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You Do Realize This is a People Business, Don’t You?

March 5, 2012

Bankers sometimes have a hard time understanding why their industry has satisfaction ratings right down there with utilities, cell carriers and bankrupt airlines. Maybe it’s because they sometimes have more in common with these business models than they would really care to admit. Companies and industries that score poorly in customer satisfaction tend to treat customers like replaceable cogs in their profit machine, rather than empowered consumers with unmet needs and lots of alternatives.

Source: flickr.com via David on Pinterest

David Armano has an amazing knack for boiling down sometimes complex concepts to compelling and easy to grasp infographics. And while the one above was intended to depict a much broader economic view, I think it works just as well in the narrower context of financial services.

It’s not a Wonderful Life any more

Financial institutions have long since evolved from the folksy image of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Bailey Building and Loan. Competitive forces drove the financial industry to embrace consolidation, standardized underwriting, securitization, more consolidation, credit cards, ATMs, broader product offerings, specialized segmentation, data analytics, even more consolidation, and countless other changes. Over the long run, much of it was good, and the industry has improved efficiency and profitability over time.

But somewhere along the way, too many institutions (and too many advisors) came to believe in that seductive fiction that has fooled so many other industries– that customers are easily locked in with real or perceived monopolies, contracts, terms and conditions, EULAs, whatever– and that the path to profitability is to leverage that servitude with a cascade of new (and usually involuntary) revenue streams from the indentured.

Many bankers are truly puzzled by the virulent public reaction to their attempts to defray the costs of delivering deposit accounts. After all, they have cost accounting on their side. It has been a well-known fact amongst bank executives for at least 25 years that most checking accounts are unprofitable in a fully-loaded cost analysis. A similar Pareto Principle has long existed across client cohorts as well– the “vital few” subsidize the “trivial many”.

Why recapturing costs alone doesn’t work:

So why not focus on reducing the unprofitability of a large percentage of your clients? Managing the cost to serve is a very real issue for most firms, and I am a firm believer in the need to focus marketing efforts on clients who have a high probability of being profitable in reasonable amount of time.

What I think most firms and advisors misunderstand is that many clients at every tier actually are willing to pay more– if they receive something of value in exchange. And here’s where it get’s a little tricky– the clients get to decide what provides value and what does not– and not every client will choose the same things.

What does work:

This is where data analytics can really add the most value. Finding clients who will willingly choose to consume additional services for additional cost. (If you do it right, you can add $5 in revenue for every $1 in added cost.)

Firms that really do it right focus their efforts across all of the client segments, not just on reducing unprofitability in the lower tiers. Further improving the profitability of the top 20-25% of your clients can improve their subsidization of the masses and reduce the temptation to annoy the majority of your clients. (Banks and checking accounts may have been the original “freemium” business model.)

Let’s go back to the airlines. The ones thriving, both in customer satisfaction scores and in profitability, are improving the customer experience for all of their clients while they simultaneously raise the bar for their most profitable clientele. Doing only the latter creates ill will that will never be offset by increased profitability for the subsidizers.

You do realize that this is a people business, don’t you?

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