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A Simple Formula to Develop True Customer Advocacy at Financial Institutions

April 22, 2016|0 min read
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Customer advocacy has become a hot topic, but there is some ambiguity about what it really means. Does it mean creating customers that are advocates for your organization? Or that your organization acts as an advocate for your customers?

In this chicken-and-egg scenario, the answer is both. Customer advocacy is a two-way street in which the customer and the organization are equally responsible for creating a deep and engaging relationship.

Too often, articles about customer advocacy focus solely on what the customer can do to serve the organization, and that is a dangerous perspective. One article from Forbes stated that “CMOs today must develop advocacy programs in order to scale, increase credibility and demonstrate commitment to customers. In doing so, marketers will develop a low-cost trusted unpaid army of customer advocates.”

Yes, it is true that engaged customers are more likely to benefit your organization through word-of-mouth advertising, buying more of your products and sticking with you for the long haul. But today’s savvy consumers can easily sniff out a disingenuous marketing pitch, and it’s an instant turn-off. The best kind of customer advocacy focuses on a balanced exchange of value between customer and organization, where the internal conversation is as much about how the organization can better serve the customer as it is about the intended business results. When your customers can feel your sincere commitment to them and their well being, the return loyalty is almost automatic.

So how do you build this kind of authentic customer advocacy into your organization? There are some easy and incremental ways you can begin guiding your organization through the transition. We’ll start by breaking it down into one simple formula, then exploring each component:

Customer Attitude + Customer Focused Enterprise = Customer Advocacy

Customer Attitude

Customer attitude is a product of the interactions the customer has with your organization, and factors in the customer’s life that are totally outside your control. While you can’t know or affect whether your customer has had a good day or a bad day before walking into your branch or calling your service center, you do have a lot of influence over the quality of the customer interaction when it does occur. According to a Forrester survey of 176 large North American companies, 96% of respondents felt that it was either “critical” or “very important” to improve the customer experience. There is obviously plenty of room to improve.

In a publication produced by IBM, “Advocacy in the Customer Focused Enterprise,” IBM asserts that not all interactions are equally important. Some carry greater weight and will have a stronger effect on the customer’s readiness to engage with your organization on a deeper level. The article states:

Understanding the difference between important and unimportant interactions enables innovative companies to achieve two very distinct goals; improve the customer experience where it counts, and prioritize investments, resources and effort against only the most important interactions, thereby increasing ROI.

The article suggests that there are three critical elements to apply when designing customer interactions:

  1. Delight customers when it makes sense (and cents)
  2. Fix where the company fails on a promise
  3. Right-size delivery when an interaction doesn’t matter

Attempting a perfect score on every interaction with every customer would be cost-prohibitive and likely impossible. But by identifying the touch points that matter most to your customers, you can put your focus and resources towards making those interactions exceptional and worry less about touch points that won’t have as deep an impact on the customer experience.

At the bare minimum, you should deliver on your brand promises and baseline industry expectations, and quickly do what you can to fix things when you miss the mark. Even low-priority interactions can generate a strong negative impression when basic expectations are not met. For example, a customer expects to be able to log into online banking and quickly transfer funds from savings to checking. If online banking is down, or if the process is clunky and cumbersome, a basic expectation has not been met and the customer will feel disappointed and frustrated.

The stakes are higher when a customer is more emotionally involved. When the interaction is going to require a lot of time or effort from the customer, or if the results are going to significantly impact the customer’s life, it is critical that you seize the opportunity to surprise and delight. When applying for a mortgage loan, for example, the customer is deeply involved emotionally in the interaction and the outcome. If you can simplify the process, making it more understandable and less intimidating, your customer will feel supported, grateful and secure in their decision to bank with you.

In order to influence the customer attitude, you must know your customers and what is most important to them, then design each interaction to deliver on their expectations, and go above and beyond for the high-touch interactions that matter most to the customers you serve.

Customer-Focused Enterprise

A customer focused enterprise understands the importance of the customer experience and holds the customer at the heart of its operational decision making. This can’t be achieved by executive order alone – true customer advocacy is a cultural and philosophical shift throughout the organization that affects every conversation and strategic decision.

How is this transformation achieved? Any organizational shift is unique and complex, but we’ve simplified it down to three key steps:

  1. Know your customers
  2. Align your organizational mission and values
  3. Target human performance improvement

1. Know Your Customers

A big factor in whether your customers will feel a mutual bond of loyalty and advocacy with your organization is whether they feel you are aligned with their personal needs and values. This involves knowing who your customers are and what is important to them.  

