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Related topics: banking, customer service, credit card, complaints, financial privacy

Why wait on endless hold to dispute a credit card fee over the phone when you can post your complaint on Twitter and often resolve the problem more quickly and with fewer hassles?

Most major banks in the United States, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citi, have launched customer support accounts on Twitter -- the popular website where people communicate in messages of 140 characters or fewer.

Short though they are, the messages can be helpful. "Customer service is one of the most logical and valuable uses of Twitter," says Christophe Langlois, who tracks the social media use of financial institutions on the website Visible-Banking. Banks and credit card companies use Twitter, he says, to "change brand perception and reduce the volume of inbound calls to their customer-care centers."

Both goals are good for consumers. We all want to reduce those calls, and a corporation concerned about brand perception is motivated to resolve problems faster when they're aired on a public platform. If you're unhappy and make that known on Twitter, it can hurt the company. Likewise, if the company resolves the problem to your satisfaction and you make that known on Twitter, that's instant positive publicity for them. This gives consumers power they didn't have before.

(For those who are unfamiliar with Twitter, the @ symbol indicates a Twitter account, which can be used to both send and direct communications, called tweets. The # symbol, created by Twitter users, marks words or topics within a tweet to make them easier to search; these are known as hashtags.)

A typical interaction

Credit card talk is all over Twitter. Many of those posts -- called tweets -- are from disgruntled cardholders. "When I owe Bank of America money, they can't answer my phone call quick enough," a university research administrator posted on Twitter in November. "When they owe me a few $100, it's 35 minutes on hold so far."

It didn't take long for Bank of America's Twitter team -- which tweets under the user name @BofA_Help -- to find that one. An hour later, @BofA_Help tweeted a response: "I apologize for the experience. If you want someone to call to discuss, send DM with name, ZIP, contact #, accnt type. Thanks." (The tweet was initialed, common protocol with Twitter customer support.)

"After 1 hour on hold and 3 department transfers and 2 minutes of conversation, yes," the customer tweeted back. Next time, this man will likely skip the phone call and go directly to Twitter. It takes about 30 seconds to post a 140-character complaint and responses often come within an hour or two.

"For people active on Twitter, it's almost like instant messaging," says Keri Buster, vice president of corporate communications for American Express, which added dedicated customer service to its Twitter accounts in November 2009 and now has more than 50,000 Twitter followers, more than any other financial institution.

"During a servicing interaction via Twitter, if a customer needs more detailed follow-up through a secure channel, that same customer care professional will stay with them through resolution, without transferring him or her to anyone else."

Most issuers have joined in

Like most major financial institutions, MasterCard has channels on Twitter and Facebook and teams in place to step in quickly when a potentially damaging complaint surfaces. "We've had to expand and monitor all these channels to make sure we appropriately engage when issues arise," says Jim Issokson, a senior business leader responsible for brand reputation at MasterCard.

"There are plenty of examples of companies that have done this badly," he adds. All it takes is a click of the mouse to retweet a complaint. It takes minutes for a tweet to circle the globe, be picked up by bloggers and newswires and potentially cost companies millions in damage control.