I recently witnessed a startling example of real-life word-of-mouth (WOM) in action while searching out a family-friendly breakfast spot in the posh, seaside town of Newport, RI. After wandering up and down the shop-lined streets for twenty minutes, my beau and our two girls decided on a bustling, second-story café. We found a spot on the already crowded stairway and were enjoying some idle chit-chat with other vacationers when two middle-aged men emerged from the dining room and began to make their way down the stairs.

When someone asked them if it looked like a long wait inside, one of the men paused and said, “I wouldn’t bother waiting.” He then offered his unsolicited, ninety-second review of the restaurant. He wasn’t vehement, but made it clear that the service had been slow, the food had been cold, and the staff – certainly overwhelmed – had been harried and abrupt.

In thirty seconds, the stairway cleared. On the advice of a complete stranger, eight parties who had been prepared to wait thirty minutes for a table instantly decided to take their business elsewhere.

If you think this is an isolated event, you’d better wake up. Every day, people make buying decisions based on the opinions and advice of complete strangers. Whether through social media or real-world interactions, we tend to be more vigorously persuaded by the insights of people we consider impartial. Whether spontaneous or sought out, the availability of “Real Person” input changes both the definition and importance of “customer service.” Businesses are learning – sometimes the hard way – that EVERY INTERACTION MATTERS.

Whether you are having a dialog with a potential customer, servicing an existing one, or assuaging the pain of an unhappy one, each and every one of your interactions can have exponential impact on your business. Particularly in the very public realm of social media, businesses must strive for perfection.

Here are five ideas to keep in mind:
1. You are always on. Time spent with customers or potential customers should be considered “stage” time. It’s your job to make each person’s experience with your brand incredibly satisfying and memorable.

2. Every customer matters. Whether an account generates $4 million or $400, always offer your best service. From peon to celebrity, each customer has the same ability to make noise – negative or positive – about your company.

3. Response time is critical. In the world of social media, news travels as fast as a 140-character tweet. In a perfect world, you’d be able to anticipate issues and intervene before they go viral. If you’re unable to do that, the next best thing is to respond immediately. Don’t give rumors or bad press time to spread.

4. Transparency should only go so far. “Transparency” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in social media circles. Though it’s generally good practice, some circumstances call for a level of decorum not possible on the public stage. Try to transition crisis management conversations to a more private forum (like phone or email), and then – if appropriate – close the loop on the issue via the original venue.

5. Sometimes, your enemy is your best friend. Unhappy customers should have a special place in your heart. Though these people may be cranky pains in the you-know-what, you have the power – through attentive and authentic service – to transform them into one of your most valuable assets: a convert. If you can exceed the expectations of a dissatisfied customer, you will have a loyal customer for life, and one who will have reason to share a great story about your brand.

What other ideas help you keep perspective when it comes to managing and optimizing your customer interactions? Have you had any great (or terrible) WOM experiences in your business?

Here’s the rest of the “Social Media Reality Check” series.