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Episode 34: “Showing Up in the Best Spot” with Tim Rickards, Director of Marketing for Client Engagement at Charles Schwab

Tim Rickards, Director of Marketing for Client Engagement at Charles Schwab, discusses connecting with investors and customers in moments of need, responding with emotional awareness, and enhancing “real life” with “digital life” in this Reimagining Communications episode.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain and you're listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast, where we discuss the opportunities and challenges facing companies on the road to optimizing their communications for the future. Today I'm joined by Tim Rickards, Director of Marketing for Client Engagement at Charles Schwab. Tim, thanks for joining me today.

Tim: Matt, thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

Matt: [00:00:32] So, Tim, talk to me about your role and how you arrived where you are today.

Tim: Certainly. So my team is in charge of client engagement within the marketing group at Charles Schwab. And we are somewhat of a unique team in that we do not specifically focus on a product, but instead, we look at our clients and try to communicate with them from a marketing perspective, keep them engaged with their finances, teach them new things that are useful and relevant. And through that, further some business goals such as retention, and share of wallet. I've been at Schwab now for 16 years. Prior to that, I spent many years working for agencies ended up starting my own creative agency, and did that for two or three years. And then I joined Schwab and I worked in their creative group as a writer for about five or six years. And then I came out to the Austin office. I started a division of the in-house agency. So, I had a general manager role, went back, and did some account service. So, moved away from creative and then I've been in marketing for the past six years. So, it's been somewhat of a straight path, but there's been some interesting meandering along the way.

Matt: [00:01:41] How does your experience as an owner of an independent creative agency becoming a director of marketing influence the decisions that you make around approaches to client engagement?

Tim: Absolutely. One thing that really helps is that I know how agencies run. So, you know, our agent, our relationships with them, at least with my team, and then I have a tendency to be really strong, I also know when they're pulling typical agency tricks, so it helps. I can have some frank conversations with them about prioritization and work. I think it's been helpful from the standpoint of understanding and having confidence in the value of letting those people do their jobs and give them the space to ideate and create so not be so heavy-handed. I think a lot of marketing folks who just do marketing treat agencies as vendors versus partners, and that can have an adverse effect on the work that you get. From within my team too, not only do we treat them as partners, but I see it as part of my job to expand what we get out of the agencies, consistently encouraging them and also taking advantage of new capabilities that they offer. So, we've got our nose into design thinking now for several years. We've done some work, doing projects from an agile standpoint. We're deep into qualitative research, user testing with our agency, so trying to push them to provide us with higher-level strategy and really help us get better. I think that goes back to what I talked about in terms of trust, just push on them for more, because having been inside I know that the worst thing you can do with an agency is basically give them a menu of stuff and tick off all the boxes, and you're not gonna get the best work, you're not gonna get the most engagement from your partners.

Matt: [00:03:22] And what about from the strategy side?

Tim: Now that's a good question. Having worked for agencies and especially having worked as a creative, you know, where I've spent countless hours sitting in a room with my art partner, throwing pencils at each other, trying to figure out how to make ice cream more interesting to a person. The agency experience forces you to go deeper into people's motivations, and it makes it easier to avoid only seeing things from the company's perspective. I think that's an Achilles heel or a weakness that can arise within the marketing function is you're so close to the product that you support and the firm that you worked for that you forget that what's really important are people's needs and their perspectives. You know, everything that is bought or acquired by a person is done so to meet a need. And that need, it might be a material need, it might be emotional, it's probably a combo of both. It might be conscious. Often, it's subconscious. And so, when you have the fortunate circumstances to try and communicate with people from that agency and creative standpoint, and to work on many different clients as well, you start to understand that the most important thing is the person who's figuratively sitting across from you at the table.

Matt: [00:04:49] How do you determine what the right mix of communication channels is, whether it's direct mail, email, interactive online, or otherwise to use for investor engagement?

