What Customers Really Want?

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Author:Michael Ruckman
Source: Bankovskoe Delo magazine

A number of years ago, I was with a Spanish friend sharing some examples of the work that we were doing with Eastern European banks, and he told me that he would move back to cash and completely avoid banks if he could survive without owning bank products.

His exact words: “My bank provides no significant value for what I pay, and usually, they make my life more difficult.” I started asking other friends, co – workers, and acquaintances if they felt the same way about their banking relationship, and my search revealed similar feelings among 40 – 50% of the people that answered.

When I asked people why they hadn’t already left their bank for another, the answer staggered me: “The others will probably be just as bad.” This answer had multiple variations, but the basic result is that people’s banks were satisfying only the most basic requirements to retain their business, and it seems that people had simply learned not to expect much from their bank. (Note: The answers did not vary much from country to country.)

With this in mind, I started speaking with our clients, as well as other bankers, and asked if they surveyed their customers to see what they really wanted from their bank. The result was that customers want good quality service at a low price, if not free. Big surprise. Digging deeper with a few clients, we learned that most of the answers that they received from asking customers “what they want” simply did not provide any actionable insight as a result of their survey efforts. The majority of answers revealed that customers wanted good or great service, preferably free, a branch next to their home, a branch next to their office, 24/7 assistance from dedicated managers, etc. It would be unreasonable to think that any bank could fulfill all of these desires in a financially sustainable manner.

We were very intrigued with the comparison of these desires and the customer satisfaction scores from customers. Clearly, there was a significant gap between what customers sought from their banks and what they were receiving; yet customer satisfaction surveys in these same banks showed that 85-98% of customers were satisfied with their bank. We were left wondering how and why customers would state that they were satisfied when the bank was clearly not fulfilling “what they want” from the relationship.

In an effort to better understand how customers felt about their bank relationships, we started working with bank clients to ask slightly different questions. The first was an open-ended statement presented to customers:

“As a result of my relationship with my bank, my life is ________.”

The answers came back significantly weighted to the negative side and with very logical and thoughtful explanations of why they answered in that manner. A surprising number of customers felt that their banks were not doing what they should to help, and, in some cases were making life more difficult for them.

We also asked bank customers to choose from a list of 24 adjectives (12 rational descriptors and 12 emotional descriptors / half positive and half negative) to describe how they feel about their current relationship with their bank. The responses were heavily weighted on the rational side and leaning toward negative descriptions of their relationships (see Figure 1).

Finally, we asked a question that changed everything:

“What do you hope to get out of your banking relationship over the course of 10-12 years?”

There were many variations of the wording of the answers, but over 90% of the answers grouped almost evenly into three distinct categories:

  • Help with solving problems and resolving unexpected issues when they arise
  • Help with realizing short, medium, and long-term goals
  • Help with improving day-to-day quality of life

Finally, we received some actionable insight that could be used to enhance the quality of relationships with customers. Previous surveys revealed that customers expressed somewhat unreasonable expectations but, in the end, were satisfied with their bank despite unfulfilled expectations-which resulted in little actionable insight for the development or improvement of the business. With this new question of a longer-term vision or expectation, we were able to draw clear connections between the answers from customers and distinct business elements that could be adapted or improved to better serve each particular desired outcome.

In simpler terms, if a survey yields insight that the bank should provide everything to everyone, anytime, for free, where do you begin? However, if a survey shows (for example) that the bank should have solutions and processes that enable bank staff to help customers to plan for and realize their short to medium-term goals, it is much easier to develop and manage the adaptations and improvements to the business to fulfill this desired outcome.

With this new approach in mind, we started using survey questions that included a series of questions falling into three categories of measures of the quality of their relationships with the bank: rational, emotional, and transformational. These surveys allowed us to understand the drivers of customer satisfaction and structure appropriate measures to retain customers. They also allowed us to understand the drivers of relationship quality and, ultimately, loyalty. Many find it surprising that the drivers of loyalty are almost entirely different from those of satisfaction.

