Dear Bank, I only want two things, look after my money and treat me as a customer

It’s been some time since I got around to writing anything, mainly because I seem to have spent the last four months getting on and off aeroplanes. All very exciting, Singapore, Chicago and most recently San Franciso. I’m currently sat in the station in Manchester Airport, reflecting that it will take me nearly as long to get from Heathrow to home in Yorkshire as it did to get from San Francisco to London.

A lot of the time has been spent looking into Financial Services and customer communications, particularly the relationship between switching to digital channels, dealing with legacy systems and the need organisations have to create a more compelling proposition, given the bad taste left after the series of recent financial crises and self inflicted humiliations.

Watching TV before I left for the US last week I decided that a lot of companies had given up and gone for the easy route of ignoring the problem and creating simple price based offers to woo customers back.

This created two issues for me. Firstly there were three adverts in quick succession for various current account cash back offers from different banks, each offering different percentages , the best around 5%. It left me thinking of the supermarket price wars you often see with Tesco and ASDA racing to the bottom now offering to be 10% cheaper than the competition. This sort of approach is fine for a commodity where you don’t care about customer service.

Indeed, if you are going to pursue a strategy of operational excellence, as the text books call it, aiming to be the lowest cost provider in your chosen market, implicitly you have to care about cost above everything else, even the customer.

I don’t mind this from my supermarket, I walk around it once a week, pick up my brand matched groceries, I don’t need customer service, I don’t even have to speak to someone I can happily pick my goods from the shelves, use the self service checkout and walk out not caring if the place was staffed by little green men (sorry and women). More importantly I can choose any time I like to shop somewhere else, I have no ties or loyalty to the company.

My bank, on the other hand, is not a supermarket and choosing to compete on price, rather than customer service and value seems short sighted.. or maybe it’s considered just to hard.

Secondly, once I had signed up for said cash back offer I was disappointed and confused. The advert said 1% cash back on my current account. Naively, I assumed this meant I got 1% cash for everything I spent on my debit card, not an unreasonable conclusion given the strap line of the advert. However there is a catch. The cash back offer only applies to selected retailers – of which there was a very limited selection, none of which I shop at. Furthermore there was bizarre part of the offer for cash back on spend at Tesco but it said this offer was not in conjunction with Tesco leading me to conclude the bank would have to analyse my transactions to provide the cash back.

Way to go bank on building trust, give me an offer that’s far less than in first appeared and then present part of it in a way that seems underhand.

That’s not the end of it, I also have a credit card with said bank, for which I get reward points every time I spend money so I now have a choice, spend on my credit card or my debit card and I’ve no idea which one will be better for any particular transaction.

This is where my frustration really lies. I think its pretty common knowledge that we only want two things from our banks:

  • Look after our money, don’t loose it, give it to yourselves in excessive bonuses as a pat on the back for rigging the interest rates, or squander it in some drug fuelled orgy – if there’s anyone i’ve not insulted in that list, please email me and I’ll add you
  • Treat me as a customer, not a series of products and give me meaningful relevant information, not another balance transfer offer when you know I have no other credit cards

So, my suggestion to the nations bankers is stop making more complex products, that’s what got you into trouble last time, focus on the two basics I really care about and maybe British Banking will again become an Industry we can be proud of.

I think my next blog will look at the subject of having a therapeutic rant on WordPress as I now feel completely refreshed and not jet lagged in the slightest – although I’m sure I’ll feel different at 5am when I get up to go to London again tomorrow.

Marketing science .. And a bit of archaeology.

Like most of my blogs they are prompted by random thoughts triggered off by events in life or meetings at work.

Today, we were discussing talent management and how we attract great people to work in customer communications or marketing disciplines, I suddenly linked the various things I have done in my life together. That might sound like a big leap, but read on and hopefully I will explain.

At school I was fascinated by stars and atoms, I thought both these “worlds” were magical, our natural senses are insufficient to understand them – and also no one subject told me everything I wanted to know.

For my first degree I studied astrophysics – which taught me all about starts (and atoms as well), it combined quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, cosmology, general relativity and many other topics.

