The attention paid by industry players to "owning the customer relationship" smacks, frankly, of irony. Is it possible for a bank to own customers it doesn't really know?

Hardly, which is why some banks are turning to consumer market research experts to help them do a better job digging up customer information. This will enable banks to build detailed customer profiles, which, in turn, means they can better serve their customers. This is where the relationship part comes in.

Different from years past when sales and marketing initiatives were spearheaded internally (generally resulting in somewhat flawed direct marketing campaigns), banks are beginning to work with companies whose expertise is in gathering and analyzing information that reveals specifics about consumer behavior and preferences, both of which are crucial to highly targeted and profitable customer relationship management.

In this issue, Management Strategies focuses on four companies- FISI*Madison, a division of CUC International, The Harrison Company, The Axiom Group and Quadravision-that are quickly emerging in the financial services industry and why their marketing and research qualifications make them front-runners in the customer information management business (see cover story, p. 6A).

Working partnerships such as those engaged in by these "data experts" with financial institutions clearly have their advantages-on both sides. The upshot for banks: access to tools and skills to develop better customer profiles, more targeted product development and faster time to market. But what of the disadvantages of working with companies that potentially know more about your customers than you? That's for the bank to manage-carefully.

While all indications are that these customer information-oriented partnerships are contractually sound (complete with non-disclosure agreements), access to data is the most compelling market driver in the financial services industry. Like other newer "outsourcing" arrangements unfolding in the industry, banks must continually balance how they run their businesses competitively today with what's good for the institution as the industry and its players evolve over time.

Getting to know your customers is the only real way to build-and later own-those relationships. Identifying now what it is you want to achieve with specific markets through enhanced customer profiling efforts will enable you to more effectively pinpoint which company can assist you in attaining those goals.

And remember, the customers you call your own are yours to lose.

- HOLLY SRAEEL

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