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.

"Bianca became the gold standard for social media across industries, speaking at many conferences," Delorier says.

It was at one such conference that Buckridee caught the attention of someone from Chase, which was eyeing candidates for the social media operations role. Eventually, an introduction was arranged.

Buckridee interviewed with close to 35 people at Chase. It was intense, she says, but the process gave her confidence that she would be given a substantive assignment, and not just a ceremonial platform for pontificating on social media from 30,000 feet.

"They asked me really specific questions about risk mitigation, about compliance issues, about branding issues," Buckridee says. "I knew they were looking for someone serious and not just someone who was going to gloss over social media as a new business."

She has a team of 10 at a Chase customer support center outside Columbus. The group manages the @chasesupport Twitter feed, and in doing so supports all of the company's major consumer lines of business, including branch banking, mortgages, credit cards and auto lending.

Not coincidentally, Chase's social media operation came about as efforts intensified to unify the branding, online and off, for all of the bank's consumer-facing businesses.

"We really grew up as a set of very product-focused companies, and we decided it was really important to present ourselves with consistency to our customers," says Bill Wallace, Chase's head of operations for consumer and business banking and cards.

That decision was a key factor in a major management realignment announced in late July. By next year, Chase's retail and business banking, along with mortgage banking and the card and auto businesses, will come under the responsibility of one executive, Gordon Smith, who will oversee the company's entire offering of consumer-oriented products and services.

 

In the offline world, customer service functions tend to live in their own expensive silos along with the specific product lines they support.

"I think that's what frustrates a lot of customers," Buckridee says. "They'll call into a company and the first person they speak to will know a first piece of the answer, but then they'll have to transfer them to get the next piece of the answer."

But social media, with its cheap, flexible infrastructure, is a natural place to consolidate a brand presence and build a cross-functional customer support staff.

Wallace says Chase visited companies such as Comcast, Dell Computer and Southwest Airlines to see how they had incorporated social media into their own customer service operations.

Members of Buckridee's team were hand-selected based on their service skills and on the expectation that those skills would translate well to social media. Nonetheless, there was an intensive amount of training for everyone in the group.

"You're taking advisors from multiple lines of business and expanding their skill set beyond the subjects they know," Buckridee explains. "You're saying, 'Hey, I need you to know about our credit card and home lending lines of business. I also need you to speak to our customers in a genuine tone that conveys you understand the medium, and you're going to be the new face of Chase online." Also, "you have to be able to get your point across in a courteous, professional manner, and you have to be able to do it in literally two sentences."

Buckridee's team is not limited to millennials who have practically grown up with Twitter. Buckridee herself is 34, and she says her staff covers a wide range of ages. She doesn't consider social media strictly a young person's milieu, though now and again she notices an age divide.

"Sometimes a tweet will come in and I won't understand what they're saying but a younger person on the team will be familiar with the acronym," Buckridee says. "It's like I have my own version of Urban Dictionary with me."

Corinne Sutter, 28, came to Buckridee's group from Chase's branch operation support team, where she worked in the call center serving retail branch customers. Before her current assignment, Sutter had no idea that social media would ever be anything more to her than a venue for posting pictures and trading messages with friends.

"Probably up until I came to this team, I didn't realize how important social media was for companies. I didn't realize how crucial it was for expanding the business and for assisting customers," she says.

Now Sutter also sees social media as a way of expanding her own career options, something she began thinking about upon the arrival of her new boss. She says Buckridee is "really honest with her feedback, and her visions are for the team.

"I really do admire her and look up to her, and I'm hoping to follow her path within social media" to a management role.

Buckridee credits her own entrepreneurial drive to life lessons she learned before she found her way into the banking industry.

Buckridee's family immigrated to New York from Trinidad, settling in Queens.

As a child, she spent six years in foster care. She doesn't volunteer specifics about how she landed there, but she does speak openly about her experiences in the system.

Buckridee credits much of her professional success to the support and encouragement she received from the educational coordinator at the agency overseeing her care.

"A lot of people don't really have high expectations for foster kids," she says. "I think when people meet me, they have no idea at all."

An aunt and uncle got custody of Buckridee as she was entering her junior year of high school. "I went from that to college and was able to find a normal footing in life," Buckridee says.

More lessons got picked up after college, during the two years she spent teaching kindergarten and third grade at a charter school in Florida.

As a new teacher, Buckridee initially prepared her lessons in a very traditional manner. She thought she was doing a good job with the children, but when their scores didn't improve, she confided in her aunt about her disappointment in the class.

"I was so upset ... and my aunt said, 'What if it's you? What if it's your skills as a teacher that aren't working?' At first, I was horrified. And then I realized, I'm a teacher competing in a video game world. These students go home and they're playing Nintendo and that's how they're learning, and I'm handing them a paper and pen."

