Should You "Tweet" at Your Bank?

If you use a big bank, it's probably tweeting at you, even if you don't know it yet. Major financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo have set up Twitter accounts that alert customers to any announcements and respond to customer questions and comments. The problem? Their answers aren't all that helpful.

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That's because customer service, especially in the world of financial services, usually demands a high degree of personalization; people want help with their specific problem and they want help immediately. But in the public world of Twitter, banks are often unable to give useful responses because of privacy concerns, the heft of work involved, and consumers' own errors, such as tweeting to the wrong account. That's according to a new report by Javelin Strategy & Research, which documents just how widespread--and problematic--banking via social media has become.

Javelin analyzed more than 5,000 Tweets between customers and financial institutions to explore just how helpful (or not) the conversations proved to be. It found that only a minority of the conversations successfully resolved customer problems (36 percent for Citigroup, 11 percent for Wells Fargo, and 3 percent for Bank of America), and that banks often simply directed customers to a different channel, such as an email or phone call with a customer service representative.

In fact, Javelin found that most responses were canned. Banks provided the same answer over and over again, simply telling customers to go elsewhere for help. That leads Javelin to conclude that Twitter is often a "fruitless extra step, not a time-saver." (If you want to check out the conversation yourself, here are a few Twitter handles: @AskCiti, @BofA_Help, @Ask_WellsFargo.)

One obstacle for banks is that customers tend to be wary of using social media to talk about their personal finances. Javelin found that people prefer not to get information about new or current services or special promotions through social media, perhaps because they'd rather keep details about their money to themselves, and social media conversations are usually relatively public. (Young consumers, though, were more likely to say they liked getting banking information through social media.)

But when it comes to lodging complains, customers are only too happy to do so publicly. Lobbing an angry tweet at a financial institution serves two purposes: It lets the company know about your frustration and, perhaps more importantly, announces the problem to others, who might share it. In fact, Javelin looked closely at tweets aimed at Bank of America shortly after it announced its new $5 debit card fee (a fee it later withdrew), and found that 95 percent of Twitter conversations started by customers were complaints.

For customers looking for helpful answers through social media, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

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Triple-check your Twitter handle. One common problem, according to Javelin's research, is that people tweet at the wrong handle. In addition to typos, they might send a tweet to a corporate Twitter account instead of the customer service account, for example. Do a Web search to first confirm that you found the correct Twitter account for your bank before sending the tweet. Tweets sent to corporate accounts instead of customer service ones (@BankofAmerica instead of @BofA_Help, for example), were usually ignored.

Never share personal information online. Banks on Twitter often remind customers of this themselves, but it's important enough to mention here, too. Facebook and Twitter are public forums. When you are tweeting at a bank, anyone who reads your feed can see that tweet, too. That means it's important to never mention personal information, including account numbers, passwords, or PIN numbers, on social media sites. Many banks have secure email systems for this purpose.

For complicated questions, go straight to a customer service representative, via phone or email. If you can't easily explain your problem in 140 characters or less, it's probably too complicated to resolve over Twitter. Save yourself the time of a wasted tweet and proceed directly to your bank's website, which will direct you to an email address, live chat, or phone number for immediate help.

Social media is best for blowing off steam. People like to complain online for a reason--it's an effective way to quickly announce to many people why you are frustrated with a company. Companies are listening, too; after all, the big banks are constantly monitoring their Twitter feeds. And if enough people feel the same way, you might even get what you want, as Bank of America customers did when the bank canceled the $5 debit card fee after widespread protests.

What do you think--do you want your bank to connect with you over social media? Have you had good (or bad) experiences communicating with your bank over Twitter or Facebook?

Twitter: @alphaconsumer