While TD Bank's "once-a-decade" systems failure earlier this fall might have a serious impact on its reputation for convenience and reliability, it also offered an unusual customer-service opportunity: managing a crisis almost exclusively through Twitter.

"It's the first time I've seen a bank use Twitter in this way," said Robert Hunt, a senior research director at TowerGroup. "Banks have been using Twitter to communicate with customers, but this is the first time I've seen them use it to communicate about a major computer outage. ... You have to give them credit for opening up a new channel to allow customers to voice their frustrations."

While many types of corporations have used the microblogging service to market themselves and respond to individual consumer complaints, few large companies have relied on Twitter to manage through the systems-wide failure that TD Bank faced over the period of several days due to glitches stemming from its conversion of Commerce systems. "We just wanted to make sure we were reaching out to customers with every means possible ... and Twitter's an important tool," says spokesman Nick Petter.

True, that may have been more necessity than forethought for TD Bank, as more conventional means of customer interaction, like toll-free telephone numbers, couldn't handle the call volume from irate customers looking for their direct deposits.

And verdicts were mixed on whether TD Bank's efforts to placate consumers were actually effective. Many of the messages its "Ask_TDBank" Twitter team posted were formulaic reassurances rather than specific responses to individual complaints.

Trish Dorsey, an svp of financial services brand and communications at TNS Global, called TD Bank's Twitter efforts "the first step in the right direction," but added banks have a responsibility to engage in a high-touch way.

"As many customers have been asking the same questions, naturally many of our answers have been similar. ... We've also been engaging customers in longer conversations as required, both through Twitter and on customer blogs," Petter says.

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