How? Ask them! Continually seek insight and feedback from your customers, and follow through with action on the data you receive. You may have customers in different market segments with different needs, but there are a few assumptions you can make about today’s consumers in general:

  • Your customers expect a cross-channel experience, which means being able to pick up where they left off from one channel to the next, and only needing to provide information one time.
  • Emotive factors, like honesty and respect, matter more when personal investment is high. Tactile factors, like speed and availability of information, matter more when personal investment is low.
  • If a customer is in a branch or on the phone with you, it is because they need something they couldn’t get online, or because there is a problem or question they need resolved. They are likely to be frustrated that they couldn’t figure it out on their own. Be patient and take good care of them, and they’ll remember it. If you don’t, they’ll also remember it.

We all want to be treated like human beings. Be polite, respectful and helpful. Demonstrate that you value your customers and their time. Be diligent in delivering on brand promises and baseline expectations. But ultimately, you need to dig in and find out more specifically what is important to your customers and deliver on that. When you truly know your customers, you can identify the moments of truth, those golden opportunities to deepen the loyalty and bond you share. Brett King put it well in his book, Bank 3.0:

Creating delightful engagement experiences is all about timing. It’s about reaching customers in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of service or message. The holy grail is to engage customers at key “moments of truth”, where money and life connect, and consciousness about personal finances overall is raised.

2. Align Organizational Mission and Values

As you come to better understand your customers’ needs and values, you are likely to recognize that some significant changes will be required in order to truly make the shift towards becoming a customer focused enterprise. The traditional “product-focused, branch-focused, and revenue-focused organizational structure”, as King calls it, is no longer sufficient to maintain successful growth in a world with intelligent and demanding consumers. “The realization is that product and network are no longer differentiators – people and service capability are,” says King.

This may require changes in organizational structure, with greater emphasis on customer needs; you may need to invest in new technologies that deliver an improved digital experience; a shift in marketing may need to occur, with a greater emphasis on service; and almost certainly it will require a shift in cultural focus throughout the organization. Any and all of these changes will require complete alignment of leadership, especially among middle managers, who will lead the charge with frontline and support teams. Follow these tips to make the shift, and reinforce the new mission:

  • Once you know what is most important to your customers, make that the basis of who you are as an organization, why you exist. Infuse your internal and external messaging with the new mission, and reinforce it often.
  • Lip service won’t cut it. Set clear customer-focused goals, and develop a detailed plan for how you will succeed.
  • The change must come from the top-down. Gain the buy-in of upper management, middle managers and frontline staff. Help each group recognize the win-win benefits of the new customer-focused initiatives.
  • Communicate to each group what their role is in achieving success, and ask if they feel they need any support or resources outside the scope of the plan in order to hit their target.
  • Re-affirm your customer advocacy often and in no uncertain terms. “Bookend” internal meetings with the message of advocacy at the beginning and end to remind everyone who you are and who you serve.

3. Target Human Performance Improvement

We’ve already discussed how some interactions will have a greater impact on the customer attitude than others, and how complex or emotionally charged interactions are typically more influenced by emotive factors, like empathy and trustworthiness. According to the report by IBM, “These attributes present the greatest opportunity for differentiation in the marketplace, largely due to their lack of operational attention by most companies.” Human performance is also easier and less expensive to adjust than other solutions, and can be implemented right away while the organization makes other shifts towards customer-centricity.

Improving human performance can include changes in recruitment, training, compensation or incentives and communication that will lead towards a more customer-oriented workforce. As a side benefit, most of the actions you would take to improve human performance have also been shown to lead towards greater employee satisfaction and engagement – another win-win for the customer and the organization!

Try these recommendations for aligning human performance with your customer advocacy goals:

  • Get the right people in the right roles. Shuffle existing employees to more appropriate roles if the existing fit isn’t quite right.
  • Customer-facing employees should have excellent interpersonal skills and should embody your organizational culture since they reinforce the organization’s culture and values each time they interact with a customer.
  • Implement training if new behaviors are expected in the plan to achieve customer advocacy — behavior change doesn’t come out of thin air!
  • Provide ongoing learning opportunities that support organizational goals and employees’ personal goals.
  • Establish compensation or rewards based on meeting customer-focused goals and objectives.
  • Get feedback from your team on the new initiatives. How is it going? What is working well? What wins have they seen? What has been challenging? How can the organization do better?
  • Take action on their feedback. Adjust the plan as necessary to accommodate unforeseen challenges, but stay committed to the goal of providing an exceptional quality of service and experience to your customers.

The End Goal: True Advocacy

When you are able to successfully read your customer base and understand what they expect, and then exceed that expectation, you’re on the right path towards building a customer-focused enterprise. Keep the message of advocacy central to your mission and internal dialogue, and ensure that strategic decisions are made in line with your customer-centric values. Consumers today expect more than speed and accessibility; they also want to know that they’re doing business with an organization with higher values and the capacity to deliver on them. Show them that you are, and you’ll have your “trusted unpaid army of customer advocates.”

For more information on what a true advocacy culture looks like for financial institutions, see our digital advocacy white paper.

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