Buckridee's teaching style changed drastically after that. She began to blend auditory and visual components into her lesson plans, using programs like PowerPoint and online games. Suddenly at least some of the students were finishing their class work more quickly, allowing her to spend more time on students who needed extra help.

There are parallels one could draw between Buckridee's classroom experience and retail banking in the digital age. Consumers by and large are comfortable with online banking, and mobile applications are catching on quickly. The move to self-service leaves branches with a client base that needs extra attention, be it in the form of a resolution to a problem or a conversation about their finances.

Social media executives like Buckridee don't want to be holding a paper and pen-or a phone or an email chat-for customers who are ready to communicate with their banks via Twitter.

Buckridee says social media "as a service channel is going to be widely accepted"-and soon.

"Now no one bats an eyelash about sending a business an email if they have a question or need additional information. I think five years from now, tweeting a question [to a company] or posting it on Facebook is going to be the norm."

This summer, customer-initiated traffic on the bank's @chasesupport Twitter feed began to eclipse the traffic from outreach efforts initiated by Chase, suggesting that more people are comfortable tweeting to @chasesupport directly when they have a question or a concern.

 

Jason Falls, CEO of the consulting firm Social Media Explorer, who also blogs about social media, says most banks are still "woefully behind on becoming social enterprises where they are connected to customers online."

When a bank like Chase establishes a platform on Facebook or Twitter where people can ask questions, it "provides another outlet for consumers to have another and better experience with that brand," he says.

People tweeting to @chasesupport often just want to know whether the company is aware of a broken ATM or a hiccup in the Chase online banking system. These people "come in very neutral," according to Buckridee.

Other times, the tone is more negative. In those cases, the team might use social media to conduct some due diligence on the person they will be dealing with, so that they can tailor the tenor of their response depending on what they believe will be the most effective.

"If someone is really angry, it's kind of a personal goal of mine to talk them off the ledge and get them to a good place," Buckridee says.

She proudly tells the story of a dissatisfied customer who ripped into Chase on his Twitter feed-a "twantrum," as Buckridee calls it.

The social media team reached out to offer its assistance, and the Twitter user posted an apology not long after: "Thank you for responding so politely to my momentary flare-up of rage-filled annoyance."

"I was just blown away by that," Buckridee says. She has saved the tweet as a reminder of what good service can do.

As a manager, Buckridee is interacting with customers less often these days. But she gets "verbatims" every day to see how people in the Twittersphere are discussing Chase, and how her team is responding to them.

When Buckridee's team runs into unfamiliar territory or encounters a situation that could potentially damage the brand, she has help at her disposal from the legal, compliance, marketing and public relations departments at Chase.

But with social media still in the early stages of its evolution, there remains a fair amount of ad hoc decision-making that takes place at banks and at all kinds of other companies that have waded into the space.

That's just fine with Buckridee, who says she's plenty comfortable in a role that requires a bit of improvising.

"There are some employees who excel when you give them a structure. I'm the opposite. I want you to give me a general idea," she says, "and then let me run with it."

Social Media Advice for Banks of Any Size

Accept it

"If your business objective is to create a really powerful experience, then I think social should be part of your strategy," Buckridee says. "Obviously scaling it at an enterprise level has lots of challenges. But I think if you sit down and find the people that are passionate about this, and that are passionate about your brand and your customers, then you've already got a winning combination there."

 

Own it

Decide how you want to come across to your customers on social media and how you will handle different scenarios that might arise. According to Buckridee, a good starting point for any bank, regardless of size, is to ask what your brand stands for. "I don't think you need to have a gazillion dollars to answer questions like that in the right way," she says.

 

Visualize it

"What's always in the back of our minds is what the outcome of a conversation is going to be," Buckridee says. "There are going to be tough conversations, and I think as a business you really have to sit back and weigh what you want to do."

 

Treat it as a customer service channel

"You need PR and marketing to help you with the reputational stuff, but at the end of the day if you really want social to succeed, you really need to be tied into a service line of business," Buckridee advises.

 

Learn from it

"Every single day, I sort through the verbatims that we have from the prior day," Buckridee says. She looks for what's going well, but also for what isn't. "These customers just identified something that is not working," she notes, "so why are we continuing doing things in that way?"

 

Keep it in house

"I am not a big fan of outsourcing your customer service or social media management to an agency," Buckridee says. "I've seen some brands get hit really hard for that when the customer finds out it's not the business they're talking to; it's an agency. There's definitely a role for third parties here-for marketing or for PR-but when it comes to talking to customers, my tip would be to find a person inside your business [to do it].

"Whether you have five employees or 275,000, there's got to be someone who truly cares about the customer experience and loves to help people," and can port all of that to social media.

 

Make it reflect well on your brand

Pay attention even to the little things, like misspellings, Buckridee says. "We want to make sure we're hitting the mark every time. Human error is going to happen, but it's not as well received by customers as you would think."

 

Sade Oyalowo is a student at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. She interned this summer with American Banker Magazine.