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Episode 35: “Digital Urgency Turned Opportunity” with Michelle Jackson, Managing Director of Digital Solutions at Broadridge

Michelle Jackson, Managing Director of Digital Solutions at Broadridge, and Matt Swain reveal recent consumer and business research about how COVID-19 is impacting consumer and company interactions in this Reimagining Communications podcast.

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 Michelle Jackson, Managing Director of Digital Solutions at Broadridge. Michelle, thanks for joining me today.

Michelle: Happy to be here, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt: [00:00:31] Michelle, you often joke about how your career looks rather schizophrenic spanning Wall Street to Madison Avenue. Talk to me about that career progression.

Michelle: When I made the leap from working at financial services and wealth companies to advertising and marketing agencies, it seemed like a really odd choice. But today, that's a pretty unique combination of communications design across the range of highly regulated industries. And it looks pretty brilliantly planned. I'm really genuinely grateful for the breadth of experience. And I have worked with some amazing companies in wealth, health, retail, pharma, and more. And it's given me a really unique view into how companies can leverage proven techniques and technologies from the Marcom world and apply them to transactional communications, ultimately, to the benefit of brands and consumers alike.

Matt: [00:01:24] I feel like I could spin a roulette wheel of topics from customer experience, to going paperless, to preference management solutions, and we could spend the rest of this podcast discussing whichever topic it landed on. But why don't we focus on the content of the June, "Communicating in the New Now" webinar that we did together? And it may actually still allow us to tackle these topics. So with that, Michelle, can you help set the stage on why we took on this initiative?

Michelle: For most of us, it was probably mid-March when we started to learn the language of social distancing and we had to shift to remote work, homeschooling, new personal safety measures like masks and gloves. And this shift from physical to virtual interaction has changed how we think about transacting or executing activities with the brands where we have relationships.

And transactions and activities we might have previously done inside a bank made us think about how we meet with our financial advisers and made us think about how we make payments to service providers. And, at the same time, businesses were trying to ensure the safety of their employees, physical doors were closed. And as all these happened, we started to see a rise in digital interaction. And these were virtual meetings with wealth advisers, virtual meetings with our doctors, shift from, you know, in-bank teller activity to the ATM. So all these things that typically a consumer would choose to do in person, these physical interactions and paper mail transactions got forced into new communications options. There was just new, sort of, exploration of new ways of doing things.

And when you combine that with what we have seen, and, unfortunately, continue to see in terms of impact on the economy, you know, it makes us begin to think about everything from the consumer's ability to pay things like bills they're receiving at their home, how investors make decisions about things like their retirement accounts. And all these dimensions together start to change how firms think about managing their communication strategies. Everything from missed payments, or how to manage collection streams, new incentives to activate autopay plans. All of this information becomes useful in reimagining what kind of strategy they're going to use to be effective in their communications.

And so, we thought, now, more than ever, it was really critical to get out into the marketplace, listen carefully to the companies we work with as our clients, and watch consumer behavior all in an effort to try to help organizations who are dealing with these rapid changes in consumer behavior and trending and better inform their communication strategies.

Matt: [00:04:20] To that point, a lot of what we were assuming would happen were also points that we really wanted to validate through this research. And if I speak a little bit to fill in the context of what we've been doing, one thing that we did is, you know, we just launched the consumer research. And we're doing that on a bi-weekly basis. We've collected nearly 2,000 consumer responses over the first six cycles. And that's helping us track the evolution of thinking. Sometimes the responses are consistent survey cycle over survey cycle, but for other areas, we're seeing some changes as people are, kind of, coming to grips with how this pandemic is affecting how they'll interact in the future.

The other piece that we're doing is we're making sure that we're talking to our clients, that we're talking to enterprises in the market. And we're doing that through a series of interviews. We've conducted more than 20 interviews to date, and we're doing those across industries, across job functions, company sizes, and really trying to better understand how these companies are reacting to the pandemic, specifically through the lens of communications.

Michelle: Yeah. I have been so struck by the themes from those business interviews that you cited on the webinar. I mean, there's so much there to tackle. You've got employee and client safety business execution. I mean, just the sheer balance of human interaction and, sort of, the human factor is just fascinating.

