Customer focus, differentiation and change: How marketing in banking is about experience


The banking industry is changing, and this seems to be having a particular effect in the marketing area. I caught up with Anja Stolz, CMO at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, to talk about how she sees her role, and the importance of customer experience as a marketing tool.

How marketing in banking is about experience

Frankfurt, Germany

What are your big marketing bets for 2018 (and beyond)?

Key customer needs have not fundamentally changed in the last 200 years, and probably much longer. What has changed is the way we can meet customer needs. We tend to forget that humans are a constant, even in a rapidly-changing world. If we are looking at the US or China, they are not ahead because they are better with the technology, but because they are really customer-centred. They treat the customer as the most important element — and they learn quickly from mistakes. In Germany, I think we are a bit behind in taking this view and sometimes tend to jump on technology, structure or methods only. I also think that many people still do not understand that the customer approach or interaction, call it Customer Experience, is the real unique selling point, and the only differentiating factor that we still have in banking. The products are largely the same, and so are the channels. The game can be won or lost at the customer interface.

Does this mean complete digitisation, then?

I don’t think it’s about digitisation at any price. I think what we will see in the future is a more hybrid model that connects the real and digital worlds. This requires a new way of thinking, an age of “humanisation” where the digital is re-humanised. For marketing, this means a holistic transformation to give a better customer experience. Specifically, we need to understand customers better so we can make the right predictions and be able to address large target groups individually and quickly, which requires automation. But to ensure that we build in purpose and context requires humans. We are not only rational beings, but we also have emotions, and we are looking for deeper meaning. We live and understand ourselves as part of a context or ecosystem. Effectively, we want to make connections with people, and that means that those who win at digitisation will understand that.

How do you see this playing out in practice?

I think we need to ensure that innovations are linked to real added value, using two standard approaches: the honest human-centric approach and the customer value approach. Innovation that does not benefit people, or could even harm them, is not right. At times, we might even need to take a backwards step to innovate, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, provided it creates added value. It will be crucial to ask the right questions, such as what does this person need, what will our customers need tomorrow, what motivates our customers, where are the bottlenecks, and what really gets us to our goal? We need to understand in what context are we moving, and more about the deeper meaning. Secondly, we need to use technology innovatively to create a [product]  experience that moves users emotionally while answering the question, “Why that brand?”

How do you see the nature of customer experience changing in the banking industry?

Complete customer focus drives radical changes in business models, and that’s what we are seeing now. This is more and more applicable to the banking industry. It will only be possible to succeed if you meet customer needs. This means that CMOs have become customer “connoisseurs,” if you like, and are playing an important role in processes of change and innovation. CMOs can be considered, in many ways, the chief client officer. They build the bridges between companies and consumers and are innovators, analysts and makers. It’s no longer about having THE big creative idea, but instead about deep understanding of the customer, collaboration and orchestration. Marketing is a team sport that needs very different skills, talents and types. Digitisation opens up new opportunities to systematically exploit customer knowledge and to make more efficient use of marketing investment. Since the arrival of big data, artificial intelligence and other new possibilities of automation or market research, CMOs can no longer manage without complex IT. But technology and analytics should not be at the expense of a creative customer approach or customer experience. We need a strong understanding of the [digital]ecosystem of customers, as well as cultural, emotional and social contexts. This requires a sense of proportion and a lot of experience. The banking industry has understood a lot, but still has a long way to go from a product or interior orientation to a holistic customer orientation.

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How would you describe the digital maturity of marketing in the banking industry? I’m talking about banking and financial services in general, but also how you see Commerzbank in comparison.

At the moment, I think there is something missing in the discussion about digital transformation, and that is right across the board, including in financial services. My main task as CMO seems to be explaining that digitisation is not an end in itself. It’s not about having a CDO, but rather what we can do, and how we enforce the view of a chief client officer. This means explaining that we use digital possibilities, work with advanced analytics, automation and so on, but the principle is the same as before: to know as much as possible about each customer so that we can serve them as well as possible and provide added value. We are making a huge mistake if we are talking about technology rather than the customer. I’m not worried about the technology side; it’s the people side that is difficult.

It sounds like marketing is a major player in this transformation to both digital and customer orientation.

Marketing means market-oriented business management. It’s about strategy, positioning and entrepreneurship. It’s not enough just to run marketing communications. It has long been clear in the consumer goods industry that marketing drives the business. This now applies to more and more industries, including financial services. Most companies now understand that they need to move from a product orientation to a customer orientation. And you are right, marketing plays a key part in managing the cultural and social side of digital transformation. The CMO’s role is expanding and changing. We are now increasingly the “voice of the customer” and have to assume responsibility for seamless, customer-oriented processes, technologies and teams. Marketing is growing, making it the strategy leader and driver of value creation in the company. This means that the CMO is in a very real sense the executive driving ROI in the enterprise. The relationship between CMO and CIO is crucial, but customer-centricity affects everyone.

So top-level teamwork is a vital factor?

Yes, very much so. The technology does not drive the business, but the goals and success of the customer, and that comes down to the whole top-level team. Transformation, growth or innovation cannot be achieved through marketing alone.

If you would like to continue reading about Commerzbank and their experience and lessons from digitisation, please read part two of the interview.


About Author

Ioannis Stavridis

Sr Manager Global Practice Customer Intelligence at SAS

Global Practice Customer Intelligence, Ioannis holds a Master of Software Engineering and Economics degree and has a longer than 15-year track record in the area of successful analytical CRM, Customer Intelligence and BI implementation projects. Before he joined SAS he worked for several consulting companies in a managerial position and acted as trusted advisor in several companies. Additionally his experience includes project management in Customer Intelligence, Business Intelligence and CRM projects in many of Europe’s largest international retail, telecommunication and broadcasts, banks, utilities, automotive and companies. His main focus areas are Omni-Channel and Contextual Marketing Management solutions, business case and business value development and Customer Intelligence process improvements. Throughout his career he worked in both national and international companies and gained international experience through working with multi-cultural project teams.  His experience of having been a program manager, a business advisor, and a implementation consultant helps Ioannis to act as a trusted advisor for clients as well as helping them to operationalize their Digital strategy.

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