* Firms using Twitter, Facebook, to enhance customer service
* Online feedback helps guide business and product decisions
* Shift to electronic communication expected to grow
By John McCrank
NEW YORK, April 5 (Reuters) - When Tom LaScola received an unsolicited message on Twitter from TD Ameritrade about the problems he was having setting up an online brokerage account, he was pleasantly surprised.
LaScola, 23, a marketing consultant and avid social media user, sent a tweet out to his more than 5,000 Twitter followers about the headache he was getting from setting up a new TD Ameritrade account.
Within minutes he received a tweet from the company, which was not one of his followers, offering an apology for his troubles and a direct phone number for him to call for help. He called, and his problems were quickly resolved.
"They're being proactive," LaScola said. "They have a lot of customers, and a lot of people are using social media, so it's nice to know that they are trying to keep up."
Other financial service companies with a large online presence, such as Charles Schwab Corp and Fidelity Investments, are also tapping social media to reach out to clients and to compete for new assets.
One Twitter user recently posted that she was evaluating trading platforms and wanted to know how TD Ameritrade, E*Trade , and Schwab fees compare. Both TD Ameritrade and Schwab responded quickly with messages directing her to information on their respective websites.
Twitter, the micro-blogging site founded in 2006, boasts more than 140 million active users in the Twitterverse, many of them young, tech-savvy professionals like LaScola, who online brokerages want to attract.
"We want to be where our customers are and we want to be approachable to them," said Jennifer Davis, a Schwab spokeswoman. "So, if people are using social media to express their feelings about our brand, we're listening."
Commercially available software allows firms to scour Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other sites in real time for any mention of their names or for key industry trends.
When someone mentions a Schwab service issue online it generally takes the company about 15 minutes to respond, Davis said. She sa id he r team regularly meets to discuss the feedback, which helps in forming business and product decisions.
Fidelity said it does the same. When the iPad 2 came out, the company received a flood of requests via Facebook and Twitter to make its mobile check deposit app available for the device. It noticed many similar comments on Apple Inc's iTunes store.
"So we made it a pretty high priority," said Richard Blunck, Fidelity's head of Web distribution.
Of Fidelity's more than 20 million customers, around 45,000 follow the company on Twitter, and about 50,000 on Facebook.
"Our expectation is that over time, we'll be interacting with not tens of thousands, but millions of people on these channels," Blunck said.
TD Ameritrade also expects a continued shift to electronic communication, said Stuart Rubinstein, head of the firm's client service team responsible for monitoring social media.
He said that when the firm first responds to a comment via social media, the person on the other end is often surprised. But after that, quick responses are expected.
LaScola, after signing up for a TD Ameritrade account, had an issue with an options trading app. He said he went back to Twitter and had an answer to his question within 10 minutes.
"With smaller issues, to have a path to get information with some immediacy through social media is pretty good," he said. "It's never a good process to call in somewhere with an issue."