Frank Eliason is SVP of social media at Citigroup and has become a particularly well-known champion of the “social customer.” He joined Citi after overseeing digital at ComCast, and is also the author of new book @YourService.

Eliason will speak at Our Social Times’ Social Customer event later this week. He caught up with the Holmes Report for a lively discussion of why companies get customer service wrong, the perils of focusing too much on Facebook and Twitter, and why monitoring companies are “all hype.”

What is your focus on when it comes to the “social customer”?

Companies have been marketing to their customers. The customer now controls your brand. If you’re not creating the right experience for them they are not going to share it. We’re now at a stage when customer service has not been very important for most companies. It’s now the key differentiator. They have to fix this - it’s been broken for years, and it requires a different way to look at it.

Many companies appear to see social customer service as simply manning a Twitter feed. Is that a fair observation, and are they doing the right things?

Social media customer service has been a complete failure. Companies are doing it as a means of shutting up their customer. In reality, by doing that they are encouraging other people to come to social media and trash their brand. There’s a lot of studies out there that say customers want social media customer service. No, they don’t. I want my experience right the first time, however I choose to communicate with you. That’s why companies have to fix the customer service experience.

How do you see this being fixed?

Today, customer service in general is extremely process driven. Unfortunately the customer doesn’t see that process. Customer service has always been about a relationship. They have to get back to that - that means hiring the right people, creating the right experience the first time, getting people in their organisations to understand what consumers are saying. It’s cultural. Cultural change takes a long time, but it’s now imperative. Most companies have a CMO - marketers have been smart for years, they say “look how important my job is”. Very few companies have chief customer officers. Customer service, historically, has not done a good job of explaining what they do. Many companies view it as a cost centre. Sometimes they try and convert that to a sales centre. It’s about a relationship - that is the key to fixing this problem.

Do you agree that financial services brands have been slow to adopt social media? If so, why?

That’s very fair. Banking, in general, has always been about relationships. I think banks have gotten away from that over the past 20 years. Social media brings that back. There’s a really good fit. If you really look at the whole financial crisis, a good chunk of the problems have been - what did banks do? They shut up and got quiet. They didn’t talk to people, they let others create the story as opposed to being involved in it. More effective use of social media would have been really strong. If you look at social media use, the top companies were companies that weren’t loved and were forced to change: Dell and ComCast. Even some of the more respected brands had trouble when they started, like Starbucks. A good crisis really helps propel people in this space to start looking at things differently.

Are regulatory concerns an issue here for banks?
In my view they are. I’m not going to say there aren’t regulations out there. The key is working with regulators who also struggle to understand how to utililse this space. Its partnering internally, with various groups to find solutions. At Citi we introduced a unique technology where if you’re Twittering with me, and we need a private conversation, we have technology to shift the conversation to be authenticated, but yet you’re talking with the same exact person. You have to look at what we can we do, as opposed what we cannot.

Banks are historically conservative because they don’t want to get into trouble with regulators and rock the boat. You have to do the right things, but at the same time you have to change with the times. It’s going to be gradual.

What’s your view on all of the companies out there sell dashboards to help with your social customer service?

Truthfully? It’s all hype. Everybody and their mother is coming out with all these tools. They are simply trying to sell. A lot of this stuff you could do without any costs. I do like some of them, we use Radian 6 and they can be helpful. But there are a gazillion tools. It reminds me of the mid-Nineties when all these different firms popped out of the woodwork. I see the same thing today with social media. I think it’s important not to jump into all these tools. If you do you’re going to waste a lot of money. Most of them do very specific things - very few cover all the pieces you might need.