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Citizens Bank CMO: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Employees in “the Middle”

A lot of companies are dedicated to customer centricity. Often, those efforts get lost in “the middle.”

Senior leadership may already be passionate about customer centricity. Employees on the frontlines are already doing their best for customers. But for employees in between, empathy for customers doesn’t always come naturally – especially if their day-to-day includes little to no customer interaction. Building customer perspectives into the way mid-level staff and managers – or, “the middle” – work is what so many companies find challenging.

The key is inspiration through greater ownership of the customer experience, according to Beth Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Consumer Strategy at Citizens Bank. I spoke with Johnson on the Outside In podcast about her dual role delivering for customers and growing the business.

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Customers’ personal stories are a simple yet powerful motivator, often an effective tool for forging closer bonds with customers. Johnson shares the story of an email she received from a customer as an example; when she read it aloud in a meeting with colleagues, it brought her to tears. The man wrote about how his wife got sick and lost her job just as the family was about to refinance their son’s student loan debt. “He felt horribly that his son was burdened with this college debt. We saved them approximately $400 a month by just getting him in and working with our banker to refinance his loan. And then he invited the banker to a summer barbecue! The banker made that personal connection. We delivered and we should feel proud about when we help customers that way.”

Of course, it’s rare that a customer relationship makes it to summer barbeque status. Organizations should celebrate the employees that make customer success their own, and have conversations with those that don’t. According to Johnson, this approach is common practice at Citizens. “It’s not a score, but getting in the weeds, getting your hands dirty,” she says. “Saying, ‘If I work in the home equity business, for example, I am responsible for having a process and a system that works really well for our customers.’”

The “score” a lot of companies depend on to gauge their progress with customers is Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Johnson is also bit of an expert on NPS. Prior to Citizens, she was a partner at Bain and Company for 15 years and was there when Fred Reichheld introduced it.

“NPS is part of a system to help drive a culture of customer centricity,” says Johnson. “It’s a tool that you can use that’s simple to understand. It’s not about the score – though the score is great because it often correlates to financial performance. It’s about that system that enables me to get everybody on the same page. That gets me to talk to that middle to say, ‘If you can drive this score, you’re going to succeed in your customer goals.’”

While there’s always room for improvement, she says momentum comes from a “constant drum beat” of customer-first thinking and inspiration. For example, senior leadership meetings kickoff with a conversation about customers. When a staff member does something helpful for a customer, that person is recognized in a company shout-out. Citizens Bank has also introduced regular “Citizens Check-ups,” conversations with customers about their financial health to understand what they need and what the bank can do to help.

Johnson leverages data and qualitative information about customers in new ways in order to inspire colleagues to think differently and challenge assumptions about customers. For example, she says Millennials open 50 to 60 percent of new bank accounts, and most in the industry assume that they will demand more digital-only customer engagement. But through work with Millennial customers, her team has learned that it’s not just digital experiences that they want; many want to talk to an actual person at the branch. Millennials have also said they feel a sense of comfort and security in having a physical debit card, something an all-digital interaction doesn’t provide – at least not yet.

“There is a DNA here at Citizens, there is something that’s been in the culture a really long time – that we’re going to deliver for our customers, that we’re going to care about our colleagues,” Johnson says.

Fundamentally, it all comes down to trust – something the financial industry traditionally isn’t lauded for doing well. So how can banks build it?

To start, “It’s absolutely essential for banks to stay the brand of choice for customers,” Johnson says. That means doing the basics right: deliver a frictionless banking experience, keep customers’ personal data safe, and help them improve their financial well-being. Do those things well, and the trust will follow.

“First, you’ve got to learn those basics and then you have a conversation that requires trust. But you don’t ask for it. If you don’t deliver on the basics, you can’t talk to [customers] about advice and trust because you haven’t earned it.”

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