In the quest to improve the customer experience, no hassle is too small to avoid scrutiny these days.
At RBS Citizens Financial Group, a lot of customers getting new debit cards had been asking for their PINs to be resent, and its customer experience team noticed. In researching the issue, the group discovered that customers were confused because their debit cards typically came in the mail five days ahead of the personal identification numbers needed to use them. As a result, they were requesting new PINs before the original ones had even arrived.
Now RBS Citizens mails cards and PINs at the same time-just in a separate envelope, as always, to satisfy security requirements.
Though this elegant solution to a common frustration might seem minor, the results are anything but, according to Theresa McLaughlin, who heads RBS Citizens' customer experience team. The number of PIN reorders dropped 54 percent within the first seven days, she says.
While improving the customer experience is a priority at many banks, RBS Citizens, the umbrella company for Citizens Bank in the Northeast and Charter One in the Midwest, is tackling the challenge in a way that some observers say is particularly instructive.
The customer experience team, which started a year ago, is on a mission to identify pain points and eliminate them quickly. The group operates separately from every business unit of the Providence, R.I., company, but draws information from all of them.
McLaughlin says this is one key to the effectiveness of the team. The other is that its direction comes straight from top management.
Ellen Alemany, chairman and CEO of the $129 billion-asset company, came up with the idea for establishing the team. And McLaughlin herself is high in the executive ranks, as the chief marketing and communications officer for RBS Citizens, a U.S. subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group.
The team contains a problem resolution group that is called-tellingly-the Office of the Chairman. The name is intended to make people throughout the company take notice and respond quickly to any calls.
"We wanted to be empowered from the start to make change," McLaughlin says.
Responsiveness is critical. Eight of 10 complaints that the team acts on are resolved the same day. A delight fund is used to send a token of thanks-often flowers-to colleagues who provide feedback on issues the team tackles.
"It's that end-to-end connection that is so important," McLaughlin says.
Industry consultants say the customer experience remains a rare point of differentiation for banks, whose products and services are largely commoditized. Dedicating resources to making the experience better is a strategy they endorse.
The payoff is likely to include a higher level of customer trust, says Teresa Epperson, a managing director at the consulting firm AlixPartners. "And having a trusted relationship with one's bank in turn impacts the share of wallet that bank sees."
It has become a central theme in marketing across the industry: How one company can make your banking experience better and more pleasant than another might.
"One of the things we've noticed is that banks are putting a lot of money into telling how they're different," says Scott M. Broetzmann, president and CEO of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting. "You see that in almost all their marketing strategies. 'We care more.' Banks are trying to differentiate from one another primarily on the basis of customer experience."
But it can be a fuzzy differentiator, which is why Broetzmann says that measuring the results of a customer experience initiative, the way RBS Citizens did when resolving its debit card issue, is crucial. Showing impact on the bottom line-directly or indirectly-not only gets people on board, but also helps indicate where to focus attention for the best results.
"It's a two-step process," Broetzmann says. "You have to have some kind of central command and control accountable for raising consciousness around the bank about the business case for customer care and experience. And they also need to be accountable for what they're going to spend and where to make the most impact."
McLaughlin says the operating premise for the customer experience team sounds "very simple": to gather information on common customer complaints and fix the underlying problem.
But bank silos often make getting a clear picture of what the issues are and how to improve them far from simple. This is why she believes being able to operate autonomously and having the backing of the top brass is crucial.
"Then, when we see a trend is popping, we can get underneath it," McLaughlin says. Though all employees are involved in the customer experience, "it has to be a mantra that comes from the top of the house."
McLaughlin says that since the customer experience team's formation last November, the company has had a 37 percent drop in customer care complaints overall.
The team analyzes thousands of data points every week, drawing information from branches, social media, call centers, customer surveys and the various business units. It reviews the feedback to determine which complaints are the most pervasive or can be rectified the most easily.
"We're able to do analysis very quickly and make things happen very, very quickly because of the system that we've put in place here," McLaughlin says.
Alix's Epperson says that while RBS Citizens is not unique in focusing on customer experience, she is not aware of many other financial institutions that have gone to the same lengths as it has to track and respond to pain points.
"All banks will say the customer experience is important," Epperson says. "The key is you have to have the system in place to measure it, capture it, analyze customer feedback, view the unstructured data ... and ultimately do something about it."
Karen Epper Hoffman is a freelancer. She is based in Germany.