Twitter can help banks reach a wider audience than other channels, but at its heart it is a microblogging tool, not a customer service one — so any bank that aims to use Twitter for customer service must patch its many inadequacies.

To bring Twitter up to speed with mature channels such as the branch and the call center, Citigroup Inc. has begun deploying and developing new technology to organize the potential tidal wave of communication.

The ultimate goal is to "build rapport with customers, and they come back to you just as they would in a branch," said Frank Eliason, Citi's senior vice president of social media.

Citi uses a platform called CoTweet, a workflow management tool specially designed for use with social media. It can help banks create an audit trail, keep track of conversations, manage marketing campaigns and provide better customer service. Other companies using it include the Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc.

"It's a tool to manage the Twitter conversation," Eliason said. "You can actually place these in one database [which the representatives] work from to track and retain information."

CoTweet is produced by CoTweet Inc., a division of ExactTarget Inc., an e-mail and interactive marketing company in Indianapolis.

Citi is training 100 customer service representatives to handle customer complaints and questions on Twitter. Many will be rotated in and out of the channel as necessary, and held in reserve for what is expected to be nascent demand. While the reps will initially respond from one master account through its Twitter page @AskCiti, in the next few months, the reps will be labeled by name under a common naming convention. Individual representatives will also be encouraged to build customer followings through Twitter.

"Citi may be ramping up for increased activity," said Nicole Sturgill, a research director at TowerGroup in Needham, Mass., who said the more engaged the bank is on Twitter, the more activity it is likely to create there.

Despite this level of attention to initiating and tracking customer conversations on Twitter, Eliason said it is important to get beyond the plodding process that exists today, which requires customers to leave the social media channel and then approach the bank via phone or e-mail to resolve questions. To this end, Citi is developing a technology that will let users shift easily from Twitter to a secure connection with the bank. Citi would provide a link after its initial contact with customers to route the conversation to a secure server or move it to a phone call.

Financial services providers have learned that customers are willing to engage over Twitter for functions that they would not perform over other channels. For example, the now-defunct personal financial management provider Wesabe Inc. launched a tool in 2007 to allow its users to log cash transactions by entering them online, on a mobile device or over Twitter. Though the feature was not widely used, nearly all of the traffic it got came over Twitter.

Eliason, a former Comcast Corp. executive, is credited with turning around the cable company's poor consumer track record by using Twitter to interact with angry customers. He joined Citi in August.

Industry observers said such a move was also necessary for customer security reasons as well as regulatory ones. Stessa Cohen, research director for banking industry advisory services at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said banks must have an audit trail for most of their interactions and communications, and privacy of customer data must also be taken into account with social media.

Twitter conversations with bank customers "can't just be out there in the cloud, this has to be taken from something that is exposed to a secure environment," she said.

Some customer re-education would be necessary, Cohen said, since Citi's approach to using Twitter goes against years of warnings many banks have put out regarding the security risks of e-mail and similar channels. Citi "has to communicate that it is safe to click on the link," Cohen said. "What we have been telling people is don't click on the links because it could be phishing."

Citi's customer service reps will respond only on Twitter-authenticated pages, Eliason said. The bank will also list the Twitter handles of its reps on the page @AskCiti.

Mark Schwanhausser, senior analyst for multichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy and Research, in Pleasanton, Calif., said that although Citi's attention to social media as a channel is commendable, its efforts might be disproportionate to the need.

According to his own surveys of consumers, Schwanhausser said 75% of consumers would be either unlikely or very unlikely to interact with their bank via social media. "There is still a strong roadblock to imagine how social media connects to banking," Schwanhausser said. "The challenge will be: Is the demand going to be there?"