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Social Media as Customer Service: An Interview with Bianca Buckridee, SunTrust Bank

Bianca’s background includes fraud investigation and teaching kindergarten, and yet her eclecticism is perfect for the important role she plays at SunTrust. In many ways, social media is still developing and the rules have yet to be written. Since creating SunTrust’s social media client service strategy in 2009, Bianca has helped revolutionize the way the bank provides service support, adding social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter as new ways for SunTrust clients to ask for help. This has also helped build SunTrust’s brand perception from a traditional bank to a company that regularly engages with its customers with the spirit of a bank teller in a local community. Bianca talked to Nebo Agency about some of her marketing challenges, how she measures social media impact, and what social media trends she anticipates in 2012.

SunTrust is a very traditional and conservative brand. What have been some of the challenges in taking such a traditional brand into the world of social media?

Over the last several years, we have been redefining the SunTrust brand experience. Traditionally, SunTrust’s banking experience has been formal and conservative. However, a client would go into a branch location and have a more personal service experience with a bank teller. The tellers know about your kids, your spouse, and even your pets. That gave a personal touch to a big brand. With the advent of phone and email-based banking services, technology made customer service more convenient and efficient but a piece of that personal customer interaction was lost.

Social media gives us a way to use technology that recaptures that personal connection. On social networks, people are chatty. They discuss personal details about their lives, even if it appears that no one is listening. For my team to have that kind of emotional insight as context for a client service issue is invaluable. For example, we can know if the client has had a bad day, week, month or year. That information affects how we can approach the client with the problem they’re having. If we can get a deeper insight into the clients we’re helping, that helps us emotionally connect with them – and that helps us better solve their banking issue and it builds on their emotional connection with SunTrust.

How do you define your social media audience? And how does that information help customize your social media approach?

Our clients who use social media are primarily active on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is predominantly smartphone users – millennials between 18-24. We take their feedback and share it with SunTrust’s online and mobile team which then uses it to prioritize our digital channel enhancements. Typically, many businesses build web and mobile applications around how their data is structured and not what the user wants. By contrast, we pushed out the launch of our new mobile app through social feedback.

Our clients on Facebook are typically a mid-30s through mid-50s demographic. Facebook is personal. It’s where people want to see what their friends are posting. A couple of brand posts are okay now and then, but if it’s a deluge then they’ll unsubscribe. We also have a Live Solid Network, which is a social networking page that SunTrust defines as “a movement that is based on the belief that when your priorities are straight and your finances are in order, life is freer and more gratifying.” There, we provide a blend of financial and lifestyle content done in a thoughtful way but we shy away from product placements on the page. Consumers have an expectation of product pitching, but they don’t want to be inundated by the brand.

How do community initiatives intertwine with social media?

Our corporate mission is to help people and institutions prosper. But what does “prosper” actually mean? From a bottom line perspective, the initial thought is that we help our clients reach their financial goals. However, our research shows that people define prosperity in many different ways. For some people, prosperity is being able to go home at the end of the day and take your kids to the park. For another person, it’s purchasing a home on their own. For others, it’s volunteering their time and helping other people who aren’t as well off as them.

At SunTrust, community engagement is important. We are very involved in our local communities, and this involvement can have a natural, organic impact on social media. For example, a huge storm hit one of our markets last year and a SunTrust teammate was in a boat rescuing people from their homes. It was one of our most popular posts, but he didn’t think about social media popularity when he posted. He simply rescued people and shared his story on social media, and it helped us connect better with our clients. It showed that SunTrust employees are people too, and that they care about their communities.

How has customer service through social media impacted the SunTrust brand?

Transparency is jarring for a lot of people. People don’t often expect a Twitter response from a big company. Having that conversation with a client is important, regardless of the feedback. We want to earn the confidence of clients and prospective clients. When you’re purchasing a home or buying a new car, we want to be the first bank that comes to your mind. But even more important, you cannot underestimate the power of social media channels in keeping clients informed.

