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Q&A: Frank Eliason, Citi's New Social Media Guru, On the Right Approach to Twitter and Facebook and the Tools That Help

Banks should not try to use social media for marketing or selling, but for obtaining actionable intelligence and turning around detractors, Eliason advises.

Citi hired Frank Eliason, the highly regarded director of digital care at Comcast, away to be its senior vice president of social media in August. We caught up with Eliason six months into his new job, to find out what he's been up to at the bank and his words of wisdom for banks navigating the shoals of social networking sites.

Bank Systems & Technology: It seems like social media has become another customer service channel for banks alongside branches, call centers, online banking, mobile banking, etc.

Eliason: We do look at it that way, it's a communications channel. You can even segregate out some of the different social media spaces -- YouTube versus Twitter versus Facebook. Our strategy in general is to listen to and engage with customers.

BS&T: Do you have staff focused on Twitter and Facebook?

Eliason: My team, which consists of three other individuals and me, focuses on strategy, tools and marketing and communication. We've trained 100 customer service agents to handle Twitter. We also have PR people in social media and people in other business units that are doing different components of social. We manage pieces of this and act as an internal consulting firm to help business units with their goals and objectives, making sure they match up to our strategy. Well before I came to Citi, the bank had established an overarching, strategic plan. [Eliason's predecessor at Citi, Jaime Punishill, another social media whiz, is now global head of wealth online at Thomson Reuters.] We've been implementing that plan, tweaking it as necessary.

We're also trying to humanize the brand and build a dialogue and rapport with our customers in social media. For instance, there's been a lot of discussion in recent months over mortgage issues in the banking industry. We've posted a series of videos on our YouTube channel regarding the mortgage crisis and what customers should do about it.

BS&T: Are Twitter, Facebook and Youtube your primary social media outlets?

Eliason: No, as a company we also have blogs.

BS&T: For a while, people were talking about FourSquare.

Eliason: We do FourSquare too. I'm also looking at new sites like Quora. Quora is a question and answer site. I'm thinking about, what value can we add here? Maybe we can help facilitate responses to some of the banking questions.

BS&T: So you might have a team of people post answers or you might go in yourself and answer questions?

Eliason: I've been going in as myself and not representing Citi, answering questions and getting a feel for how it is. But I'm also trying to figure out if there's a way it might benefit the bank to use that.

BS&T: Some banks still have policies where they don't allow their employees to use social media. You probably heard about the JPMorgan Chase business analyst who was fired for having a personal, anonymous blog where she wrote historical fiction under a pen name. Apparently the company had something in its HR policy about political speech, so they told her she had to give up the blog and she said no and was let go.

Eliason: Some social media is blocked in a lot of places, including at Citi. There are ways to get access if needed. I was around when email started to become popular in business. In the beginning, companies gave it to select people, they thought if we give to everybody they won't get things done. It's the same argument today. I think part of it is building a comfort level with it. One of the challenges is the legal ramifications -- for instance, what is considered advertising? When you look at different regulated aspects to what we do, especially with investment advisors, there are record retention laws that require banks to archive advisors' communications with customers. You have to find ways to understand and meet that. One thing we're doing is looking at tools like Socialware and FaceTime, these are ways to retain this data.

BS&T: How close are you to choosing a tool like that?

Eliason: We're in the midst of a test between different products, shortly we'll make a decision of which to go ahead with. But once you choose a vendor, then you have to develop training for your representatives. We're trying to be very methodical, trying to engage with people throughout the company such as legal, compliance, and fraud as well as engage with customers, find out what they're comfortable with and what they want to see. We get their feedback in social media but we also through Communispace, a private forum in which you can have customers answering questions. We're asking customers about how they use Facebook, how they want companies to be within Facebook, their preferences. These are all important components if we're to do things right.

BS&T: I remember seeing the Citi Facebook page when you opened your new Union Square branch, and the tone of the comments from Citi on that page were breezy, humorous and un-bank-like. How do you develop that communication style in people? Or is it a matter of hiring the right people?

Eliason: It's hiring the right people but I've been hiring people for social media for a few years, and I've found it's not necessarily hiring people with social media experience. I tend to prefer highly passionate people -- passionate for the customers, the company, interaction -- they tend to be the best. This space is different because it's much more about a dialogue. On your website, you want to present yourself in a formal way. When you're in a space like Facebook, it's more like a customer's living room. You want customers to invite you in, you have to concentrate on their needs as opposed to your needs.

BS&T: So matching the customer's tone is important?

Eliason: Exactly. That tends to be the best approach. A lot of brands are jumping to have a Facebook presence because they think there's going to be this great marketing experience. I like to point out that no, you have to find ways they can be comfortable inviting you into their living room.

When I came to Citi, I was expecting people to be scared of social, and actually I found people very interested in social. It plays into the things we are striving to do as a brand. We are striving to be seen in a more customer-centered manner. When I met Michelle Peluso [chief marketing officer at Citigroup and former CEO of Travelocity], it was clear that for her everything we do, whether it be building a website or interacting with customers or even marketing, is all about the net promoter score, a measurement companies use to see how they're doing with their customers. That focus was exactly the reason why I joined.

BS&T: Are net promoters people who will talk up your brand on the web?

Eliason: Yes, on a scale of 0 through 10 the net promoters would rank your company a 9 or a 10, detractors would rank it below a 4. Net promoter scoring is beneficial as you measure trends, and if you see it go up all of a sudden, why? Or if it goes down, why?

BS&T: It can be hard for any large organization to respond quickly to emergencies or problems, there are matrices and hierarchies to go through. Yet in social media you do have to respond immediately, you can't say I'll get back to you in three days or even 24 hours. How does a bank like Citi handle that?

