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Episode 48: “Driving Differentiation by Mastering the Customer Experience” with Katie Liebel, Founder and Managing Principal of CustomStrat Advisory

Katie Liebel, Founder and Managing Principal of CustomStrat Advisory, discusses how centering strategy and transformation around the customer experience can help firms gain a competitive advantage in the digital age.

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 Katie Liebel, founder and managing principal at CustomStrat Advisory. Katie, thanks for joining today.

Katie: Matt, thanks so much for having me.

Matt: Certainly. So, Katie, talk to me a bit more about CustomStrat and its mission.

Katie: Absolutely. So, Matt, at CustomStrat Advisory, what I do is help financial services companies grow and adapt and really try to anchor that in a customer perspective. Specifically, I advise on business strategy, on business transformation and customer experience optimization and work as an executive advisor and also bring in supporting project teams to really help banks, insurance companies, and wealth management firms define and refine their competitive advantage.

Matt: Excellent. And this is not your first rodeo. You have over 25 years of experience in financial services. I will just call out that you've held senior roles at National City Bank, at Genworth Financial, Nationwide Insurance, JPMorgan Chase, and Fifth Third Bank. So certainly, a lot of great experience there. I'd be curious, from that work experience, is there a specific transformation or a strategic pivot that you were involved in that particularly stands out?

Katie: Absolutely. I've had the opportunity, as you point out, to have worked with a number of amazing organizations and one experience that really stands out was when I was with Nationwide Insurance. And Nationwide was and is an organization with just significant market share, brand awareness, and there's such a strong legacy and culture. And I was there as their chief strategy officer and then also the leader of their transformation in their property and casualty business, one of the experiences that really kind of sticks out for me is when Nationwide was looking at the marketplace and recognizing that there was a significant shift in the market toward more direct and digital sales, and in servicing with their customers.

And trying to look at how do you pivot an organization with such a strong agency distribution and heritage to more of a digital model. And in that situation, recognizing the shift in that marketplace, Nationwide, as an organization, had to really go through a lot of introspection around what is the enterprise focus in resources and how are those going to be redirected to succeed in kind of that evolving environment. We underwent a significant review of options and different scenarios and, ultimately, forced some really tough choices around streamlining the legacy business to afford for investment in the growing digital business and in really driving for success in that new kind of burgeoning channel, if you will. And so significant shift that the organization had to undertake to continue to be relevant and successful.

Matt: Well, it's a great example. And thinking back to the late '90s through today, there was a huge shift in the way that customers interacted with businesses they were customers of, right? And just in your strategy roles there, as you noted, having to help these very large organizations figure out what to pivot, and also, I'm sure there was some cultural pushback relative to "That's not how we've done it" or, "What we've been doing for years has been working, why change now?"

Katie: No, you're absolutely right. And what I've seen on really all major transformations, Nationwide included, is half the game is identifying what are the strategic choices, and investments, and direction that we want to head in. But the other half of the game, to your point, is the culture and, if you will, the softer side of change and making sure that you've got the organization, really their hearts and minds, aligned with the direction you need to go. I think, in my experience, there's just as much time and attention needed on the "softer elements" as there is on the tangible elements of change.

Matt: I couldn't agree with you more, Katie. I also think that, to your point, that the softer side is so critical. And I think about the last corporate role that you held, that was a dual chief strategy officer and chief customer experience officer at Fifth Third Bank, I believe that you took on the customer experience officer role in 2017. Were you a little ahead of the trend of chief customer experience officers at that time?

Katie: Good question. I think maybe a bit, and now you certainly do see that role to be fairly common. I think, at its core, it's because today you see a world where the share is increasingly concentrating with a few of the larger and powerful players, and there's the realization that, to win in the marketplace, it's really about mastering that customer experience, and that's how you can drive differentiation. And it's less so about products, which can be, at the end of the day, replicated fairly easily. The real differentiation and then driving that around customer experiences is what causes customers to stay and, ultimately, is what's at the root of having organizations thrive. And I think for that reason, you see increasingly more leading organizations have this customer experience officer role.

Matt: Yeah. I do think there's this shift from "If you build it, they will come" to what experiences are these customers receiving from other companies that they do business with and what do they want from your business, from your experience. We conduct voice of customer research all the time where we hear very passionate feedback from customers on what they like and dislike, and they're not shy about providing that feedback. We often say, you're always being compared to the last best experience that your customer received, and that's always top of mind when they're thinking about that interaction and how it could be improved.

Katie: I think that's right. It's not just about the experience they might be receiving in the industry in focus, but it's the experiences that customers are having in other markets altogether. Bringing in their experiences from Amazon, Google or what have you, and expecting that high-level performance from their bank, from their insurance company, from their wealth managers.