I then came firmly back to earth and studied Archaeological Geophysics. Archaeology is a fascinating area, many of you probably have images of people scraping around in the dirt to find pieces of pot (I’m not talking about students and the lounge carpet, that’s the other sort of pot) . However archaeology is heavily populated by scientists, physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists and forensics to name a few. This disparate group of people come together to reveal amazing insights about our origins, combining their knowledge to identify outcomes none of them could have achieved individually.

That was when the light bulb went on. My original view of marketing was some sort of fluffy magic, combined with a bit of colouring in – probably much like many outsiders view of archaeology.

Marketing is the business equivalent of archaeology, it is probably the most multi-disciplinary function in any organisation – we have creative strategists, brand marketers, data scientists, software developers, psychologists and manufacturers of print and point of sale.

Just look at google and the technology behind its targeted advertising, both in terms of selecting what you see and also how revenue is generated from auctioning words and then all the peripherary technologies they use to learn more about you.

That’s what I like, the variety and combination of disciplines coming together to achieve really cool things none of them could do alone.

I interviewed someone a few weeks ago and asked him why he wanted to work in marketing and he replied “because its the area of business that will develop most of the next 10 years”. I think he is right , the explosion of digital channels, the opportunities presented by today’s computing power to analyse large amounts of data, the overwhelming amount of advertising we are each subjected to meaning that unless my message is really targeted you just won’t bother, make this one of the most challenging and exciting areas to be in.

So, having gone from thinking marketing was an art and therefore not worth the time of day I unashamedly say, whatever your area of interest, there will be an application in marketing, so come and join the marketing science department.

social media is for old people

For most customers I speak to one of the common themes is we must get into social media.

I feel a bit like the guy pointing at the Emperor whose got no clothes on . I don’t get it.

I imagine if we could travel back in time 50 years the equivalent conversation would have been we need to get into computing, then it was we must get into the internet.

We seem to go through periods where the conversation is dominated by the technology, not the actual point which is what we can do with technology.

writing this I’ve just been speaking to my teenage son and his friend. They have been away on a rowing course for the week. Thinking I was being cool I asked if they made any new friends “uh huh” – which I think is teenage for yes -was the reply so I asked if they were going to keep in contact on Facebook. .

We don’t use Facebook came back answer as if I’d asked if they played vinyl records . After probing a bit they use Skype to communicate, or game online together using the inbuilt communication tools in the game.

For us oldies who lost contact with school friends because there was no such thing as an email address or mobile number social media has been a great tool to connect us together again.

The younger generation however are already connected they don’t need it.
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I tend to work on the principle there are very few new ideas and if you want to understand something you just need to find the old example of which it is an evolution. service orientated architectures of 2012 are not that much different to remote procedure calls of 1960 that are not that much different from the concept of using specialised manufacturers to create components that are then exploited by a master assembler invented in the industrial revolution.

So what’s the old concept that social media is replacing?

The basic architecture of social media is a mechanism to connect with a group of people and then receive or share information. In the old world this may have been family gatherings, specialist clubs or societies or just going to the pub with a group of friends.

Social media however blurs the line between personal interactions and business interactions. I wouldn’t have dreamt of calling a customer service department in the middle of a pub conversation about whose is the better mobile phone but its acceptable and convenient to tweet my frustration at never having a signal on the M5 – yes you the largest network apparently, and expect a response.

This is probably the modern equivalent of writing a letter to the Times.

For a business, I suppose there are three main questions

– can they offer new products or services as a result of these new channels.
– can they serve their customers differently via these new channels
– can they understand and market to their customers differently

None of these feel like paradigm shifts. They are just old questions in a new context, with much larger data dimensions and much smaller time windows.

So, maybe the answer to social media is not to try and predict the future, but to review the past.

suprising service.

