likely to buy, 43% more likely to recommend products, 38% more receptive to ads, and 42% more willing to praise or recommend the brand on social media.

Brands should also be concerned with staying on top of Twitter with up to the minute alerts and updates. Tools like HootSuite can immediately alert brands to interactions and mentions on Twitter and other social media networks. With 24/7 monitoring, companies are able to quickly respond to questions, complaints, and compliments, staying within the one hour response window that customers have come to expect.