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Focus on the Customer Experience

By Giles Cross, Head of Marketing & Public Relations 

I’ve always worked in financial services. I love it. To my core, I believe that it’s an industry that has real [giles cross]  value, can genuinely change people’s lives for the better, giving succour and peace of mind when hope seems a rare commodity – whilst also delivering the opportunity to plan, to achieve goals and to make dreams come true.

But marketing it has always been a tricky business; and for providers, advisers, business owners and marketeers, it throws up a variety of challenges.

The products and services we purvey just aren’t “sexy”. They don’t give you thicker hair or make you look slimmer. They don’t have the throaty roar of a sports car or the instant gratification of the distant, sun soaked all inclusive resort.

The products themselves look increasingly similar; charging structures are often unpalatable (let’s face it, people are never going to queue up to pay for advice) and impenetrable to the untrained eye; and the one thing that really DOES drive interest, “outcome” (i.e. what am I going to get?), is often so intangible and so far away in the future that trying to communicate value, urgency and necessity is an uphill task. For many, the desire for a neighbour-pleasing kitchen or a deserved fortnight of family winter sun just trumps the coy smile of a pension top-up every time: and I get that.

Getting a Bad Rap

And then of course there is consumer perception. The advice industry has a legacy problem with reputation and trust – a hangover from the financial crisis and the errors of the past. Whether we like it or not, ours is a profession that is failing to shake off its tarnished image, a fact that was reinforced to me the other day.

I always watch the business news while I set myself up for the day. The news that day wasn’t great. Another bank had been found guilty of fraud. Another trusted custodian of client wealth was being fined billions of dollars, but it was “ok-ish” because they weren’t the only ones, and the shareholders wouldn’t lose much sleep because the fine would only amount to three months’ profit.

And this is the marketing that the consumer sees. Irrespective of the alleged lessons learnt from the financial crisis, and the undoubted benefits of RDR, the headlines run rich with tales of poor service, mis-selling, malpractice and criminality.

“Ah, that’s the banks,” you’ll say. Or, more generally, it’s all “other people”. But sadly, the consumer only sees the “financial services” part of the message – and, whether you like it or not, we’re all going to be consciously or unconsciously complicit in their eyes and tarred with the same brush.

Smarter Consumers

However, the marketing of financial services should be getting easier. The UK consumer has never been more engaged with the subject of money. Comparison sites, celebrity “value evangelists”, special deals, online solutions, an increasingly switched-on financial press, and an onslaught of media coverage hammering home the need for advice have all combined to mean that the average person has a pretty good idea of what he or she needs to do in principle. And the consumer broadly agrees.

But while they might be financially engaged, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to engage with us – the advice sector preferring instead to maybe look at online or DIY solutions, or perhaps (and more worryingly) do nothing. And this is a great shame, as perversely there has never been a time when the consumer needs us more. Recent legislation has created a need for advice that can’t be delivered online or in the DIY arena.

Many of you will immediately declare you have no issues with client acquisition; that you get referrals by the bucketful and are turning business away. And for some that may be the case. And the reasons for that will probably be identified further on – but, for the majority, it’s a cold hard fact; one that requires us all to up our game and work harder than ever on our “marketing”.

Differentiate Yourself

So, how do we market our value and our difference? How do we engage our target market? How do we differentiate ourselves, not only from each other but from the parts of our industry that drag us down?

Differentiation has always been a tricky one for the IFA sector. It’s far from clear as to how much value customers have put on the argument: “because we have access to the whole of the market we are best placed to look after you”. The implication that an adviser considered every available product from every potential product was always faintly ridiculous. Quality of advice and service has never been dictated by access to product, and the arguments for independent or restricted do nothing but confuse the consumers and drive them away.

Cost? A dangerous one. As Ruskin said “There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and he who considers price only is that man’s lawful prey”. You could concentrate on price, but the result will be that we will all chase each other to the bottom and that our true value will be depleted. There is a genuine cost associated with what we do, and the cheaper we make it, the more it will result in a depletion in quality or service. Cost doesn’t work, because there is evidence all around us that people simply don’t mind paying more for things they want and they value.

What about qualifications? I’m not sure about this. Yes, there is a value in knowledge. Yes, there is something laudable in ensuring that you’re personally developing year after year. However, don’t the consumers have a basic right to expect that the persons charged with looking after their money are broadly qualified to do so? Again, qualification is no guarantee of quality, either of service or behaviour.

Surely giving good advice is a good differentiator? Maybe, but I’d counter this, especially after RDR, with the observation that the consumer has a right to expect that all advice is of a particular standard. We might disagree here, and you might be right. Some advisers are genuinely better than others but, again, what we do is so intangible that it may be difficult to prove this until many years into the future. In the meantime, sadly, after many years of being treated solely as an income opportunity, the default mental setting of many clients is to place us collectively in the “sceptical” or even the “not to be trusted” box.

The Customer’s Eye View

I know that all this sounds negative, but please don’t take it as such. I believe that, if we all focus our efforts correctly, we can make a real difference, empower the consumer to make sensible and appropriate decisions as who to do business with, and take our rightful centre stage in the financial services pantheon.

The answer? Focus on consumer behaviour. Look at current trends. Look, for istance, at the continued success of the Apple store which sells digital engagement but with an absolute focus on human interaction. Especially when compared to Tesco, who would appear to have forgotten to take into consideration what the customer wants.

Remember, it’s the way you make them feel that influences their behaviour to the greatest extent; and quite really so. When you go to a restaurant and the food’s great but the service is poor, it’s always that part which defines your enjoyment. Customer experience is everything; and that’s where those in the advice sector can really make a difference, as individual businesses and as a profession.

After all, aren’t you the front line? Isn’t it up to you to look after your customers?? Isn’t it service that they’re paying for, first and foremost?

Instead of just focusing on your client or investment proposition, why not also concentrate on your “experience proposition”? People are now directed by how they feel about things; by how their values are reflected and by how they are treated.

Make Them Feel Special

Ask yourself a few questions: What do you do for your customers that’s different? What does your client experience look like? If you’re a multi adviser practice, is the experience uniform? Is it embedded and cultural? What does being a client feel like?

Here’s our opportunity. To facilitate success we all need “social currency”; the one thing that makes people refer, encourages loyalty and creates a desire for participation; and in a world as muddled as financial services, it’s the one thing that can make the difference. If you were to create an expectation and reputation for excellent customer experience, imagine what you could do!

Ultimately it’s “how” you do things that makes the difference. So next time you look at your proposition, look at how you “lift” its delivery. Look at how accessible you are. Look at the added value you deliver, and, aside from great advice and service, what other “sensory benefits” do your customers get in association?

Customer Experience is the “New Marketing” and the delivery of a great one is something that we can all work to achieve. It’s the one thing that can help us, individually and collectively, capture, benefit and win the market we need and deserve.

Make your customer experience the element that defines your business, and enjoy the success it brings you. It’s what makes the difference.

Investing involves risk and the value of investments and the income from them may fall as well as rise and are not guaranteed. Investors may not get back the original amount invested.