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How Citibank Uses Twitter to Improve Customer Service

Dealing with customer service via phone rarely wins companies high marks. All too often, calling that 800-number on the back of your bank card means navigating an endless, automated screening system only to be routed to an agent in an overseas call center with minimal ability to help.

So why not just skip this seemingly fruitless effort and turn to social media where you can tweet your grievances and move on? Young people in particular are doing this in increasing numbers--often receiving instant feedback, though not usually from the vendor in question. According to a survey by Our Social Times, a social media marketing consultancy, 60 percent of companies don't respond to customers via social media, even when asked a direct question.

[Related: How Social Customer Support Brings Social Media Beyond Marketing]

[Related: How to Avoid Cloud Customer Support Worst Practices]

Frank Eliason, senior vice president of social media at Citibank, the $19.4 billion financial services company that serves more than 100 million customers in 40 countries, saw as much room for improvement in how banks use social media as he did challenges. Too many banks offer cookie cutter customer service, he says: "When we looked at banks and social, they all looked alike. The whole challenge was differentiating the service we provide to customers."

Customer service is a crucial aspect of any business, but can be an especially delicate matter for financial services companies because of the sensitive and private information they manage and the regulations around how they do that.

Banks are already often the victims of phishing attacks and due to the open nature of social media sites, the risks there increase ten-fold. Instilling trust in customers that their accounts will be safe when they are discussed via a social network is not easy. All too often news breaks that another bank was caught up in an internet-based security breach like the September 2011 report that the Bank of Melbourne's Twitter account was hacked and phishing links were sent to account holders via direct message.

To be able to safely interact on Twitter, the first thing Eliason considered was security. He knew sending account information over Twitter could pose a massive risk for Citi and the customer. "The regulatory stuff presents challenges. Even if you send your account information via direct message, banks can't do that, it's considered private information."

So when Citi wanted to find a way to initiate dialogues between Citi customer service agents and customers and actually resolve issues via social media sites, Eliason sought help from LivePerson chat integration, an online engagement solution that facilitates live chats within Twitter.

"If you're having a dialogue with an agent [via Twitter], we want you to continue with that person," he says. Citi's first efforts with LivePerson on Twitter involved agents initiating a direct messaging with any customer that mentioned "Citi" or "Citibank" in a question or concern.

Agents use the @AskCiti Twitter handle to send a link via Twitter direct message to the customer to start a live chat. The customer clicks that link and has to accept the application as they would with any other Twitter application, such as TweetDeck. Once that is done, they are brought to a secure chat within Citi's website and can start discussing whatever issue they have with the agent.

Because phishing attacks can be disguised and take on a copycat identity, banks need to be transparent with customers about where they are redirecting them. Eliason knew people would be hesitant about clicking on a link on Twitter that is somehow attached to their bank information. "We had to be cautious in how we implemented [LivePerson]," Eliason says. So he created a unique URL ending for Citi, Citi.us, in hopes the customer would know it was ok to proceed. Then he made it a standard to have all chats that initiate on Twitter be redirected back to the Citi site and continued only after the customer has securely logged into their Citi account.

Adoption was initially slow when it was first rolled out in December 2011 and usage reached its peak in mid-April and did well with customers after a few bug fixes. Citi says it speaks with about 160 customers each week in conversations that originated on Twitter. Eliason says that although the number of customer interactions is about the same as before the LivePerson integration, more interactions are being resolved. "The interactions were more phone tag. We're getting in touch with the customer the way they want. It's something that's easier and fits the customer's style."

Eliason says he would like to expand the service to other social media sites and is looking to find out whether implementing a survey component will be a good addition to the Twitter integration. "When it comes to customer service, [companies] measure the wrong things. The return we are looking for is really raising [customer service] scores," he says.

Contact Editorial Assistant Lauren Brousell at [email protected]

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