One of the more interesting parts of these surveys was the transformational analysis. In this section we developed scales related to different aspects of the bank relationship and asked customers to rate what they are currently getting out of their bank relationship and what they would like to get out of their banking relationship. The results typically show that there is significant gap between the benefits that people would like to have and what they are getting today. The results also show that a large number of customers would be willing to pay more for those benefits. Below is a sample result from a European banking client (Figure 2):

As illustrated in the sample above, the relationship between what customers would like and what they are receiving today is almost completely inverse. Maybe there are customers out there that are looking for good service at a low price, but we found, repeatedly, in different countries, that there is a significant portion of the population that is seeking more from their banking relationship, and they are willing to pay for it! In effect, this justified the need for a relationship-centric approach that has not been covered by sales-force effectiveness, operational efficiency, service excellence, or any of the other methodologies designed to improve sales and service. It seems that a significant market exists for those banks that are structured to engage in meaningful relationships with customers. These customers are seeking an easier time managing day-to-day finances, help solving problems when they arise, help reaching their goals, help achieving their dreams. They want to feel that they belong with their bank partner, they want to feel good about the relationship, and they seek the growth and transformation that a bank can offer.

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore illustrate this for us once again in their recently updated version of The Experience Economy by showing the highest level in their Progression of Economic Value when organizations can use a series of positive and engaging customer experiences to guide a transformation in the life of the customer. [1]

We view this as the primary goal of the ongoing relationship between customer and bank. The customer will purchase and use many different bank products throughout the course of the relationship. Those contacts (purchase-related and usage-related contacts) can be engineered to be experiential in the sense that each individual contact can be positive and engaging, possibly even memorable. But the sum of those contacts, and the result for the customer in the ongoing relationship, must be that the customer is “better off” than they would have been without that relationship.

This implies that the ongoing series of contacts with the customer must have interconnection, must represent logical progression, and must create added value for the customer over time. “As a result of my relationship with my bank, my life is better than it would have been without them.”

How many people can say that? We have found, again repeatedly, that there is a significant portion of people that believe that it is possible even though they cannot answer in this manner today.

Flawed Measurement Methodologies

In their publication, Customer Loyalty in Retail Banking: North America, Bain & Company, Inc. has a very detailed section called “What Drives Loyalty?” that explains that customers generally “see no reason to reward their bank for delivering as promised.” [2]

Yet, they state that respondents in their survey rated “service” as the top reason for recommending their bank, followed by “rates and fees”.

Bain uses the methodology known as Net Promoter Score (NPS) which segments customers into three categories: [3]

  • Promoters – those who are most likely to recommend the company to a friend or colleague
  • Passives – those who are passively satisfied but less likely to recommend the company to a friend or colleague
  • Detractors – those who are not likely to recommend and may even spread negative word-of-mouth about the company

In their report, they go on to say that those US banks that were the “loyalty leaders drew the most consistent praise for going above and beyond” in the areas of “friendliness,” “helpfulness,” and “problem resolution”.

While we like NPS as one of several performance indicators for banks, we do think that there is more to the concept of loyal relationships than the elements of “renew and refer”. We believe that the tactics required to retain customers and build promoters are only the first step in the puzzle, and mainly represent the rational aspects of the customer relationship. When customers state, “I want good service at a low price,” we translate that into, “I am not emotionally engaged in the relationship, the relationship is not going anywhere, and I am not a better person as a result of the time I spend in the relationship. I pay for a service. The bank efficiently delivers the service. That’s all.” If the bank delivers a service in a friendly way and is efficient at resolving their mistakes, that might buy some advantage over other banks, but it does not indicate a significant emotional connection or that there is a real relationship.

Many banks measure customer satisfaction. In fact, we have seen many banks that have customer satisfaction scores above 90% and still lose customers every day. We have seen banks with high Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and Net Advocacy Ratings (NAR) that still have underperforming businesses. One bank that we spoke with in California had a customer satisfaction score of 94% and a NAR that showed 88% “advocates” (similar to promoters but with a different methodology), and they still had a consistently shrinking customer base and a cross- sell ratio of 2.1 products per customer, which does not indicate that these “advocates” are consolidating their relationship with the bank that they are willing to recommend.

While we do believe that NPS, NAR, customer satisfaction, and the various other methodologies are good for establishing base performance and an indication of the likelihood of retaining those customers, we do not believe that they represent a strong indication of loyalty to the company as they do not include a measure of the strength of the relationship with the organization. A customer may be satisfied, happy, even ecstatic about the usage quality of the product that he/she purchased, but the desire to continue using that product and, possibly, recommend it to others will be tied to the ongoing quality of usage. If that quality diminishes, the customer may discontinue using that product. It is that simple – the rapport consists primarily on purchasing and using a product.

