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The New Battleground in Customer Experience

The new battleground in customer experience is not simply about building better websites and branches; it's about defining the brand and ensuring consistency and effectiveness across channels to win customers' loyalty.

A bank's brand -- its defined image and business and reputational goals -- is only as good as its ability to service its customers and provide an experience fitting of the expectations the bank's leadership sets forth. While it might sound circuitous, the customer experience in turn is defined by the brand, which is defined by the bank's leadership and marketing efforts.

But how does a bank know whether its brand-building efforts are succeeding? Therein lies the $10,000,000 question.

Much of the effort to build a brand comes down to knowing who you are as a bank, says Dan Marks, chief marketing officer at Memphis, Tenn.-based First Tennessee Bank, a subsidiary of First Horizon National Corp. ($24.4 billion in assets). Building an air-tight brand definition and executing the strategic elements that comprise it is Step One; but it's also a matter of cross-channel consistency and continuous monitoring of product performance and customer sentiment to help solidify that customer experience, he adds.

"The customer experience and defining your company's brand are interwoven," Marks says. "Some people have a tendency to think of the brand as the manifestation of somebody's advertising; it isn't. You've got to start with your brand strategy and what you want to be known for in the experiences you create, and then define your client experience."

A strong set of defined goals and a brand that everyone in the bank -- from its executives to its tellers, and from IT to call center representatives -- can connect with and support is key. But tying that branding to the experience, and monitoring its effect among customers, also will help a bank solidify and evolve its strategy to continue winning business, Marks suggests.

The focus on customer experience in the industry "is definitely evolving," he continues. "But our focus on customer experience and our focus on the listening techniques helps us evolve faster than maybe someone who doesn't pay attention."

The Brand Leads the Way

Using Southwest Airlines as an example, Marks describes how customer experience derives from the very specific branding the airline's leadership set forth. Southwest is not just about low costs, but also high-quality services that passengers might assume they could get only from a more expensive airline, or that are extinct from air travel altogether.

Southwest's "Bags fly free" messaging, for example, resonates with customers who might still be displeased with the airline industry's tendency to charge extra for checked luggage. And it's not just a slogan either. "They've simplified a lot of things in client experience and then added some emotional elements," Marks explains.

As Marks describes it, First Tennessee's customer experience strategy is ongoing. The bank's leadership defined its brand and works to execute its mission throughout the many places where First Tennessee touches its customers, he reports, all with the aim to provide a high-value proposition, serve as a source of trusted advice to its customers and be easy to do business with, including having convenient hours and locations.

"If we can do that and offer a competitive client experience, then we will win," Marks insists. "It is important to start with your brand and your value proposition and then define the service elements." All the while, the bank's branding, its execution and the technologies it deploys both to provide customers a great experience and to monitor that experience are all tied to the top, he notes.

According to Anna Convery, global VP of corporate portfolio marketing at Ra'anan, Israel-based NICE Systems, a provider of customer experience monitoring software, strategically, it's all about meeting business goals. "The bank needs to make sure that the information it is bringing through with these technologies is aligned with business goals," she says. "By understanding business goals, you will therefore be able to measure success."

Monitor and Measure

If the first part of the customer experience equation comes from the branding set forth by a bank's executive and marketing leadership, then the second piece is the execution. While it's important to provide and build the various customer-facing components that leadership feels are aligned with the brand, all that effort is wasted without the ability to measure whether it actually works, notes First Tennessee's Marks.

"The monitoring is key to the experience," Marks says. "From the perspective of execution, monitoring and improvement -- we spend a lot of time thinking about how we want to convey the brand positioning."

For First Tennessee, monitoring the effectiveness of its customer experience and branding comes down to a mix of old and new techniques. "We use a number of tools to monitor the experience, including surveys and focus groups and looking at business results," Marks reports. "We pay a lot of attention to retention -- whether it's going up or down and where it might be."

And the results aren't always what the bank expects. "We've seen some cases where we've seen the wrong expectations for customer service," Marks admits. "But that's where having a rigorous measurement and monitoring process helps you continually define and continually course correct."

The bank also monitors what's being said in the social space, and watches for trends in the industry, according to Marks. In some cases, he says, that leads to the genesis of new products. "As we were seeing through our monitoring and feedback from the field, customers started to ask about mobile banking," Marks recalls. "As we learned this we started to accelerate our mobile banking. One of the reasons we did that was, we want to compete on convenience, and mobile banking is essentially a convenience tool."

Monitoring and measuring the customer experience also is driving banks to think differently about maximizing staff efficiency. According to Jackie Hudson, director of Melville, N.Y.-based Verint's retail banking practice, while many banks feel they have a good handle on the basics of customer service at the branch level, the new push is toward maximizing the opportunity to cross-sell products and services and turn average customers into more-profitable ones.

"If you think about retail banks, they want to make sure they can manage customers better," Hudson says. The highly competitive nature of the industry, along with shrinking transaction values, is pushing banks to drive the customer experience in such a way that it not only earns customer loyalty, but also a larger share of their wallet.

"There are all kinds of different buzzwords for the same thing," such as "breaking down silos" and "a single view of the customer," Hudson continues. "But I think banks are really figuring out that they have to deepen the relationship with their customers."

And while sales, marketing and executive leadership might perpetuate the idea of deepening customer relationships, execution requires technical competencies, notes First Tennessee's Marks. "The technology support is absolutely critical," he says, adding that the bank's strategic planning includes input from the IT side, though the marketing department owns much of the analytics and data measurement.

Bridging the Branch Divide

Technology support, according to Verint's Hudson, is critical in monitoring customer behavior and interactions with the bank across channels. "Banks want to capitalize on the branch interactions so they can deepen the relationships with the people who come in," she says, and as banks consolidate ownership of branch banking and call centers from a customer care perspective, the core competencies of call center measurement are finding their way to the branch.

According to Hudson, some banks are employing technologies that monitor customer transactions based on the tellers' computer activity, allowing management to gauge average transaction times, see which screens or programs tellers use to service customers, and identify missed opportunities for cross-selling. "If you bring all these things together, banks then have this great view of what happened, how the staff performed, how the transaction was processed, the customer's wait time," she says. "If you can pull all those together in terms of technology, imagine the changes you can make."

Other possibilities for monitoring the customer experience at the branch level could be adapted from tactics used for branch security. Both Hudson and NICE's Convery see potential in monitoring customer behavior by way of video. Using monitoring techniques paired with already-existing video technology, banks might be able to see how much time a customer spends in the branch, traffic patterns and how long each teller transaction takes to complete, they suggest. "In fact, we have seen and are seeing a couple of very large banks trying to capture some of that data and see what's going on in the overall picture of the bank," Convery relates.

Hudson says that with some of these more experimental approaches to enhancing the customer experience, banks are looking to deploy on a small scale first, focusing on one or just a few key locations, rather than the whole branch infrastructure. "It's new ground for many of the banks, but it's exciting," she adds. "People are getting more creative, and they need to. And the customer is driving it."

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