Two years ago, Business Week called Frank Eliason "the most famous customer service manager in the U.S., possibly the world" for his early, and ardent, embrace of Twitter as a customer service channel. Eliason recently joined Citi, and sat down with BTN to discuss the bank's 2.0 social media strategy.

 

BTN: What brings you to Citi at this point in the development of social media?

Eliason: It's a fun time where we're learning about new things. [Banks are] all trying to learn from these tools to find out what the best approach is to social media. It's important.

I recently saw a blog post in which the writer said 'I don't know why banks would want to be in social media.' But if you think about it, social media is about community, and banks are all about personal connection. Your relationship with your bank has traditionally been very personal, and the industry has gotten away from that over the past 20 years. Social media gives us an opportunity to get back to a community.

 

How do you define 'social media'?

It's really a communications tool. Facebook, Twitter and blogs are the most common, along with YouTube. But it's really anywhere there's communication happening online. It's an all encompassing term; social media is where you have dialogue, internally or externally.

 

How is Citi using social media internally?

We've launched Citi 2.0, an internal social media site in which 50,000 Citi users can communicate about things that are going on at the bank-various initiatives, programs or information about the bank...We use a variety of tools, many based on Sharepoint. These tools including blogs, microblogs, Facebook-style interfaces, forums, ideation platforms, etc. Social tools used internally-very similar to external tools-help connect team members from around the globe.

 

How is that different or better than a corporate email exchange?

Social media is more collaborative. With email you have 'reply to all,' but you're still only replying to one thing at a time as opposed to having a conversation. And with email, you're inbox is filled all of the time, and it may take time to get to a specific email that deals with a project or initiative.

With social media, the communication is more broad and more real time. It allows an entire project group, for example, to communicate about the project at the same time.

 

What's driving your customer- facing social media efforts?

First and foremost it's about listening, because when customers are on social media sites they are sharing feedback, and it's important to engage in a dialogue on sites [rather than engage in one-way communication].

 

In which social media venues does Citi have a presence?

We have a new citi.com blog, as well as a number of Twitter accounts-an @Citi account, a customer service account and accounts for different business units. There's also a North American Facebook page that we have just announced. And finally, there's YouTube, which is a great way to show video on various topics. For example, there's a lot of questions on what's going on with mortgages and issues connected to the mortgage market and mortgage products. With YouTube, we'll be able to post videos about the current mortgage environment and how to access various services.

 

How are you expanding blogs?

There are many more posts [from Citi] than there were previously and a greater variety of topics-products, issues, thought leadership and other content for consumers.

The bank's blogs were previously criticized for being impersonal-for example, not containing bylines. Have you improved the blogs' presentation?

We're getting better with that. There are bylines, and we're also working to create multiple Twitter accounts so that each person has their own account, such as 'CitiFrank' or 'CitiJulie'. That way, we're able to personalize the connections between consumers and the bank's representatives more.

 

How challenging are the security and compliance issues? How is Citi addressing them?

This is a hot topic of conversation, and one where many say financial firms may not want to be a part of social media. In my opinion, the better option is to partner with internal and external experts and find solutions that work for the business, regulators and-most importantly-our customers.

Today, for most financial firms, conversations within social media have to shift to phone due to privacy concerns. We are building a new solution called 'click to chat' and 'click to call.' These will allow conversations within places like Twitter to easily shift to secure methods while not taking away from the experience in social media.

In the future you may be talking to a Twitter agent about your account. When the conversation needs to shift to a secure channel, the agent will share a link, the customer will authenticate and then the agent and customer will continue their conversation in a secure manner.

Another challenge is maintaining data and permitting more of our employees to take part in the space. For this we are currently reviewing a variety of middleware [platforms] such as FaceTime and Socialware. These software solutions help meet all internal and external guidelines, while providing the capability for our team members throughout the globe to participate in the conversations.

 

How important are design and presentation in attracting consumers online?

When it comes to not just social media, but anything [in online marketing or outreach], design is extraordinarily important. You want to have it exactly the way the customers wants it. To accomplish that, we are conducting studies with a service called Communispace [an online consumer research firm], as well as having private discussion forums. We're asking people what they are looking for and what they would like. We're not going to jump into something that gives people a bad experience. And the best way to avoid that is to simply go out and ask. It's all about feedback.

 

Has Citigroup made changes to its Website of mobile tools based on feedback from social media?

The most recent update to our mobile banking iPhone application was directly based on feedback in app reviews and other social media spaces such as Twitter. We also recently added Twitter support directly on our mobile website.

 

How are you tracking feedback that takes place entirely in outside forums?

We use a tool from Scout Labs to monitor what's being said about us throughout the Internet. We do engage at times on blogs and forums [to respond to postings about Citigroup]. I'm a big believer in forums being about 'peer helping peer,' so we generally don't intervene. But at times we are the best ones to engage or to answer a question, or to respond to what's been written in a blog.

 

How has your past experience as a Twitter expert at Comcast helped prepare you for this new challenge?

My understanding of social media dates back to using the space to communicate the health of my daughter starting back in 2000 (www.sitedreamer.com/gia). That was a time where we did not even refer to it as social media or even new media. It was simply a personal Website. That, coupled with my experience at Comcast, has helped shape an insight into the personal nature of social media and the benefits to an organization. At Citi, we recognize the benefits of listening to customers, engaging further with them to better understand and bringing it all back to help benefit all our customers.

 

Does Citigroup use social media to recruit new talent?

We currently do recruiting through LinkedIn and Twitter. This is a great space to locate the right applicants, have preliminary conversations and recognize the potential and applicant brings to Citi. I was recruited through social media.

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