Twitter Chat for Customer Service

Ask the typical banker about his company’s social media strategy and you’re likely to be met with a shifting glance and nervous cough. The simple fact is, most financial institutions are still grappling with how to play in the social media space.

One apparent exception is Citibank, whose Senior Vice President of Social Media Frank Eliason fairly bubbles over with enthusiasm for the topic. Having made his mark using social media to improve customer service at media company Comcast, Eliason moved to the New York City-based bank in August 2010.

Eliason’s latest venture at Citi is a partnership with New York City-based LivePerson to improve the bank’s Twitter outreach. LivePerson’s technology enables Citi to shift a customer conversation from open-to-the public Twitter to a safer live chat venue. In the following interview, Eliason explains the value of that technology as well as the opportunities and challenges facing any bank that uses Twitter to improve customer service.

Eliason is scheduled to expound on his views in more detail at the 2012 BAI Retail Delivery conference in October.

Q: Banks have experimented for a while with responding to questions/comments coming from Facebook but less so from Twitter. Why did Citi decide to start using Twitter per se?

Eliason: First of all, we do use Facebook as well. But let’s define these spaces. Facebook is the place where you usually connect to family and friends for more personal conversations. Twitter is the place where you meet new people. It’s all about search. It’s about a broader conversation – talking to others, connecting to others in different ways.

From a customer service view point, Twitter makes a lot of sense. You can listen to these conversations very easily and you can respond to them very easily. And I think that’s why many companies are finding Twitter is an extraordinarily good place from a service perspective. Now, do people really want to listen to brands on Twitter? Not really. It’s more about connecting to people. The differentiating factor on Twitter is the conversation individuals are having all over the place. And if you see mention of your brand, you may chime into those conversations.

Companies often try to make their social media presence more about, “Let me tell you how great my company is.” I don’t think that’s necessarily how people use social media. The other day, on Citi’s U.S. consumer page, we shared pictures of the space shuttle as it was going through New York and we could see it from our offices. You know why? People are interested in that kind of thing.

The goal with a Facebook presence is to share things that would resonate with your fans; with Twitter, it’s all about listening.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Twitter medium from the bank’s point of view?

Eliason: The biggest advantage to Twitter is the search capability. Every Tuesday night, I take part in the customer service chat. We search “#custserv-hashtag” and from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. eastern standard time have a conversation about that. There are huge advantages with search because you can connect with customers that way.

The disadvantage for Twitter as a medium depends on one’s usage. Just putting out a message is worthless; no one cares. But being part of a conversation is an advantage.

Q: How does the LivePerson technology work behind the scenes? Anything new or different about it?

Eliason: The power of Twitter is that you can search just about every conversation going on. But that presents some unique challenges as well. If you work for, let’s say a cable provider, you can ask a customer for their account information so you can help them. It’s not like that’s private information; the account information is not useful in any other context.

However, in banking, you do run into a lot of regulatory and privacy concerns. I can’t say, “Send me a direct message with your private information.” I can’t do that because it doesn’t involve our servers and would provide others with access to that information. So, how do you deal with that?

We told LivePerson, “Here’s a business challenge. We have these privacy concerns. We have people who are talking out there. And we want our people to have much more of a dialogue, not just spew something back. We want to utilize this space that people have gotten used to. So how do we deal with this?”

In our partnership with LivePerson, we came up with solutions that enable a Twitter conversation to happen, but if it has to go to private conversation it can be shifted to a call. We also came up with technology that allows us to send the person a link. The end result is that a conversation that began on Twitter can continue behind a firewall, in a secured environment, authenticated to the customer’s account.

Q: What kind of customer questions do you respond to?

Eliason: Some of the questions might include the disputation of a charge. Someone might say, “I bought this on my credit card and didn’t get what I wanted from the merchant.” So sometimes you walk them through it. Or other times you might say, “Let’s pull up your account so we can fix it.” But, if we have to pull up an account, we have to authenticate and validate that we’re talking to the right person and be secure about it. So that’s a situation where you might use the “quick chat” mechanism.

We try to respond to all questions from U.S customers, though we’re now in the process of trying to spread this throughout the world. But as you’d imagine, there are regulatory challenges in every single place. We want to make sure we fully comprehend those challenges. Legal and compliance partnerships are huge when dealing with social media.

As a company, we have hired two social media attorneys. One concentrates on the U.S. and the other on other parts of the globe. So, we can talk through these challenges. If you want to win in social media and with your customer, you have to partner with great people, whether it be internal people like legal or compliance, or even regulators who are trying to understand this space. You take this information in and come up with new solutions, new business answers to drive things forward.

Q: What have been the results so far of your Twitter efforts? Can you quantify those results in terms of improving customer satisfaction and brand loyalty?

Eliason: I’m a huge proponent of measuring things via something like the “net promoter” score. The LivePerson technology enables us at the end of any chat session to measure our performance with that customer through a handful of survey questions. That’s a great way to measure it. We do that on our own website as well. We do know that the people who go through that mechanism have a good feel for the brand and we’ve certainly had very positive results when it comes to those surveys.

To me, the return on investment (ROI) in social media is in the information that’s there – not only the information that’s there, but actually bringing about real change based on this information. The ROI in social media is all this information, all this discussion and actually bringing about change in the organization. Paying attention to online conversations can drive change; you can drive process improvements that can therefore be measured.

When I first started here, we paid close attention to a lot of the online conversations of people struggling with their mortgages. Those conversations were actually not on Twitter or Facebook because people don’t want you knowing that they’re struggling to pay the mortgage. But they’re on the Net, just in more anonymous places. We use a tool called Radian6 to listen to those conversations.

One of the things we found is that the mortgage industry uses the term “Loss Mitigation Specialist” to describe people tasked with helping customers struggling with their mortgages. Think about that: do you really think you’re going to get help from a “Loss Mitigation Specialist?” So we changed the term we use to “Homeowner Support Specialist.” The next piece was actually launching www.homeownersupport.com. We wanted to have a place where people can have those anonymous conversations more comfortably and where we could easily watch and chime in if necessary. These are the ways businesses in the social world have to be thinking.

In my view, the consumer controls your brand in these types of social spaces and they control your image. You have to be listening to them, whether it’s via social media or on the phones. You have to listen to what they’re telling you and find solutions to meet their needs. And by doing so, you can improve customer satisfaction, which is measurable.

Mr. English is a contributing writer to BAI Banking Strategies based in Chicago.