Why You Should Start Tweeting at Your Bank

Financial institutions are devoting more resources to social media

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Business school applicants who think they can Tweet their way into an MBA program may be in for a surprise.

Not so long ago, Twitter was a wasteland for banking customer communication. People would Tweet at their bank and get little useful information in return. Banks would simply direct customers to pick up the phone or send an email instead, which led Javelin Strategy & Research to call Twitter a “fruitless extra step, not a time-saver” in a January 2012 report.

But today, some banks have stepped up their social media game, which makes connecting with your bank over Twitter a more productive use of time. At Bank of America, for example, 100 customer service representatives are devoted full-time to interacting with customers over social media. When customers Tweet about a problem or ask a question to the company’s handle @BofA_Help, they quickly receive a reply. Interactions that require the exchange of personal information are done via direct messaging.

“We are there because our customers are expressing a need to engage with us in this way,” says Jim Emerick, enterprise customer relations executive at Bank of America. He says customers ask about everything from deposit-related questions to mortgage rate inquiries through social media. Indeed, a Nielsen study recently found that 1 in 3 people who use social media prefer interacting with companies via Twitter, Facebook, or other network than via phone.

[Read: How Credit Card Companies Spot Fraud Before You Do.]

The rules have changed since that Javelin survey came out, Emerick says, partly because so many more customers are on social media now, which has led Bank of America to dedicate more experienced employees to the space while also finding ways to protect customer privacy.

The customer service Twitter handle (@BofA_Help) sends hundreds of Tweets a day, always in response to a customer Tweet. Emerick reports that so far this year, the company counts over 200,000 interactions with customers in social media. That’s already a fourfold increase over 2012. “A lot of that comes from user awareness. Users have had a positive experience and shared that with friends and colleagues. They realize, ‘This is a place I can go to a variety of things,’ so we have a lot of repeat customers,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Emerick says the customers who are most likely to engage with the bank via social media are “highly digital users” – people who have smartphones in their hands at all times, even while they’re engaged in other activities. Social media users also tend to live in large urban areas, especially Los Angeles and New York.

[Read: What You Should Know About Savings Accounts.]

Before you hop on Twitter to message your bank, here are three things you should know:

You can get almost any question answered. “It could be as simple as finding the nearest ATM, or as complex as, ‘I’m in need of support with a lost or stolen credit card,’” Emerick says. “Our social care associates have the capability to engage the customer right there, so they have a single point of contact, and resolve the issue…. It’s a one-stop shopping approach,” he adds.

Those “social care associates” have strong backgrounds in customer service as well as specific banking subjects, which means they are able to respond to customers’ questions directly, Emerick says. Not all banks invest so heavily in their social media presence, however, so you’ll want to check on your own bank’s capabilities before relying on the social media network to get questions answered.

You can protect your privacy. One of the biggest concerns with interacting with your bank over social media is privacy protection. Consumers should never share account numbers, Social Security digits (even just the last four) or other identifying information in any public space, including Twitter. That’s why Bank of America social care associates use direct messaging to communicate with Twitter users in a private way.

“As soon as we engage the customer, we invite them into a direct message environment, then we go through the authentication process to make certain we are engaging with who we think we are working with,” Emerick says. That authentication process is just like the one over the phone, where the customer is asked to verify personal information. “Once we’ve established that, it allows for the same level of security and privacy that customers expect and need from their bank,” Emerick says.

[Read: How to Make Sense of a Credit Card's Terms and Conditions.]

You don’t have to be young to Tweet. Emerick says Generation Xers make up a little over 40 percent of customers who reach out over social media, while Generation Y members, who are primarily in their twenties, make up about 20 percent of social media users. Boomers make up just under 30 percent of the group. Their questions, though, tend to break down along age lines, with older folks asking more about mortgage products and younger users focusing more on deposit products and online and mobile banking.

Of course, the exchanges are not always productive. Customers also use social media to simply vent. One customer recently took to Twitter to “thank” Bank of America for making her “broke.” A Bank of America rep quickly responded, asking what happened and if she could do anything to help. The customer has yet to respond.