I was on the train from Leeds to London this morning (06.40) in case any one from East coast wants to look up and praise the guard)

I’m sure you have all heard the announcements when you get on the train – particularly at peak times,  explaining which tickets you can and can’t use.

almost every time I see the same scenario played out.

guard : sorry Sir/madam this ticket isn’t valid
passenger : displays incredulity, explains how the dog ate their reservation,  the machine gave them the wrong ticket, someone at the station,  whose name they can’t remember, said it was ok.
guard: I’m sorry.  The conditions are clear you need to buy a new ticket. .
The scenario then plays out to its only conclusion – the passenger buys a ticket,  with varying degrees of spluttering swear words etc.

As an aside, on one train I was on the affronted set of passengers said they would try and find their tickets and whilst the guard had gone off,  pulled the emergency stop and exited by the window on the doors between carriages.

Anyway that’s not the point of this story.

This morning,  the same situation arose, this guy had his ticket but not the reservation saying which train it was valid for. 

Rather than create a confrontation the guard asked for the fast ticket number – which he didn’t have,  so then called the booking line,  got them to look up the ticket number and confirm which train he was reserved on.  As it turns out he was on the wrong train and had to buy a new ticket.  However there was no fuss,  just acceptance.

I don’t know if this is new training or individual initiative but it reinforced an important philosophy I to often see broken. 
assume the customer is right.  even if they are wrong. 

often – when something goes wrong the first thing I hear is defensive – the customer changed their mind,  didn’t provide what we needed etc. This may be true but taking this stance closes or minds to looking at whether they might be right and stops us learning what we could do better.

so,  to all customer service staff , help desks etc.  start by assuming the customer is right – the experience is better , even if they turn out to be wrong and you’ll learn more in the process. 

It’s my process, not yours.

A lot of conversations I have been having recently seem to be fundamentally flawed.

On the one hand organisations are saying we want to be more customer centric, give the customer choice of how they engage with us, what information they want and when and how they want it,then in the next breath they are saying they want to drive customers to digital channels because it will be cheaper.

In my mind this approach is flawed for two reasons, firstly, putting customers at the heart of our organisations means offering them the products and services they want, in the way they want to interact with them – that means I choose the channels, if I want to.

Secondly, if one starts out with a mind set its about customer centricity and cost, I firmly believe that the customer will get lost along the way in favour of the generally more bonus friendly approach of saving a few million quid.

Oh and when I said two reasons I meant three (remember the Spanish Inquisition) – digital doesn’t mean cheaper and certainly doesn’t guarantee best lifetime value.

The organisations I see being successful today are the ones who have taken the brave decisions to tackle legacy issues in their businesses and focus on customer service and creating a truly multi channel organisation, where the experience I get is consistent and connected.

The ones I see struggling are those weighed down by history, taking a short term view of their future and focusing on cost reduction.

A well structured, multi channel customer service and engagement program will deliver the best lifetime value and create a sustainable organisation. This approach will also be seen by customers, making us stand out from the crowd and building trust the fundamental currency of all relationships, because we are easy to do business with and consistent in how we behave.

Having spent many years in IT, we’d often do workshops to build “our processes”, creating forms for this , gates for that – all important stuff, but only if it actually helps the customer do what they want.

All processes in all organisations are part of some larger process with the ultimate customer at either end of the process.

Lets take an example, my bank (who are one of the best I’ve dealt with, but still have their quirks). First a really good example. On Saturday I was exercising my credit card and found a voicemail on my phone from the bank. I hit redial the answering service knew who I was, asked me for some ID and verification details and then asked me to confirm various transactions to make sure they were carried out by me. This interjection was part of my shopping process and the bank sensibly interjected their bit of the process into my process – making it as quick and painless as possible.

On the contrary, I decided I needed a cheque book – which I’ve never had with my new account – i do most of my banking online, so logged on, clicked the link to order a cheque book and was presented with a page saying I had to call the telephone banking service. You’ve broken my process.

We talk a lot about channel preference, do I want to be an online customer, do I want to receive stuff by email, can you sell my data to someone else .. I just want to be a customer and do whatever I want, however I want it. If you don’t want to deal with that fine, I’ll go somewhere else. Moreover, my channel preference varies, depending on what I want to do.

Another way of looking at this is total process cost. When we optimise a process we tend to start with what we see as the beginning and finish with what we see as the end, to often we just push the cost outside these boundaries, we don’t actually optimise anything.