Tim: We try and started a real basic place, which is, as much as possible, go where they experience your product or your service, point A. Point B, go where you can target and customize the best. Ideally, we would be almost 100% focused on the website, but we have more success and more ability to be flexible and targeted with email. And it's much easier for us to test and track that way. So, we focus a lot on email as the way to innovate and test approaches to get people to respond. Our work on the website is a lot more about passive tracking, so we send them to destinations and watch what they're doing next, and then try and respond to their journey on the website. But I think, you know, if you're talking to a marketer, in general, you must be pragmatic and it's easy to buy into the idealized vision of the omnichannel, completely organized experience. Probably within a firm, you're gonna find that that's not realistic and somewhat compromised. So, go where you can learn the most and show up in the best spot for your clients or your prospects. And, you know, that's the best way to start.

Matt: [00:06:16] A key piece of what you just said there was around tracking and watching what they're doing when they're redirected and following that journey. Can you speak a little bit to the extent to which you're iterating on constantly improving those journeys as you're learning from that information that you're gathering?

Tim: Sure. We'll watch the click-paths and try and see if we can identify drop off spots. And note those to try and share that information with partners to indicate, well, perhaps this page or this destination needs a better next step, and do they want to try and test that? So that's one way. The other thing we do is just collect the information about where people are going and use that to help inform the next campaign or the next type of a campaign that we produce. I would love to be able to tell you that I can do that by the person, but that's not how it works. Sometimes it has to do with segments or sometimes we'll set up a test where perhaps you get touch A and depending on what you do, right, option 1 or option 2, we'll follow up with a specific email that responds to that activity and so on. And so, we can branch something out over the course of, say, a three or four interaction experience. I think that one of the main challenges we've encountered in thinking about this type of engagement is that it doesn't lead enormously to direct conversion, for example, of adopting a new type of account or adding assets. And that really isn't our primary goal. We're much more in the space of trying to make our interactions more meaningful and measuring that "meaningfulness" by people's behavior. So that we are higher up on someone's radar, when they have a moment of need, which typically in financial services, there's a moment of need that drives a purchase if you will. So, we're trying to stay as top of mind as possible by being as relevant as we can over time.

Matt: [00:08:21] So, Tim, I don't know that we can do a podcast interview these days without talking about the pandemic and the impact of the pandemic on your business and for you, how it's changed your engagement strategy with the investors that you support. Can you speak a little bit to that?

Tim: Yes. And you're right, we can't not talk about it, it would be impossible. But also, I think, would hide a lot of the things that we've learned over the past three months. We really began to respond in the early part of March. And what I've called the heavy COVID period for us was through March and April. And I would say that really three things happened over that time. And I would love to be able, again, to tell you this is exactly how we planned it, but it was far more organic than that. March and April were primarily about informational needs. So providing clients with facts, not only about our branches being closed or when they might close, but also answering basic questions that people had about taxes, about required minimum distributions, about what Schwab was doing as a firm, in addition to, at that time, you'll recall the market dropped. I think we had a cumulative 30% drop in those maybe four weeks. So, a lot of insight and analysis from our experts about what was happening with the market, what was known about the virus, it was an extremely busy time but primarily, from this informational standpoint. Now as we were doing that, we also began to gather sentiment data and do some research and become a lot more thoughtful about people's emotional needs vis-a-vis the pandemic.

This was a huge new and helpful area that we got into, understanding that this type of phenomenon changed what people needed from the firms with whom they do business. And, to a large extent, resulted in a new global focus or at least a broad focus on what people were needing. And we see that as, you know, security, control and community, people, the emotions, the response to what was happening seemed to settle in those areas. And so, we began to think through about how could we meet people's emotional needs more effectively with our communications and with what the firm offers? And early on, we identified that we needed to alter cadence and frequency of marketing messages. So large groups of things were put on hold. As I mentioned just a second ago, some things got a lot busier. And so, we really shifted away from what had been up until that point, a rather upbeat type situation. The market seemed to keep consistently hitting highs, even though people were concerned that there might have been a correction. People, in general, were upbeat about market prospects, and suddenly COVID-19 comes to the forefront, and we really had to shift and adapt to what was happening.

