NEW YORK (
) -- The last thing any Twitter user expects to receive after telling a bank to stick its overdraft fee where the sun don't shine is a polite, "Anything I can do to help?" from a bank customer service rep.
But that's exactly what some critical customers are encountering online, as banks expand customer service operations into the digital frontier.
Plenty of businesses have sought to capitalize on growing social media forums like Twitter, the microblogging site that allows users to "tweet" messages of 140 characters or less to "followers" online. That stodgy, behemoth banks like
Bank of America
are among them may seem more surprising to some.
BofA and Wells have set up pages on Twitter to reach out to disgruntled customers, and be available to those who prefer tweeting questions or complaints, rather than deal with them on a phone call or branch visit. Customer service representatives even change profile photographs and introduce themselves by first name when changing shifts.
doesn't have a page like that, but still reached out to Lisa Tibbitts after she posted two tweets about what she considered shoddy online banking services. A representative from a branch in Pelham, N.Y. called her twice to find out the issues, and inform her that the service was set to be improved in September, offering to help Tibbitts learn the new features.
"TD Bank handled the situation in exactly the right way," says Tibbitts, who happens to work in public relations. She tweeted about the positive turn of events to over 400 followers, many of whom would be interested to know since she represents financial services firms.
Social media experts say interest in online media like Twitter has taken off in the financial industry. Rosemary Ostmann, who counsels banks on strategies, recently gave a presentation on "building buzz" using Twitter at an American Bankers Association forum.
"There was a huge amount of interest," says Ostmann, who runs public relations firm Rose Communications. She adds that banks already building a presence on Twitter are "ahead of the curve."
Whether or not they're already on the site, banks are keeping a close eye on competitors' strategies to avoid pitfalls. They hope to capitalize on Twitter's popularity to win new business, and win over the hearts and minds of consumers who are frustrated with taxpayer-funded bank bailouts and what they perceive as greedy and unscrupulous practices. It could be an uphill battle, if David Broudy, who posted an impolite tweet about a transaction with Bank of America on Aug. 8, is any indication.
"I thought I'd paid off my last cent of debt and you buzzards want another $16 for interest?" said
Broudy. "Kiss my..."
And so on.
Broudy's sentiment is echoed by others across the online gamut, from Twitter to Facebook and MySpace to online diaries that have complained of the injustices of bank fees for as long as anyone has been blogging.
Addressing those complaints has had mixed results, though banks report that the response has been more favorable than negative. Some users turn from obscenities to pleasantries. They seem to be in a state of shock and slight embarrassment, thinking: Was my curse-laden, informal attack on a large corporate enterprise just responded to directly, on a human level?
But others, like Chris Pugh, are not so easily charmed.
Pugh posted a tweet that he'd be closing out his BofA account after crummy customer service experiences on the phone and at a local branch. BofA rep David Knapp responded with a, "Hello! I work for Bank of America. Please let me know if I can try to help!"
But as Pugh's ensuing blog post -- titled
"Bank of America Customer Service Fail" -- made clear, he was already too frustrated with his experience to be wooed. He seemed to poke fun at the bank's overly polite gesture.
@BofA_help," Pugh writes, "not even your tweet can save this account."
Something in Pugh's humorous post rings true. It's difficult to believe that big old Bank of America, with its $2.25 trillion balance sheet, is truly concerned about each customer's happiness. Of course part of its strategy is intended to boost the bottom line and restore a badly tainted public image.
It's equally difficult to harmonize conflicting images of
Wells Fargo's iconic, 150-year-old stage coach with its thumbnail photo of Jay, who tweets at a user with the handle "
robynzombie" or posts about envelope-free ATMs.
But, there it is: 21st century banking.
"It's where our customers are," says Jenn McDonald, senior vice president of digital marketing at Bank of America.
McDonald says that BofA's decision to launch a Twitter page in January was "fairly intuitive." She notes that the bank recently reached benchmarks of one million deposits at ATM machines in a single day, and 3 million users who have signed up for mobile banking. In other words, if customers are banking
outside of the branches and need assistance online on various platforms, BofA aims to serve.
is more cautious about Twitter.
"We're looking at it," says spokesman Tom Kelly. "We haven't really announced anything yet."
has taken a different approach. It has several different accounts, all pitching products, attracting talent or distributing other types of information. However, it has not yet launched a central customer-service hub on Twitter like BofA or Wells.
also has an account with a few posts that promote products and press releases. Though their strategies may be developing, social media experts warn against their current ones.
"It has to be a conversation; it can't be an advertising channel," says Ostmann.
Twitter users may want product and service information from a tech giant like
, and they may want coupons and sale information from a retail giant like
. But by and large, customers reach out to banks to store and borrow money, and to complain, making an online service like
Ask_WellsFargo the most useful.
Andy Rohm, a marketing professor at Northeastern University, agrees. Users don't want to engage with banks that "hawk their wares," he says.
For their part, neither BofA nor Wells say they have current plans to tweet sales pitches.
Wells' marketing staff has been analyzing and tweaking its social media strategy since 2006 as new trends emerge. The company launched the Ask_WellsFargo Twitter account in March, but also maintains accounts on Facebook and
MySpace, as well as five blogs and a channel on
Matt Wadley, who is part of that team, calls Twitter the "social network du jour," noting that the staff has to think on its feet in a fast-paced media landscape.
"I don't think that we can really speak to the future plans," he says. "It's just becoming such a part of everything, who knows where it will be used best down the road. But right now it's just about being there for our customer."
However, Rohm's work with the Netherlands' Rabobank may hold some clues about the future.
Rabobank created a virtual bot named
Yvette, who can help multiple customers with difficulties and complaints. She engages users through individual chats on MSN, and has profile on a Facebook-like service called
Hyves. She also brings up facts mentioned in previous conversations to foster a less android-like relationship with the user.
"She can respond in both functional and social chat," says Rohm. "She might engage with you saying, 'Hey it's nice to chat with you again. How was your trip to Barcelona?'"
On some level it seems strange, but maybe Yvette is the perfect representation of a global financial institution trying to interact with people. Yvette's red hair, ruby lips and delicate features provide an identity and imply a youthful friendliness. According to her profile, she's is in a relationship and lives with her partner. When she's not on the job, she likes to hang out at the Heineken Music Hall.
Anyone who's frustrated by an overdraft fee -- or just bored or lonely -- can reach her via email or MSN chat at email@example.com.
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York. Follow Lauren on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TSCLauren