Matt: [00:05:52] Absolutely. I've had the privilege of conducting most, if not all, of those interviews myself. And in every conversation, it starts with how the company reacted in the moment. And they implemented their work-from-home policies and then started talking about plans to return to the workplace. And depending on when I conducted the interview, if it was early April or late May into early June, the return-to-workplace piece of it became more important to the discussion. And then the results of that piece of modifying customer access. So if it's account holders, investors, patients, and visits to bank branches, financial advisers, and healthcare facilities, those were the types of things people were talking about based on their own business and how they might need to change the way they interact with their client base.

For business execution, the business continuity planning was a really core piece of discussion. Right? And I specifically remember one of the wealth firms we spoke with, they said, "We had a business continuity plan in place. We just weren't ready for the entire world to be down at once." They scrambled to be able to support that shift. But we also heard about process adjustments. We heard about accelerating digital initiatives. Digital has always been really important to these companies quoting one of the interviews and they said, "Now, it's really, really important. And we're shifting our budgets accordingly."

And then, Michelle, you mentioned the human factor. There are definitely parts of the conversation that were relative to, "This isn't the moment to be too opportunistic." No one cares about how good your robo-adviser is in times of crisis. They want to talk to a human. And then in those human interactions, how do we help reinforce client relationships? With more video conferencing, you actually learn more about your client base because of the kids popping into the video in the background or, you know, a sailboat on the wall, so you can talk about common interests. And those became really critical parts of the discussion as we were talking about how this pandemic was directly impacting the businesses and those client relationships.

Michelle: Yeah. I think, you know, when you say digital, that really strikes me, Matt. I mean, digital is such a huge word and it's definitely being bandied about right now, and I think with good reason. It's always been important. Companies have always been focused on better digital communications. But it's got a new sense of urgency right now. And when we talk about digital, not just you and I, but, you know, with the companies that we get a chance to work with, it's worth noting that we're thinking about not just the communication because we operate in the communications world, but we're thinking about more than just that front-end experience. It's also all the platforms, and processes, and workflow, and data that enable that digital interaction or the whole series of interactions across the customer journey.

Matt: [00:08:56] Excellent point. Yeah. Digital transformation is just such a big term. And, to your point, we're looking through this narrower lens. So in that same theme, one of the things that I found really interesting in the consumer research is we asked consumers about the ways that they've digitally engaged with their providers for the first time, and what we found was 36% of the consumers that we spoke with made an online payment for the first time with one of their providers. So they might have been making online payments in other relationships, but for the first time, they went through that process with this provider. Twenty-four percent accessed the biller statement online, 23% deposited a check via mobile app, another 23% had downloaded the provider's mobile app, and 19%, or one in five, had a virtual meeting with the provider for the first time.

It's really interesting to be thinking about these first-time digitally engaged customers. And in general, they're saying, "I faced some problems, but now, I'm confident to use the apps and services." "It was empowering." "It's easier than I anticipated so I'll do more of it." So there's really this general consumer excitement about the opportunity afforded to them to interact differently than they had in the past.

Michelle: I mean, we heard some of the same things in the business interviews where executives and businesses are seeing consumers interact with them today, you know, through mobile check deposits and, they'll continue now that people figured out how easy it is. And one of the providers we spoke to said they had seen a two-fold increase in mobile check deposits from February to April.

As we look at the increase in online interactions, it's kind of inevitable. I mean, this whole environment has caused individuals who might have been resistant to try new things. They've been forced into it. And, you know, ideally, the opportunity here is for individuals to now ease into the experience. It might have been a little difficult at first, it might have been a little frustrating, but as organizations rise to the occasion and get their digital initiatives accelerated to meet the consumer, there's an opportunity now to reinforce that good experience. And, individuals who have stepped out of a physical or a paper interaction with the digital world, now, there's an opportunity to have that engagement in the digital channel stick, go forward. And, you know, when we look at leaders in the communication space who're trying to navigate all of the twists and turns happening today, they're focused on those types of long-term engagement goals.