Matt: [00:11:20] You mentioned March and April being like the real months of shift or impact, but I also wonder if there was anything in that from an investor perspective, that's really surprised you in the way that the investor is behaving today.

Tim: It did. The experienced investors have been remarkably resilient with their sentiment. You know, they haven't been positive. Their sentiment has been dropping. But it dropped a lot slower than we would have expected. And we saw many verbatims, referring to the 2008 crisis. Initially, in March and April, there was a lot of people who started to search for buying opportunities or they were just happy to stay put because they knew that they had been through a crisis before and they could get through it again. So, I thought that was surprising to me. The other big factor was the difference between the economic indicators and the market value. You know, I have never seen that before. I haven't been on the planet that long, but I've never seen it before. And to my knowledge, I don't think we've ever experienced anything like this. And so that dissonance between those two items has caused a host of interesting challenges for companies of all sorts, but especially investment services firms. The market keeps going up, but the number of people unemployed does as well. The number of global infections also increases. So, how do you position those things? How do you respond to that? And I think it's been exceedingly difficult for our experts and our analysts to provide useful information regarding that change, that difference.

Matt: [00:13:00] And then, Tim, at the same time, we have these mostly peaceful protests of racial injustice overlaid during this time of crisis from the pandemic. How do you think about that? Does that weigh into the way that you're thinking through engagement as well?

Tim: It does. It does, and I'm glad you mentioned it. The information is so new that, from our campaign perspective, we can't begin to understand how we might fold that into what we're doing. But it goes back to the other role of the marketer, which is to be the anthropologist and the psychiatrist for the prospect of the client and to fold that in and understand that that's an added area of concern and conflict in the lives of the people with whom we're communicating. The timing is interesting, from the COVID standpoint, because I felt we had reached a place where the need to specifically mention the pandemic had lessened greatly in terms of marketing communications. You wanted to not do it because it's what we're all collectively living through on a broad level, but it wasn't new...companies didn't need to introduce the fact that it was happening and their response. So, I felt that it was a new phase, in terms of how you wanted to consider your tone and mentioning the pandemic itself. Then suddenly, the protests for racial justice begin and that starts to change things. So it's something that we're definitely thinking about and we'll look at closely over the next several weeks because, to your point, I think it's our responsibility to try and reflect what's happening in the lives of, in my case, our clients and to not do so, not only will it affect effectiveness, but it fails on what our primary job is, and that is to connect with them in the best way possible so they can get the most out of their relationship with our company.

Matt: [00:15:00] Yeah, well said. If I come back to the temporary shifts in investor behavior that you've seen, I'd be curious to see what your thoughts are on which of those specifically become new norms for the long-term?

Tim: As you know, it's so hard to predict what will happen in the future, obviously. But a couple of things come to mind that I think will have some longevity. One of them is this continued reliance, perhaps even an increased reliance on remote or digital transactions I feel through this whole thing that the killer app of the pandemic has really been Zoom, the video conference. We've all been pushed into the deep end of the pool and forced to rely on the digital tools. And as much as it can be wonky and, you know, I've had some difficulty getting my doctor to do a video conference with me because I think he's probably technically inept, the fact that people bemoan the Zoom conference, it has allowed us to continue connecting with other people, living our lives, talking to our friends and family, doing work. So, I really think that that will continue. I would anticipate also there will be a backlash and people will want to have more in-person experiences as soon as possible. And, you know, maybe it'll wax and wane a little bit, but I think it's established itself as a viable way of living, at least for the near term. The other thing is I think people will continue to be cautiously optimistic about an economic rebound, or a market rebound, complete rebound. I say cautious optimism, and, for some reason, I feel like that's somewhat of a normal stance for a lot of people, at least a lot of investors is faith in that market.

