Thursday, July 14, 2011

Education and advice is the only hope for financial services

As custodians and promoters of financial services brands, we all talk about customer engagement. But in an age of disaggregated media, are we kidding ourselves and should we be striving for something different?

No one LOVES their bank, or their super fund, or any other financial service. Financial services organisations are merely channels through which customers or members can reach out for concepts they're really engaged with - like buying a home, buying a luxury car, planning a holiday.

In Australia, government regulation and an obsession with minimising costs rather than delivering value is commoditising financial services, which means customer attitudes towards financial institutions resemble their relationship with their electricity provider more than their BMW dealer.

Anyone who regularly conducts research in the financial services space knows customers value security, investment returns and accurate communications and reporting above all other factors. It boils down to - "I don't want to lose my money, I want to earn as much interest as possible (or pay as little, whichever is applicable) and I want you to report to me how much I have." The rest really doesn't matter.

Yet in financial services, we all try to build a brand association more like that enjoyed by the BMW dealer. The problem is that the BMW dealer can deliver the BMW. The dealer is the gatekeeper to a tactile experience that satisfies all the expectations and senses (I am actually a long-time Audi devotee, but I'm just trying to be objective!).

A financial services institution cannot deliver the lifestyle to which we aspire. The link between the service and the dream is quite distant. In the retirement savings space, for example, the delivery date is so distant that most people cannot associate with it - largely because no one regards themselves as 'old', or even ageing.
In a sense, financial services brands have tried to bridge the gap through use of imagery. The trouble is, lifestyle imagery is difficult to align perfectly with everyone's visualisation of the idyllic life. The image of being happily retired, walking hand in hand along the beach at sunset is, for example, certainly not me. And even if it was, I find it hard to make the connection between my financial services provider and the dream.

What I want is a safe place to park my money and to have instant access to it whenever I want it - preferably online, at minimum through a hole in the wall. My relationship with my financial institution is a website and an ATM. I really don't care what label it has on it, as long as it works and there's plenty of access points. The ANZ campaign promoting ATMs that follow you around is great from this perspective. They're selling convenience and access and that's exactly what I want. The only thing is, that when I cannot find the promised ATM when I want it, I get severely pissed off.

The only touchpoint with any chance of emotionally connecting with customers is in the area of education and advice. This is where it gets personal and financial institutions can focus on dreams and aspirations at the individual level to help people make the connection.

But this creates a paradox for most financial services businesses, which are actively pushing people away from face-to-face relationships - out of branches and onto the web, ATM or phone. Software cannot replace direct person-to-person contact. Would you want to date an avatar? Sorry, don't answer. But you get the point, I'm sure.

Education and advice, delivered person-to-person is the most powerful relationship a financial services organisation can construct. That's why I cannot understand why financial planners fear the growth of industry funds. They have a strategic advantage, if they know how to capitalise on it. It's called a personal relationship.

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