It doesn't take a seer to tell that people are worried, very worried. But the ways in which financial professionals approach their work conflict with how they live their lives.
Financial professionals tend to focus on one area — investments, debt, advice, checking, insurance, retirement, Gen X'ers, baby boomers, mobile applications, strategy, channels, tellers etc. In most of these areas, the leading practitioners, thought leaders and day-to-day workers would tell you that uncertainty abounds in their areas and they are worried about where things are headed.
Previous trends, experience and huge variations in current measurements lead them to be unsure what will happen in the near term — next quarter or next year — much less to be confident of projections for three to five years out, or longer. This makes tactical decisions risky and strategic ones impossible.
At the end of the day, these professionals head home and face huge uncertainties. How will they make ends meet? What has happened to the value of their homes, their investments and their retirement accounts? How will they afford to send their children to school? What will they do when their parents run out of money? How can they manage to bring their spending under control? How do they pay down their debts? How can they help their children become independent? What will they do if the car breaks down, the plumbing breaks up or they break under the pressure?
The conflict between these realms is that, at work, the financial professional focuses narrowly on the area for which he or she is responsible. At home, the professional is responsible for everything.
On the job, evaluation is based on the depth and insight demonstrated in one area, and all the deadlines are yesterday.
At home, using incomplete information, one must balance competing priorities, limited resources and divergent time lines.
Clearly, the skill set for one differs considerably from the other, though they are not unrelated.
The reality we face at home, as we all know from our own lives, is complex, dynamic and organic. Households, by necessity, see their financial situation as a unified whole, in constant flux, with incomes, outflows, short- and long-term goals and competing priorities. Any hit in one area creates a reaction, sometimes in a totally different area. As households react, adapt, reallocate resources and change priorities among financial needs, they decide using sometimes unproven rules of thumb, frequently going from the gut, but always acting with a sense of the whole.
The financial professional sees the individual action but rarely with an understanding of all the underlying factors, biases, preferences and competing priorities that shaped the decision.
Financial providers may notice a change in one dimension but have little idea of the influences or effects in other, seemingly unrelated areas. Whether acting as an adviser, broker, agent, product or segment manager, data modeler, or marketing or strategic planner, they, too, are constrained by limited resources, competing priorities, incomplete information and diverse personalities, as well as by irrational, emotional and sometimes incomprehensible customers, prospects and clients (not to mention bosses!).
We live in an era of full convergence, when it is possible to obtain virtually any type of product or service from all sorts of financial providers. When products become commodities, providers can only differentiate themselves through brand, image and customer service. Gaining a relationship and expanding and retaining it are the only means to build market share and revenue growth.
A more complete understanding of households' needs, meeting as many of these needs as possible and understanding the real ways in which people make decisions are essential to relationship growth.
The last two years ended a decade that changed the landscape of financial services. Huge uncertainties exist in the economy and, most importantly, among consumers. People tend to make changes slowly, but inexorably, by almost all measures and in most areas, they are changing. Examining the shifts in the interconnected trends of demographics, products, services, channel use, goals and financial attitudes over the past two decades can yield significant insights into how and why consumers are changing — and where they are headed.
We are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. Some claim that consumers have not changed, but our examination of comprehensive consumer data, integrating trends within components including demographics, financial attitudes, product incidences and use — along with life stages and triggers like life events — found significant evidence of consumer change. And based on our long-term experience analyzing these trends, the shifts pervade virtually every financial need.
It seems highly unlikely that all of this change will dissipate and people will "snap back" to doing just what they did for the past couple of decades. If financial institutions prefer to bide their time waiting for things to return to normal, that is their prerogative. A more prudent course would be to invest some resources in examining what changes are imminent and how to prepare for them. In retrospect, it will appear obvious, but for now, it takes a one-eyed man to see reality.