Bankers should view customer complaints as an opportunity to score points with customers, especially when those comments come from social media.

This notion may seem counterintuitive. Comments on social media are often seen by other clients, spurring concerns that such moments could publicly shame a bank. Rather, bankers should use those occurrences to demonstrate outstanding customer service in front of a crowd.

"Trying to avoid this is impossible," says Stewart Rose, president and chief executive of Truebridge, a marketing consultant. "Once you get these dialogues going, the bank can be helpful and might be able to provide some information the customer doesn't have."

Some customers are already willing to complain via social media, and this segment will grow with time, says Patricia Sahm, Carlisle & Gallagher's customer experience and channels practice lead. Still, many people find banks' use of social media to be annoying, boring or unhelpful, according to her firm's research.

"We believe that social media will serve as a bellwether in customer care," Sahm says. "It allows for intimate but public conversations. ... Years ago if I had an issue, it was difficult to go very public with that."

Banks must be responsive to social media complaints, industry experts say. Edison Research found that 42% of people who contacted companies for customer service expected responses within an hour, regardless of the day or time, says Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert.

Mercantile Bank of Michigan in Grand Rapids gets few complaints on social media, but it is quick to respond when they do occur, says Michelle Shangraw, the $1.4 billion-asset bank's retail banking director. The bank uses software to help monitor social media.

"From a customer standpoint, if we respond it tells them that we are listening and that we care," Shangraw says. "If you don't respond to something for two or three days it says ... the bank isn't interested."

Refusing to respond to a negative comment is a bad choice, industry experts say. Bankers would respond if someone called with a complaint, so social media should be treated similarly, Baer says.

Avoiding engagement would allow an issue to spiral out of control without the bank's voice being heard, says Christopher Liechty, vice president of marketing at the $1.3 billion-asset People's Utah Bancorp. The company considers dealing with complaints over social media a function of risk management, he says.

"We try to get back to people as soon as possible," Liechty says. "Some people say it is better not to respond but … a response often allows the customer to say 'That was great,' and it often comes around to be a customer service plus."

Banks may not want to deal with a customer service issue through a series of back-and-forth comments on sites like Twitter or Facebook, experts say. Instead, banks should "always acknowledge and then divert them to another channel," Baer says. This means recognizing a client's problem, then moving them to a more private channel such as a telephone call for a resolution.

"If you're going to do social media and allow customers to interact with the bank, then you have to be able to really provide a level of service that is meaningful," Baer says.

It is important to provide the customer with the name and contact information of a specific employee to engage with rather than providing a generic customer care number or email address, Rose says.

People's Utah always provides contact information for a specific employee to help resolve issues, Liechty says. This is part of the company's brand promise, which blends its marketing tag line and its mission statement: "Big-city banking, small-town service."

Banks must devote resources to handle customer service over social media, just as they would for traditional channels such as call centers, says Claudia Swendseid, a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Just as banks have metrics for call centers to make sure problems are resolved quickly, institutions should develop similar plans for social media.

"I often hear that social media is free and it is — in a sense," Swendseid says. "It is not free in the sense of resources. It is like any aspect of a marketing campaign."

People's Utah has a "messaging document" that is part of its public relations efforts. The document includes instruction on how the company would respond in virtually any possible scenario, ranging from a robbery to an earthquake. Anytime the company encounters a new issue, it is added to the document, Liechty says.

If a more complicated or delicate situation arises through social media, more than one person is involved in crafting a response, which can sometimes take hours, Liechty. People's Utah is willing to take that time since it wants to make sure it gets the message right.

"We believe any time there is a problem, it is a chance to go above and beyond," Liechty says. "After that, customer loyalty is usually higher. That is our mind-set."


Jackie Stewart is a reporter for American Banker.


Read more: