When Peter Shankman tweeted that he’d like a porterhouse steak from Morton’s Steakhouse waiting for him when he landed at the Newark airport in New Jersey in August 2011, he probably didn’t expect it to happen. But when a limo pulled up with a Morton’s employee, steak and sides in hand, it made news.

So was this the greatest customer service of all time? A "twitacle"? Or just a PR stunt designed to leverage Shankman’s 100,000+ Twitter followers?

It’s hard to say. But here’s an even better question: Why is it that in most cases, it’s hard to get any customer service at all - whether at a restaurant or your local Internet service provider? According to a study by mystery shopping service STELLAService, the average response over Twitter isn’t that sparkling either; only 40 percent of customer service complaints delivered this way are answered within 24 hours. But when companies do respond, they tend to do so in a big way. Here’s why. (Interested in harnessing the power of Twitter? Get some ideas in How to Use Twitter to Land a Tech Job.)

The Big PR

Companies with smart social networking strategies know that when customers ask for help, others may be listening. Great customer service gets talked about, and this can lead to more sales and more attention. Twitter is one of the most viral platforms around, which means that one happy little customer can occasionally turn into a big story. That means that when companies hit it right on Twitter, a little effort can go a long way in terms of marketing a brand.

It works the other way, too. Complaints and customer service requests that are left unaddressed can also get attention - only it’s generally not the kind companies want. And given the opportunity to really speak their mind, customers will often do just that. In other words, customer service can be a great way for companies to make a positive impression on Twitter - and hopefully keep negative comments at bay. (Learn more about how companies use social media in Jedi Strategies for Social Media Management.)

Less Red Tape

With increasing customer service automation and outsourcing, there are literally legions of stories about customers who just couldn’t connect with a company's customer service - or were blown away by the lack of service they got when they did. But what’s interesting is that despite company cutbacks in many customer service areas, an increasing number of companies are hiring a social media team. According to socialmediaexaminer.com, 93 percent of marketers use social media for business. That often means a dedicated team of professionals monitoring what customers say on social media, including Twitter.

Better Accessibility

Better access to customer service is great news for the end user, who is now empowered to liaise with brands directly (and openly), demanding better service and products. And when I say directly, I mean that Twitter tends to be much more direct than other social media channels. Stories about service through Comcast’s social media channel, @ComcastCares, for example, are legion. That’s because this company - and other corporate social media success stories - use sophisticated CRM software to monitor Tweets and other social media mentions. Then they follow up. And the best companies do it almost instantly. (Read more about CRM in CRM Meets Social Media.)

It’s a far cry from the long and often grueling process of making your way through to a real, live representative in a typical customer service call. So maybe when a company hops to and delivers great service it isn’t a twitacle at all; it's just the power of better technology.

A Growing Initiative

According to statistics from Advertising Age magazine, Twitter will have 21 million users in the U.S. by the end of 2012. That’s more than the entire population of the state of New York. Plus, there are already more than 100 million users worldwide. One million new accounts are added to Twitter every day, and most of this growing demographic is made up of, you guessed it, students and recent college graduates. This represents a shift in the way that people communicate, both with companies and with each other. Companies who want new customers know they need to speak in the language those customers prefer, and it seems that that language is increasingly being expressed in 140-character tweets. Maybe customers are still contacting companies by snail mail (or, heck, email), but you can bet that those channels aren’t the ones companies are strategizing about.

For Customer Service, Just Tweet

Recent research suggests that many companies just aren’t that responsive when they’re called out on Twitter. But while companies may not always provide great customer service over Twitter, when they do, they tend to go above and beyond the call of duty. For anyone who’s languished on hold during a customer service call, that in itself is something to tweet home about.