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The misunderstood customer experience in financial services

The misunderstood customer experience in financial services

In the last decade or so, both my professional and personal life have brought me into contact with the ‘customer experience’. In background reading, it surprised me that the term traces back to Lewis Carbone’s 1994 article, ‘Engineering Customer Experiences’. Indeed, customer experience practices can be traced back decades. It is a label given to the need to innovate the basics of good service, as products became mass produced and commoditised, businesses need to find different bases for differentiation beyond price and availability. 

However, interest in the discipline has undeniably escalated in the last twenty years. Steve Jobs, in the late nineties, referred to starting with the customer experience and working back to the technology and the benefit it can deliver to customers. The internet began to proliferate around the same time, permitting a new kind of experience to be created, giving customers the ability to find products and services previously beyond their geographical reach and awareness. Consumers could also share their opinions on those experiences with millions of people, instead of the handful in their close circle. This changed the game for brands in terms of managing their reputation. 

The internet also gave the platform for the rise of Amazon, Google, Facebook, et al, who challenged what the customer experience could be, leveraging data and powerful persuasion techniques to drive levels of engagement never witnessed before. Financial services, along with most sectors, stood up, took notice, and concluded this needed to be applied in our world. I’m sure, like me, you will have read countless articles prophesising what would happen if a GAFAM company meaningfully entered banking, or insurance and reimagined the customer experience.  

Fast forward two decades and the consumer experience remains one of the most talked about workplace disciplines. My reflection is that financial services is still behind many sectors in terms of the overall customer experience, and I ask myself, why? 

I had the privilege recently of a conversation with a customer experience leader who had moved from the luxury car market, into financial services. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not a car person. My value assessment of cars is firmly rooted in its utilitarian value. But it got me thinking about the stark contrast that exists based on the subjective value people ascribe. Something I have been pondering since Consumer Duty renewed focus on price and value. I can fully empathise that if you have worked hard, can afford it and cars bring you joy, the day you collect your new high-end car is a good day. A day to look forward to and one the consumer themselves may build their day around, and one on which the manufacturer can build an impressive experience – the showroom, offering an expensive beverage befitting the brand while you wait to elongate the anticipation, the new car smell and the ceremonial nature of watching the car be brought round and the handing over of the keys etc.  

This got me thinking that financial services’ pursuit of the Amazon experience, and our failure to deliver it, is based on an imperfect understanding of how people relate to financial services. I am in no doubt that people care about their finances and understand its importance. Money is an emotive subject, and despite what is often written, people want to progress their financial wellbeing. They often just don’t know what that is in the face of bewildering complexity, options and jargon. 

In the curious recesses of my mind, I connected the dots to the theory of motivation put forward by Frederick Herzberg. Herzberg concluded that in motivation, there are hygiene factors (satisfiers) and motivators. If you apply that logic to what people value, it occurs to me that financial services is a hygiene factor. Hygiene factors, according to Herzberg, represent the need to avoid unpleasantness, which resonates in terms of the avoidance behaviour and apathy we often see for financial services. 

If you accept my assertion, at its very best, financial services can only satisfy us. It is not an experience people want to engage in beyond the minimal effort and time needed to get it done. Why should we, and what would the point be? Financial services is a utility, like energy, broadband. We only tend to get dissatisfied and notice when they go wrong. It is not an experience to savour. The more invisible it is, the better. We want to set it and leave it until action is needed again, which is often in our best interests anyway.  

We need to throw engagement indicators and dreams of the Amazon experience in the bin. Consumers just want it to work. Even the most successful firms will struggle to delight customers. Rather, their reputation will be built on not irritating them. That is the threshold financial services should strive toward. The downside for firms is that these types of businesses are rarely appreciated until the consumer experiences a less reliable service. It’s only then they realise how delighted they in fact were.  

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