First Tennessee's bridge to the second decade of the 21st century is an automated connection between account opening and email platforms that enable onboarding tactics with results that blow traditional retention rates out of the water.

Banks have spoken of such a connection for more than a decade - it's one of the canons of CRM. But talk of consumer retention must give way to applied science, and the Memphis-based bank's 98 percent retention rate for email onboarding program participants in the initiative's first year is a good start.

"Even if we don't make any changes to the program, we'll be happy with these results," says Dan Marks, First Tennessee's CMO. Marks wouldn't say what the traditional first year attrition rate for the bank has been, but industrywide first year attrition is about one-third, according to Harte-Hanks, which says successful onboarding can cut that rate in half.

And since banks really can't afford customer attrition, more attention is now being paid to onboarding, or relationship building efforts aimed at keeping new customers during and beyond the first year. "Even organizations that may have been in the 'benign neglect' camp when it comes to onboarding are thinking about ramping up their onboarding efforts," says Kathleen Khirallah, an analyst for TowerGroup.

As such, outlays for technology that surrounds onboarding - including data aggregation, email alerting and CRM software - will likely be deemed too important for the budget hatchet at most banks. "Onboarding is fertilizing the ground. Once you make a connection you want to make sure that connection prospers," says Ed Kountz, senior analyst for ebusiness and channel strategy at Forrester Research.

At First Tennessee, email alerts tagged to the bank's Unica-produced campaign management software notify new customers about services that can "complete" that customer's product mix based on early preferences. After an initial "welcome" email sent a few hours after a customers enrolls at the bank, more email alerts are sent based on activities during the consumer's first 30 days in an attempt to broaden the relationship to more products.

Onboarding is more difficult than deploying CRM strategies for longer-term customers, because a new customer has a shorter track record with the institution. To compensate for that lack of information, banks are either using analog data from similar customers that have been with the bank longer, or are tying early sign-up behavior to targeted cross selling - the path taken by First Tennessee.

"You want to gather as much information on a customer coming in as you can; personal, contact info, risk tolerance, asset allocation, etc.," says Purna Pareek, founder and CEO of AdviceAmerica, whose Client Vision platform enables onboarding strategies by downloading data from custodians such as Pershing and TD Ameritrade, and by integrating back office systems with platforms that accrue demographic and life stage data.

Pareek says financial advisors and personal bankers need more client-specific information that captures goals, assets, liabilities, credits, loans, income and personal expense. "You find few of these things in a typical CRM tool," says Pareek, whose Client Vision has attracted the business of institutions such as Lincoln Financial, Citigroup and UBS.

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