Matt: [00:11:46] A case in point. And there's a lot being written about the pandemic and the impact it's having on businesses. I think about this digital magazine article that we were looking at where TD Bank was highlighted with its engagement up 30% in Canada, at 17% in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. And during the pandemic, TD developed and launched over a hundred new capabilities to inform and educate customers as well as provide new services, and those were virtual assistants and new onboarding experiences. But if you looked at the onboarding, in particular, TD was trying to win over consumers who are completely new to online banking. And they viewed the steps that they had taken as providing that platform, that opportunity, and growing the business.

Michelle: I mean, it's a great simplistic way to think about it. If your individual customer, at the end of the day, can't physically open the door to interact with you, think about what digital doors you can open and how you can reduce that friction. Just like once you've gotten in the bank branch or any other building, you would physically want them in, once you have that in your digital ecosystem, how can you then provide value and engage with them on a deeper level?

Matt: [00:13:11] I also look at the flip side of, it's great that they're engaging digitally, but were you ready? Think of all the businesses that have been telling us for years, "We want more digital. We want to turn off paper. It's cost savings." For a while, we've talked about the importance of creating more engaging experiences. And we saw in some of the feedback that when people did this for the first time, it was confusing, it was frustrating, it was buggy, it didn't work at first. And then you had people saying, "I don't like doing this. I don't like putting my credit card number online." And I think there are two themes in those negative experiences. One is that the provider actually missed the mark on the digital experience when they finally got the customer to take action. And then there's the flip side which is, "I don't want to do it. And just because you want to push me here, or I had to do it this time, doesn't mean I'm going to stay here." There still is that entrenched camp that said, "I'll do it this time. But can you still focus on making my offline experience good and not just keep pushing me to this digital experience?" So there's a balancing act but I do feel like this is the time. This is the opportunity.

Michelle: Yeah. I mean, this is the part that I think sometimes is hard to watch both with my professional and my personal hat on. I mean, to your point, there's such an opportunity here. There's been this really unique outside force that has moved people in a direction they might never have gone before. And it becomes an opportunity now for companies to, sort of, wow the end consumer.

And maybe, for some folks, whether it's their own experience, or whether it was the actual application they were working with that was buggy, you know, now this big question is, "Okay, we helped them with that one thing, but can we help consumers stay with us in these channels?" And for so many companies and so many industries, and this is pretty much universal, we've been trying so long to get consumers to engage digitally in a meaningful way that benefits them and benefits the brand. And, you know, if that first experience didn't get the consumer what they hoped they would get or didn't deliver the value they thought they would get at the end of the interaction, it's now the lost opportunity.

So, if I focus and think a little bit about what we see now, and I want to link that to a comment you made, like, we're constantly out in market with this research because things are changing day-to-day, week-to-week, we are starting to see, as companies come through the immediate business continuities or crisis modes, figuring out how to move forward in this shifting landscape. We're definitely seeing companies consider thoughtfully how they can reduce friction in digital interactions. So whether a customer came in and had a great first experience or a shaky first experience, you know, that's sort of a tentative step to the digital arena. And companies are really thoughtfully saying, "Where is there friction? Where is it difficult? How do we make it easier? And how do we get people to stay and get more engaged in a deeper way?"

And a couple of things, you know, in industry around this, we've seen more companies get really creative about linking their print and digital engagement, using their print materials to showcase what's available digitally, which I think is a pretty creative way to think about this. And some of them are even launching digital experiences off of QR codes printed on their materials just to demonstrate, you know, how easy it is, and the value of interacting with the company in that way.

We're also seeing companies come to us who are worried about risk especially in more highly regulated industries where moving quickly from paper to digital helps them reduce any regulatory risk associated with, you know, time to delivery. And what's really nice is, in doing this, of course, they're addressing a risk in their business, but they're now freed up to create far more compelling experiences in those communications. And this, in particular, is something we know from the research in consumer testing, will help those firms not just drive paper suppression, but will actually drive valuable engagement.

Matt: [00:17:46] Absolutely. And I think what's interesting about this is, it's really exciting to see the digital transformation initiatives accelerate across industries. You think about the transformation that the banks and financial institutions went through 10 to 12 years ago and they're comparatively in a better spot than some other industries. And that's where we're starting to see others really having this first time aha moment of needing to transform or accelerating those initiatives. But communications are just one segment of that transformation. I know we, kind of, defined digital upfront, but there's an opportunity here for organizations to truly tackle those people process and technology-related hurdles they've been shying away from addressing in recent years.