Providing updates on our Facebook page is the quickest way to do that. Instead of calling us, many prefer to go to social media. If there is a crisis and you’re not on a social media channel, you can expect to be pummeled and turned into a case study on what not to do.

How you do measure your social media initiatives?

Everyone is still trying to figure out social media ROI. Part of our social media KPIs parallel customer service. For example, we look at retention and loyalty along with social media shares and impressions. For us, social is aligned with our business objectives and that’s how we tie it in to ROI. Our clients were talking about us on social media, so we needed to be part of the conversation. In 2012, we will continue to tighten what those social media metrics look like.

You have a background in teaching kindergarten and third grade. How does your teaching experience influence your current role?

Many years ago, my very first boss at a different company told me that I focused too much on black and white and that I would fail in a world of gray. After that point, I focused on roles outside of my comfort zone. If I feel terrified about something, I know I should do it. When I began to teach, I followed all state guidelines and presented the material in a very traditional method. But I was competing in a video game world. One Christmas, my students were failing and it appeared they would not pass their standardized tests. One of my relatives said, “Maybe it’s you.” I resisted that criticism at first, but then I realized I wasn’t meeting my students’ needs.

After that, I began to blend auditory, visual, and tactile teaching methods in more creative ways. I began to compete with Nintendo and PlayStation, and incorporated more fun elements into my lessons. And then, students just started learning. I taught with PowerPoint and pre-loaded iBook lessons weekly (which also included online games). Overachievers would finish their lessons early and start to tutor other students. I could spend more time on students who needed extra support. My students went from failing to exceeding benchmarks.

In marketing, I always try to take a similar out of the box approach. Simplicity isn’t simple, and I strive to take an approach to marketing and social media where people say, “I never thought about it that way, but it’s a great insight.” Marketing is all about understanding the audience and finding ways to best engage them, just as I had to do with my students.

What trends in 2012 will impact you the most?

Mobile applications are driving us to look at banking in different ways. People like Brett King are pushing the envelope by suggesting ideas like people using Facebook to log in to their bank. Because expectations are headed this way, banks need to redefine what the customer relationship looks like. Some people enjoy connecting to their bank through a mobile app – the same captive audience that uses applications such as Words With Friends.

We -- like most of our competitors -- are also thinking more about social media as an acquisition channel. As a company interested in growing in the future, it’s crucial that we begin to think about that. My sister is a teenager. I asked what banking looks like to her. She does not ever envision going into a bank branch; she wants to do her banking all on a tablet or smartphone. This makes me think: when she is in her thirties, what will banking look like for her? What will the model look like?

Any tips for those companies building out their social media teams?

First, because social media is in its infancy, your team should be commended for entering unknown territory. It’s a huge risk to take on such a role. It also takes a significant skill set. No matter how big your company, the social media team becomes the face of the brand to clients active in it. It’s more than just customer service. Social media encompasses public relations, brand strategy, and brand reputation. Your team has to be adaptive and engage customers online. Social media is becoming an important channel -- investing in this skill set in your workforce will help you take advantage of the opportunities offered by it.

Written by Kevin Howarth on February 2, 2012

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Kevin Howarth says:

Tony - Glad you enjoyed the interview! You're absolutely right - social media is no longer a novelty, but an ingrained part of our lives. As social media matures, that means businesses are better understanding how best to be a part of their customers' lives.

You're quite right in saying that social media has become a hugely important channel. In our personal lives we share things of interest, use it to keep in touch with friends, connect with old friends and make new friends. It would be an error not to use this in business as well. I've already found customer service via Twitter to be hugely helpful; a platform to ask for help, be offered help or even complain about a service with the aim of it improving. By having such direct contact with clients and potential customers, a business has so much more power. Must move with the times and get it while it's hot!
Thank you for this post :)

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Kevin Howarth