If we start considering the customer’s time as valuable then we might have a different perspective. For example, if I put an automated menu system in my call centre, there is probably a business case that said we can deal with calls quicker and so we need less people, happy days. However, as a customer the 10 seconds I used to spend speaking to a person to ascertain the right person to speak to is now replaced by a minute of button pressing moving the phone annoyingly between my hand and my ear – you have saved 10 seconds but the overall process cost has gone up by 50 seconds and I’m a less happy customer.

However it’s not all easy, customers are often apathetic, they don’t want to tell us their preferred means of communication, we have to consider the cost to serve, versus the value created.

I think my conclusion to this rant, if there is one, is start with what the customer wants and keep that at the centre of any transformation program.

What are your experiences? Who is good and who is bad? Do you think organisations have got to grips with what it means to be genuinely multi-channel ( as opposed to multiple channels)?

answers on a postcard, email, carrier pigeon, tweet, Facebook message, or whatever suits your process.

Am I emotionally attached.

Another week thinking about business change and transformation and another light bulb moment.

Often I hear people say .. “Just tell them to do it differently and if they want to keep their jobs they’ll do it”, this is not a style of change management I’d recommend in general but I started thinking about what stops this working.

If we work with a very simple process I’m picking things up and putting them in boxes and I have to put them in the box a certain way around.

If the boss wanted to change the process so the things were in the box the other way around I probably wouldn’t resist the change, probably more importantly I don’t actually care. I have no emotional investment in the process, I just do my part.

Conversely, if the change was to ask me to pick stuff up with my left hand rather that my right I would care, I’d become emotionally involved, because its more about me ( aside from probably being a stupid change anyway).

So another theorem, the level of engagement with a change process is related to the emotional attachment to the process being changed – how much do I see this as “my process”.

Problems come when the emotional levels differ on either side of the equation – i.e. if the change driver and the participants have different views on the importance to them of the process.

Empathy isn’t a very natural thing for me, I have to remind myself to put myself in other people’s shoes ( with their thinking, not mine as well ) , so note to self, when process mapping look at emotional attachment as well as the tasks, inputs and outputs – this helps understand the best way to implement the change.

The more I think about this, the more i realise that organisations are just organisms that magnify the traits of their parts.. But I’ll leave that for another day.

Do businesses have a heartbeat

I was having lunch with a long standing colleague today and we were reflecting on the different parts of their business and how certain areas didn’t get along with others too well.

This reminded me of the company I work in, one area has a typical sales pipeline that goes 6 weeks into the future and the average job is of a similar duration. Another area has a long sales lead time – typically a couple of years, with a 12 month implementation when we win a deal and then a contract may run for 5 – 10 years.

As a physicist I’ve always been fascinated by time and our perception of time ( read about the twins paradox from special relativity to see why I find it so interesting), and I once heard a quote (which I think is actually a myth) that every animal has roughly the same number of heartbeats in its life. I then got to thinking that maybe our perception of time relates to how fast our heart beats.

I’m also a musician and every piece of music (well apart from some of the stuff my teenage son listens to) has a natural beat and the music we often find most appealing is one that has beat that is close to our own natural rhythm ( I listen to Motörhead when I’m happy and bouncy , pink floyd when I’m somber and reflective )

So what’s all this got to do with business. Well connecting all the above got me thinking. Do companies have a fundamental heartbeat defined by the key frequency of their most dominant process and this frequency then drives all their other behaviours – how quickly they respond to emails, how reliable meeting dates are in advance, how long change takes to deliver.

This led me onto two corollaries

1. Any change project has to take account of this heartbeat, as change takes time to bed in. If our fundamental measure of time is our heartbeat , then change will take longer to bed in in a company with a slow heartbeat.

2. When considering mergers and acquisitions, organisations with very different heartbeats, particularly ones that bear no harmonic relationship will be challenging if not doomed to failure.

All the above seems like a very neat theory, and I’d be really interested in any research to support or deny the above – maybe I should embark on another Phd

Yours with interest

Nic