Michelle: Yeah. I mean, this is an opportunity for business leaders to really lead. I mean, this whole environment has also accelerated strategic investments in communications platforms with that broad view of people, process and technology. More firms are feeling, on a really fundamental level, that to drive lasting transformative change, they have to have a set of capabilities that helps them be really nimble today and nimble for whatever is going to come in the future.

So, you know, I'm not a buzzwordy kind of person. I try to avoid them at all costs. But I think, now, the number of times I hear firms talk to me about needing to have a CCM strategy. Like, "We need a customer communications management strategy. We need a platform. We need a system." The good news there is that they are thinking about the whole ecosystem around efficiently applying their data, thinking about workflow which includes composition and distribution across multiple communication channels with a view of analytics to drive learning and optimization. And the fact that firms are quickly shifting to that view really shows the sea change in communications and the opportunity not just to deal with a particular pain point, not to just think about incremental improvement, but to drive significant gains across all those dimensions, how people are utilized, how process is designed, and how technologies help businesses, not just run efficiently, but drive growth.

Michelle: So, Matt, it's your podcast, but it's my chance to flip the question to you. We continue to do this research in market. Can you tell me a little bit about what's pivoting? What's changing? What trends you're seeing?

Matt: [00:20:30] Yeah. That's fair. The data has been pretty consistent across the tests in many aspects. One of the things that was interesting to track since the June webinar was the number of consumers expecting that it would take a year or more to return to normal. Because for the first four cycles of this survey, the number continued to increase. And then when we discussed in the June webinar, the numbers had dipped slightly in that fifth cycle. But then, our latest cycle has returned to the high of the fourth. So, I think it, kind of, speaks to the way that we are all, kind of, absorbing what's going on in the market and potentially, people seeing a decline and then realizing that actually, there's a spike coming back. And just as that roller coaster continues, I think it's changing sentiment. And frankly, it just speaks to the longevity of the pandemic and the impacts it's going to have for the long term.

We're also seeing consumers increasing their expectations that businesses will be the ones that change how they communicate with consumers versus consumers changing how they communicate with businesses. And that could be because we're a few more statement cycles through the process. They're starting to see strategies being implemented… whatever it is, they're seeing the businesses driving that change. But it's not so disparate that consumers aren't expecting it and consumers also still feel in control.

Michelle: Yeah. It's interesting, there’s a nice consistency there…

Matt: [00:22:07] So, Michelle… If we look at the macro trends or indicators that this research is pointing to, what stands out most to you?

Michelle: Wow. On a macro scale, I think I'm just really struck by the experience with this, sort of, turbulence in communications efforts resulting from COVID. I think it's a teachable moment. I mean, this is a moment, I think, where companies recognize long-term growth and success. The ability to thrive, they'll be hampered if they're not nimble. I mean, change is inevitable in so many forms. But I think, now, firms feel on a real fundamental level their investments and strategies, and in particular, their communications functions and capabilities have to be able to quickly pivot, adjust, or revector for whatever comes next.

Matt: [00:23:01] So, speaking about what comes next. You can't escape without answering a favorite question of mine on this podcast. And whether COVID-driven or not, how do you anticipate communications will continue to evolve in the coming years?

Michelle: I saw this one coming, Matt. I know you like to ask this one so I actually gave it some thought. I definitely see channel complexity. People love individual choice, people love to be individuals, and I think we're going to see increasing volume and complexities. There are new ways for companies to be relevant across platform across device. With that said, I'm a big believer in voice, in particular, in the home. And I recognize this is not something everyone is comfortable with, and some folks have concerns about privacy. And if you look at the pace at which providers like Google and Amazon have been able to get in-home with devices, it really demonstrates that a large portion of consumers are going to thoughtfully trade off any sort of privacy considerations for the value of the device.

And in the research, consumers actually tell us that they'll give companies more data if they have a clear understanding how the data is going to be used and if that data used delivers a value. And I'm so intrigued to watch what happens as voice enables, not just the individual consumer in the household, but a way for the household to engage around content, which has been a real struggle for many organizations in many industries.

Matt: Powerful. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for the insights today.

Michelle: Thanks for having me, Matt. It's a lot of fun.

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.