Bianca Buckridee has a thousand-watt smile that never seems to switch off and a sunny personality that surely served her well on the front lines of customer service. That's where she was working back in 2009, as a relationship manager handling fraud issues for SunTrust Bank, on the day she was called in for an unexpected meeting with one of the company's C-level executives.
On that day, her thoughts were uncharacteristically negative.
Buckridee hadn't meant to upset anyone by using social media at the office. She hadn't been doing it for very long. She was never even all that interested in it, really, having resisted the MySpace fad and the lure of Facebook, and opening a Twitter account only after being badgered into it by a friend.
It was just simple curiosity that led her to type the name of her employer into the Twitter search engine. She had no idea there would be so many tweets about SunTrust, with people commenting on its products and customer service in messages of up to 140 characters. She didn't know she would feel surprised that the bank was absent from these conversations, and she didn't think anyone would mind the PowerPoint presentation she put together, in which she laid out what she had discovered and recommended ways for the bank to respond.
Now here she was sitting in SunTrust Chief Marketing Officer Rilla Delorier's office, assuming the worst.
"I literally thought that I was going to be the first person in the world to be fired for going onto Twitter at work," Buckridee recalls.
Instead, she was asked what she thought SunTrust needed to get a social media operation off the ground.
It was an only-in-the-movies ending, inspired by the PowerPoint presentation, which had worked its way all the way up from Buckridee's supervisor to the desk of the marketing chief. Delorier was immediately taken with the spunky young woman from customer service with a fresh vision for using social media and the initiative to share her ideas.
JPMorgan Chase saw something similar in Buckridee when they lured her away from SunTrust two and a half years later. She started work in February at Chase's sprawling customer support facility in Westerville, Ohio.
And that's how Buckridee-who spent much of her childhood in foster care in New York City, who taught two years of elementary school before setting herself on a career path in bank customer service, and who barely had a social media presence of her own before carving out a career in the space-became the social media operations manager for the retail brand of the largest bank in the country.
There are other executives in banking who champion the idea of social media as a customer service venue. Frank Eliason, senior vice president of social media at Citigroup, recently wrote a whole book about the topic, entitled "@YourService."
Eliason made his name in social media circles when he built out the digital customer service capabilities of Comcast, the cable company; Citi hired him away in August 2010.
Chase, too, looked outside the industry for someone to run its social media operations. But ultimately it decided it wanted someone who had a track record of executing on a vision for social media within the confines of the uniquely regulated environment for banks.
Chase was the last of the big banks to engage in social media. The company took some flack for dawdling, but it also had the benefit of observing the competition and learning from companies outside the industry that already had found smart ways to use the channel.
Today, much of Chase's social media activity is based on the premise that the space is not just a venue to promote the brand and put out reputational fires, but a hub for collecting and addressing customers' concerns, just like a call center or an online banking help desk. But unlike other service channels, in social media the assistance comes from a single team that cuts across multiple product lines.
The approach is strikingly similar to the one Buckridee helped develop three years ago at SunTrust.
If other banks were thinking about social media at all back then, it generally was in the context of marketing and public relations. From the moment she first got on Twitter, Buckridee saw things differently. In building out and managing SunTrust's social media presence, her group frequently consulted with the marketing and PR folks. But the team, like Buckridee herself, was rooted in service.
The group was cultivated from the existing customer service staff within different business lines across the bank. The new group set guidelines for handling typical client scenarios that might be encountered on Twitter, and developed standards for the team's responses, so that client issues could be addressed with propriety, speed and consistency.
Within weeks, the @Ask SunTrust handle was up and running. The four-person team was fielding questions and complaints, monitoring mentions of the bank on other feeds, and reaching out to Twitter users when the appropriate opportunity arose. Buckridee was made assistant vice president for social media engagement at SunTrust for her efforts.