Matt: So back to the role of a chief customer experience officer, how important is that to an organization today?

Katie: The chief customer officer can really act as that catalyst and that centerpiece for understanding what the voice of the customer is and translating that feedback into priorities to improve the organization and to work across the functional boundaries of ops, and business lines, and so forth, to change what that customer experience is for the better. And ultimately, if you do that right, you're going to grow the organization, you're going to retain the valuable customers. And therefore, it's really important to get that done right.

Matt: Does a chief customer experience officer need to report into the president of the business or even a CEO level, to be successful in their role?

Katie: You know, that's a great question. And what I would say is that the chief customer officer needs to be a fairly senior executive. They need to have the ability to work across the various functions at a high level, and they also need to be able to influence, ultimately, the resource allocation to really make changes in the company. So yes, I think that equates to a fairly senior reporting line for most organizations. Perhaps, as the company evolves and you really get the customer focus really internalized and almost transcending all the discussions and prioritizations, I think you could argue that, naturally, the experience officer role perhaps actually could diminish in stature if you really have it in the lifeblood of everyone else in the organization. But if you're really trying to spark more of a change and a step up in your focus on the customer organization, I do think that leads to a senior role.

Matt: I love the comment about having it in the lifeblood of the organization. I think that that's a great aspiration. At the same time, I would just kind of come back to the power of today's customer in the financial services space or within any industry. Do you feel that the customer is significantly more powerful in guiding strategy, vision, and future design of where financial services products are going today?

Katie: I think they are because you do have companies overall recognizing that the experience is the element that can be uniquely defined, and you can put a mode around that. I think that the leading financial services players are absolutely defined by an intense understanding of their customer segments by a focus on identifying what are the priority segments of those that exist and then really backing that up with an extensive knowledge of those customers that they're targeting and what are their needs. The leading firms are really driven by meeting those needs and having an aggressive focus on continually driving those insights, and refining what their service model is, and finding the areas that they can delight their most valuable customers. I think the customers and having those insights are increasingly a critical part of driving differentiation and, ultimately driving growth.

Matt: And delighting those valuable customers is so important in a world where the customer feels empowered to make a change. If they don't get the experience that they're looking for, I think more often today than not, you're seeing this voting with the wallet, especially when you look at this huge transfer of wealth that everyone's talking about.

Katie: Absolutely. And I think the best organizations have both an offensive approach to identify those customers that they find most valuable in meeting their needs but also a defensive approach. And if you're monitoring appropriately their actions and their interactions with the organization, you see maybe that falling off or changing in some ways, you know, anticipating that you might have a potential defector and then working to make sure that you've got the right experience and that you can hold on to those that might be potentially looking.

Matt: So, Katie, you work with a variety of clients today across the financial services market. I'd be curious what some of the common challenges these clients are facing in the engagements that you're working on.

Katie: Absolutely. I'd probably call out three different areas. And the first one is across the board, my clients are working to take advantage of all the new digital innovations, the proliferation of data and information, and really thinking around how do you harness that, to kind of raise the bar and do that in a better way than you've been able to in the past.

I think the second area where I see a lot of conversations and needs across my clients, somewhat related to that first point, but it's really about how do you get smarter and more refined around the customer segments that the organization can best serve, and to really understand those segment needs and enhance their value proposition to those targeted segments, both in terms of how you can attract those customers and how you can retain them in terms of servicing.

And the third piece where I see my clients leaning into heavily today is really thinking around the post-COVID environment and recognizing that the world has shifted and trying to adjust the organizations, whether it be on their go-to-market approach or their core underlying business model, and position for both gaining efficiencies and changing how you are interacting with your customers to thrive in this new environment. And there's a lot of emphasis around that and really trying to shift to improve and come out on the other side better than when you came in.

Matt: And I think that discussion around the other side, it feels like the other side keeps getting a little further away. The longer things stay in a different way than they were in the ''past", and I just put some air quotes around that. It does create opportunity for changing behaviors and, ultimately, establishing new norms that customers expect, whether it's around digital transformation or otherwise.

Matt: There's one client that we were working with, this client had never had a digital account opening process. They prided themselves on the high touch for their high-net-worth clients, and they had to figure out how to change the paperwork, the processes, the digital experience to enable that. It just wasn't something that they ever thought about historically.

Katie: No, absolutely. And I've seen that in similar situations where, like you said, their high touch translated to in person. But it doesn't have to be in person, you could still have high touch but, facilitated by some more remote or digital mechanisms.

Matt: Yeah. And I love that you say high touch doesn't have to be in person. I think that's a great point on how you leverage technology to create that high-touch experience, which, the high touch doesn't have to be in person, but it also doesn't have to be a person. I think there's an automated approach that can make someone feel like they're going through a process, they're getting the communications about how they're proceeding through whatever journey they're on and know that they can get to a person if they need to, but that person doesn't have to be infused in the process.