It's so hard to understand or think about what really will happen with the market, all those macroeconomic factors. And again, I talked about the discord between the market and the economy, but I think that people want to be optimistic. I think people want to see hope. And as of today, you know, there is a path forward that has been explained, and it must do, you know, with finding a vaccine and all these things. And I think folks want to be optimistic. Now, what happens if the macroeconomic or political factors go south once again and, you know, perhaps that isn't sustainable? The other thing I think that is here to stay for the near or the long term is, you know, the differences in inexperience and sentiment between age and economic groups. So, again, this is one of the more interesting things about the situation, that pandemic. This is caused by a single pathogen. And we do have a macro shared experience and the fact that... you know, and you can extrapolate that out as wide as you want. I mean, globally, we're all suffering from what's happening from COVID in the United States. We all have shared experience due to COVID in my state of Texas and even in my city, Austin, we have a shared experience, and to a certain extent.

But when you break the population down and look at smaller and smaller groups, it's not the same experience. And people don't have the same sentiment, and that they haven't felt the same impacts. And I think that will just continue to be part of what's happening because it appears to be solidly asymmetrical, in terms of its impact. I don't have the credentials to predict what that means longer term. But I do mention that often with my team, simply because I think we need to keep in mind that the experiences of smaller and smaller groups are important to remember because they affect the whole.

Matt: [00:18:36] So, Tim, if we get really focused on the world of investor communications and whether the future is influenced by this pandemic or not, how do you expect your engagement strategy to evolve, the needs of the investor to continue to evolve with new tools and technologies in the future?

Tim: So, I believe that people's expectations for more relevant and faster, more customized communications and information that's just going to rise. It seems to be what technology allows, and it's an expectation amongst consumers, in general, that just increases over time. And, you know, it's a self-fulfilling loop because we want that and that's what we get, and thus, we want more of it. I also think that's tied a little bit to a scarcity mindset. I think we have time scarcity and we create our own time scarcity because we interact so much with our gadgets. So, because we interact so much, we have less time, less the information we want, needs to be super short, and relevant, and actionable right away. So, I think that's just gonna continue to evolve. And that is a very consistent theme with investors. We've read many, many verbatims, which will say something like, "Well, that information was great, but what I really want to know is what should I do?" You know, when I worked on the trading business, the traders would say, "well, that's interesting, but I want to know strategy that's gonna make me money." You know, they want to know the exact answer. Combined with that, another thing I think is just gonna continue to increase is people looking for help to understand choices and next steps.

One of my analogies when I talk to broader groups of people about this topic is Formula One racing. People who can drive a car can drive a car and all the drivers in Formula One can drive cars well, and they're the best in the world. But that industry continues to use computers to help the drivers go even faster. It's an assisted speed. So, you see that in investing with algorithmic solutions, in-person advisors who use math and programming to help inform their decisions. I think that that will just continue to evolve. It goes also back to the time scarcity component and the fact that for many people, talking to someone about investing is probably as pleasurable as going to the dentist or maybe less. But we all have to do it. It's a required behavior to manage your money. So, how can I do it the best possible and the least amount of time, and how can you help me make those decisions and move on with the rest of my life? And I think the last thing is just right now you know, I have 12-year-old kids, twins, and we often talk to them about real-life versus digital life. But really to them and that's a distinction I think they feel is unfair and subjective and probably not that meaningful.

So, we've got real life and we have a digital life, and I think those are just going to continue to blend together, and the distinction will blur. Again, I think digital life will enhance real life and, in some cases, it might supplant real life. But as that moves forward with investing and investor communications, we need to realize that the digital channel is becoming as "organic" as the physical channels or physical objects. In fact, it's supplanting them in most places. So, do not get stuck in a binary view of things, but understand that they're integrated, and they affect each other.

Matt: Well, Tim, thank you so much for your insights today.

Tim: Matt, it was my pleasure, anytime.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain, and you've been listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast. If you like this episode, think someone else would too, please share it, leave a review, and don't forget to subscribe. To learn more about Broadridge, our insights and our innovations, visit broadridge.com or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn.