More UK retailers should explore and exploit the social network, says Martha Lane Fox

Greater Manchester police launched an interesting initiative on Twitter - they posted every call-out and incident on the social network so that anybody following them could see what kind of work they were doing.

The tweets ranged from the everyday “suspicious driving on M6” to the surprising “man seen with fridge” to the alarming “young boy walking alone along the side of the motorway”.

Following the comprehensive spending review a number of councils are beginning to crowdsource ideas for which parts of their services to improve and change. @Leedscutswatch is an idea spawned by The Guardian that focuses on the impact of the spending review on Leeds. People can tweet or email their view of the services as they change or suffer budget issues.

I am impressed by both these initiatives as from my limited experience of working in the public sector it can be tough to make bold decisions that could lead to criticism from your customers or end-users.

There is a laudable push for transparency in Government at present but with this comes the complexity about how to handle comments, complaints and suggestions. The police were widely congratulated for their day of tweeting but I am sure it led to many interesting internal discussions.

In the commercial sector, too, the speed and directness with which you can now reach any brand is changing customer relations forever. My boyfriend recently had a bad experience on BA and tweeted about it. Within a few hours the BA Twitter team (or more likely one person) had responded and even retweeted what he had said.

This was a quicker route to resolving his issue than the normal process, and full marks to the airline for reacting. The intimacy and directness of social networks are one of their great pleasures, but this opening up of data and the perceived breakdown of the barrier of authority is one of the most interesting phenomena of the internet and one that few retailers have properly explored and exploited.

A quick survey of my own Twitter followers led to some great examples of how customers felt better treated via the internet than more traditional customer service mechanisms. Perhaps it’s no surprise that ISPs and telcos were found to be more responsive than if customers called up to complain.

This strikes me as important - your social media strategy is normally run by someone who really cares for the brand and the technology or the channel; this is often not the case with outsourced call centres or the more traditional routes with which customers interact.

As @amtstevens said in her tweet to me: “Argos over the phone were rude but Argos on Twitter were very polite and helpful.” Other people cited @glassesdirect and @thameswater as very responsive.

Some retailers are prepared to be as bold as the Greater Manchester police. But not many. It seems the US still leads the way with Starbucks, Best Buy and Zappos.com all doing creative things. In the UK there is plenty of room for more innovation. If I was in charge of a retailer of any scale I would sit the person running my Twitter feed right beside me.

Martha Lane Fox is a director of Marks & Spencer (and UK Digital Champion)