Katie: I think that's exactly right. And I think the leading organizations are increasingly capitalizing on the information, the insights that they have about their customers in their data warehouses, if you will, but then using that to enable an experience where the customer feels that the organization "knows them" and can anticipate their needs. But then can also kind of prop up the humans or the advisors in the relationship to give them more insights than what they have had before at their fingertips. And I think, done right, you can have the ones who punch up the relationship that is really anchored on a more robust mining of internal and external data but then complementing the advisor, the human advisor, that might be in the mix with some of that information and really coming out quite strong with the customer.

Matt: So, Katie, what are some of the recommendations that you have for the financial services companies you work with, or others at large, relative to how they can better communicate with their customers?

Katie: I would offer three recommendations on that front. And the first one, related to the discussion we've just been having around humans and digital, the first one is around really having an omnichannel focus. I think the leading organizations need to be able to communicate when and how the customer wants. And the all-digital is not necessarily the one-size-fits-all approach but needing to be able to kind of meet them where they want to be.

The second, I would say, is really needing to be understanding and knowledgeable about customer preferences. And so, to the point I just said it's not just one size fits all. How do you get ahead of understanding your customers, anticipating the issues that they might have, and be there at the right moment to offer both the opportunity to service their needs but also offer the ability to delight them and to be able to know that, "Hey, I see that your balance is lower than it maybe normally is, and can we offer you a transfer to make sure you don't have an overdraft?" or, "I see that you've got your annual bonus hitting your account, and how can we help advise on maybe a wealth management conversation. So how do you, again, understand their needs, get ahead of it, and specifically focusing on some of your most valuable customers.

And the third area I would offer is that the leading companies need to really become more dynamic and to allow for customers to take the needed actions that they want to take to make their lives easier and to really help in the face of the barrage of information and communications that are flowing from every single service provider that a customer might have, and to be able to really be that kind of interactive partner so you can help make the transactions, help get the services that they need to get completed. And again, just be more dynamic and helping in making the lives of your customers financially better.

Matt: So all great points. I will note that I was vigorously nodding my head on your second point around honoring preferences because that is such an important one. And I run into the same things with clients where they're saying, "Well, we want everybody to be paperless," as an example, and it's such a common need or desire of our customers. But you have 20% to 30% of your population that really don't want to be paperless. And we talk about that's a delivery preference, right, is it delivered in paper or digitally? But there's also this storyline around, well, how do you make a better paper-based experience that could be less paper? It doesn't have to be as much or more. It can be a simplified experience that honors that preference but also gives the opportunity for that customer to explore the other channels that you're delivering content through, and then let them select how they prefer to communicate, the frequency, and ultimately, you as an organization can honor those preferences to be seen in the best light.

Katie: I think that's absolutely right, and I think it's important to recognize, particularly in financial institutions, that oftentimes your most valuable customers are those that have been with the organization for a number of years, they have multiple different products, they maybe accumulated, significant, deposit or investment balances. So their financial lives are a bit more complicated than maybe those that are just starting out. And appropriately, they've got more complicated tax needs, planning needs, and so forth.

And so really thinking about that group as a whole requires a detailed understanding of the preferences with the level of information that they want when they want is really important.

Matt: So, Katie, if you could summarize some of the things that we've talked about, and feel free to augment or elaborate as needed. But when you're looking to the future, how do you expect customer communications that these financial services companies are sending to continue to evolve in the coming years?

Katie: It's a great question. And my view is that the leaders in financial services will continue to invest in a variety of different digital mediums. And again, I think that continues to be an omnichannel focus. I think the leaders will be on the cutting edge of security and protection, which is an area we haven't talked a lot about. But increasingly, in the digital age wanting to make sure that your information is protected, and any communications are ones that you feel comfortable with. And finally, I think the leaders are going to increasingly leverage both the data and the insights, both the internal and external of the organization, to be able to anticipate customer needs to not just satisfy their customers, but to really be able to simplify your customer's lives, surprise and delight them, and ultimately, make them lifelong loyal to that organization.

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

Katie: You bet. Thanks so much for having me.

Matt: I'm Matt Swain, and you've been listening to the "Reimagining Communications" podcast. If you like this episode and think someone else would too, please share it, leave a review, and don't forget to subscribe. And if you're ready to reimagine your customer experiences, consider the Broadridge Communications Cloud, an end-to-end platform for creating, delivering, and managing omnichannel communications and customer engagement. To learn more about Broadridge, our insights and our innovations, visit broadridge.com or find us on Twitter and LinkedIn.