Tax software maker TurboTax has a unique problem. Their customers find them incredibly useful. But for a very short period every year. The company has gotten used to the seasonal nature of its business, but this year, they took that approach to Twitter.

By ramping up their staffing efforts on Twitter — and bringing some much needed expertise to the space, they happened on something great for business: an excellent customer retention program.

Chelsea Marti (@TTaxChels on Twitter), TurboTax’ Social Media Manager, explained the company’s approach at TWTRCON in New York this week.

The company wanted to scale its Twitter effort to help customers with their taxes during tax season. To do so, they follow the approach of Intuit’s founder, Scott Cook. Cook created the concept of “follow me home” by literally hanging around Staples stores in the beginning of Intuit’s history until someone bought his product. He’d then go home with them to see how simple (or difficult) the install process was for them. Says Marti:

“Getting that close to the customer, he was able to make better products year over year.”

That philosophy has been ingrained in Intuit employees. And according to Marti, TurboTax has taken the same approach to its Twitter strategy:

“We’ve basically lived the dream of our CEO and founder Scott Cook.”

The company’s approach to Twitter has grown in importance and size over the last year. TurboTax now has over 20 million customers. And those customers are greatly interested in the company every year in the lead up to April 15th. Says Marti:

“We have a short period of time to get those customers the help that they need.”

TurboTax’ seasonal business is both a strength and a weakness. On Twitter, the company has the chance to own the users who are interested in and commenting on their taxes. But that means devoted resources to the endeavor. And until this year, TurboTax wasn’t able to do that.

Before this tax season, the company had two people in corporate communications and marketing on Twitter. This year they launched TeamTurboTax.
The feed went live in February, at the beginning of tax season and upscaled the company’s Twitter efforts from two employees to 40 staffing
the feed. They had a live community team — including experts — and
scaled the idea of helping customers.

“During tax season, we see a running stream of our keyword,” says Marti. “Two people handling that is not the best situation for a customer.”

According to Marti, they’ve now utlized those customers and the conversations they’re having online:

“Our overarching theme on Twitter is that it’s a persuasion engine that lets us keep customers.”

TurboTax has found that on Twitter customers can help each other. Corporate communications became the hub that farms out questions to the appropriate spokes. They company also uses cotweet to fetter out all the incoming customers.

Now if a customer has a complaint or a problem, it is assigned to the right person. As their Twitter feed bio reads, “TeamTurboTax is who you ask when you have tax, tech or TurboTax questions!”

And as the 2010 tax season progressed, the company realized people were using the feed differently than they expected. Mostly twitterers were coming to ask TurboTax personal tax issues.

“We set out thinking we’d have more technical questions,” says Marti. “But we found out quickly we were getting tax questions.”

The company had employed tax experts for their effort. They enabled them to find a buddy, train a buddy, or recruit a buddy. That effort added 10 to 12 people to the team. Says Marti:

“For us, Twitter was a great way to help customers, but it wasn’t the be all and end all. What really made it for us was the expertise that people brought to Twitter.”

Marti acknowledged if the feed had been staffed by herself and corporate communications alone, it would have been far less effective. With experts on deck, the response time was fast. It took an average of four minutes for TurboTax to get back to Twitter questions.

At least half of the people who came to the feed were about to finish a return. The company also found that most of the people seeking out tax help from TurboTax turned out to be existing customers. And they found those customers were 71% more likely to recommend TurboTax because of their interactions with the company on Twitter.

In the end, TurboTax’ expanded efforts on Twitter became a great customer retention program. Says Marti:

“Everyone knows it’s less expesnive to keep a customer than create a new one.”