Eliason: It's a learning process. Before I started here the bank was were already on Twitter, there was an established process of everything getting approved. When I joined we took those learnings and documented the policies. Our policies allow for faster responses, but we still have an approval process if necessary. Service representatives have a laundry list of things they are approved to handle, but when a request or problem deviates from the list they go to my team. My team quickly assesses it -- is there a legal or PR risk? -- and we'll make the judgement of whether PR or legal approval is needed. You want to have these controls in place, but you have to have some trust and flexibility. Then we can go back and check that the right things are being done. We use CoTweet to build some of these processes.

The other challenge banks is a lot of the information you have to deal with is private. I can't talk about the reason why someone was declined for credit on Twitter.

BS&T: And you don't want customers posting their account numbers on Twitter or Facebook.

Eliason: You don't even want them private messaging the account number. Banks that are doing customer service via Twitter almost always respond the same way -- contact us directly over the phone, no account information please. So one thing we're developing with LivePerson, a vendor of chat software, is click to call or click to chat, which means if it has to go to a private conversation, instead of saying give us your phone number and we call them, you're taking them to a whole different mechanism that they might prefer. Click to chat will allow us to send that person a link that will allow them to have a conversation in a secured manner with the same person with whom they were Twittering. It's easy and makes sense, it allows for a better customer experience.

BS&T: When do you think you might roll that out?

Eliason: It was going to be March but now it looks like April. We came up with the concept in the fall. As we further develop it, we'll be able to use that same technology in other social areas.

BS&T: Do you also use tools to monitor social media?

Eliason: Of course. Scout Labs is one my team uses, in other areas they're using other tools like Radian6. The key within social media is that you won't find a return on investment from selling. That's a long-term belief. How many ads do you click on in social media? People don't. But where you can get really strong ROI is on actionable intelligence. Think about Twitter -- it asks the question, what's happening? People provide information about what's going on right now in their lives. They're telling you any trouble they're having and good things that are happening, but it's real time and before they take other action. Before they even call, they Tweet. Now you're getting real time intelligence. If you take this intelligence and you can fix a problem or put out a message across several communication channels to help avoid that problem, and you start multiplying that out, that's money. The big challenge in most organizations is that they are listening but they're not doing anything with what they hear. They might be listening in marketing or PR, but they're not taking that intelligence to the product teams or the web developers or whomever. This real time intelligence is extraordinarily valuable.

BS&T: Some bankers worry that, although they have people looking at their Facebook page or Tweeting comments about the bank, that activity may not be leading to product sales or increased deposits.

Eliason: They're focusing on the wrong things. They're focusing on the marketing, selling side of things. What I see is, this is the consumer space, ultimately if you're creating the right experience for your customers, they'll do the marketing for you. You have to connect the dots through what is that phone experience like, what is that branch experience like, your customers can then take this newfound power over the brand and see improved service overall. If they see that, they'll start to talk about it.

BS&T: So as banks look at complaints and react by making changes and improvements in products and service, the tenor and tone of the comments will change?

Eliason: Absolutely. I saw that at Comcast. The other challenge is people say, I'm going to get more complaints if I do it this way. Actually, if you improve all channels, complaints should go down. In my time at Comcast, I watched complaints go down over the years. I watched the overall sentiment for the company go up. If you do have that detractor, in any channel, ultimately if you turn them around, they sometimes become your biggest fans.

BS&T: How do you turn them around? Some people are whiny by nature.

Eliason: That's a product of the way some companies have approached social media -- let's take care of the loudest people -- but that is not my belief. It creates an environment where they expect something. I'm a big believer in consistency, but ultimately when someone is complaining, there are a few things to keep in mind: when you complain about something, you already tell me that you have a passion about it. Being unwilling to say anything would be worse. The way you turn them around is by (a) listening, (b) trying to be as transparent as possible. We hear the word transparency all the time with social media, what it comes down to is normal service technique, if you provide the customer with an explanation and information, they're going to turn around. They're not always going to love the answer, but they'll appreciate the explanation.

BS&T: What if the social media CSR is getting questions about a problem he can't fix or explain, such as a new checking fee that he can't waive?

Eliason: There are explanations as to why, often there are means around those fees, so the CSR can explain how to avoid the fee. You're not always going to be able to appease everybody that way, there are going to be some that can't meet that criteria. At that point, it's being empathetic toward them, understanding their scenario, then offering to share their feedback. By doing that in a human manner, that creates a good customer experience. I had a customer who wanted to change the terms of her mortgage because the value of her home dropped, there was no financial reason to make that change, so I had a conversation with her. At the end of that conversation, we didn't change the mortgage, but she said thank you for that.

BS&T: Are your social media CSRs also handling incoming phone calls?

Eliason: Yes, and email. Our service people do it all. We have 100 people trained in social media for Twitter. We don't need 100 people on there at a time, but they're trained and able to do it. From there, we'll get them involved in other things as well.

BS&T: Are there any other projects you're working on this year?

Eliason: So many projects. It's a changing space. We're striving to focus on the right things. We're looking at the use of social media tools internally, behind the firewall. Social media has made the world a smaller place. You now know what goes on in various parts of the world just by a Tweet. You can do the same throughout your whole organization. That's exciting, it connects everyone around the globe.

BS&T: Helping employees to share ideas?

Eliason: Share ideas, thoughts, questions, vision. You start to learn what's going on throughout the company. The tools are evolving. A big component of this space is figuring out the right tools and the right ways to use them, then educating people about them.

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