The Beginning of Customer Relationships

To fully understand how relationships develop, it is important to consider where they start. A person seeking a new bank will be influenced first by the brand positioning and the communications of the bank. If those elements perform well at establishing interest, the potential customer may initiate contact with the bank or may be more open to a contact initiated by the bank. If no interest is established, then the opportunity is lost.

This first contact with a potential new customer will take place in a customer touch point, or environment, which could be physical (branch, external sales person, ATM) or virtual (contact center, internet site, social network). If the initial contact is pleasing enough, the customer will continue to explore the details of the offering that is presented and get a feel for the culture of the staff with whom he/she is interacting. Following this progression, the customer may decide to purchase a product, thus initiating a relationship with the bank.

As seen in the diagram below, these five elements represent three distinct stages where the opportunity may be lost:

  • Insufficient interest / lack of call to action;
  • Initial contact irrelevant / unpleasing;
  • Unfulfilling offering / culture disconnect.

Once a customer has purchased the first product from the new bank, they will begin to use that product and can assess the quality of usage compared with what was promised during the purchase process.

The three components of usage quality are as follows:

  • Functionality – the product performs as presented and promised during the purchase process
  • Access – the user may access the product functionality as presented and promised during the purchase process
  • Ease-of-Use – the functionality is intuitive and the user can easily extract the benefit from product usage

Moving forward, the customer that has purchased and used a product will have some opinion as to the level of satisfaction with his/her purchase. The customer may be open to continued usage of that product and “renew” if the product expires. Depending on the circumstances, the customer may even be ready to recommend that product to others and might be open to considering other products from the same provider. However, the relationship outside of product purchase, renewal, and usage may be entirely non-existent. In fact, we often find that the only contact between the bank and customers is contained within sales and service contacts (or purchase/renewal and usage contacts if considered from the customer’s point of view).

We refer to this as the contractual relationship, meaning that the only real contact between the bank and the customer is largely defined and limited to product purchase, renewal, and usage. In this scenario, the bank has promised concrete product functionality, access, and ease-of-use, and the customer has committed to pay a fee for the services offered. If both parties perform as agreed contractually, then the relationship may continue until such time as one or both parties fail to fulfill the obligations as agreed.

Retention vs. Loyalty

For years, banks have sought to measure and improve the quality of the contractual relationship with customers in an effort to predict the future behavior of customers. Many, if not all, of the measures provide valuable insight on various different areas of business performance, but few, if any, provide a reliable measure of loyalty. The simple explanation for this bold statement is that all of the methodologies that we have examined consider past behavior as a predictor of future behavior, which is a gamble at best. Anyone who has played roulette extensively can attest that the past numbers provide very little insight on the next to appear.

In essence, banks use a menu of measures internally to control and improve the level of fulfillment of the contractual relationships (sales effectiveness, operational efficiency, quality of service, etc.) with the understanding that if they fulfill the contractual obligation well, the customer is likely to renew (e.g. the customer is retained). However, this assumes that all conditions stay the same both internally and externally, which is a very dangerous detail. Internally, the bank can efficiently manage service delivery and even improve quality over time in an effort to retain customers. But managing all of the external factors that may influence the customer’s decision to stay or go represents a much more substantial and complex challenge.

As a result, banks have relied heavily on measures such as customer satisfaction, NPS, NAR, etc. to provide some indication of how a customer might behave when presented with external stimulus such as special offers from competitors, price competition, advertising campaigns, etc. Again, however, these measures have generally failed to provide a reliable and consistent correlation with actual customer behavior. According to an MIT Sloan Management Review article on customer loyalty and behavior, “NPS’s ability to explain customer behavior ranged from 0% to 20% (meaning that 80% or more of the differences in customer loyalty behaviors was caused by something other than what we were measuring).” [4] This inadequacy comes as a result of the failure to explore the quality of the overall relationship outside of the attributes of the contractual relationship (product purchase/renewal and usage quality).

For a reliable measure of how customers will react in external situations, a completely different methodology is necessary, and the measurement framework must encompass the more emotional nature of relationships. The rational drivers of relationship quality are, for the most part, captured with the various measurement methodologies already discussed, and banks working to improve these areas are essentially working to eliminate the reasons why a customer might want to leave the bank.

The emotional drivers of relationship quality are more complex, individual, and difficult to quantify, mainly because they are tied to each individual’s feelings about the relationship, the potential for future development, and the emotions that arise during interactions with the bank. Banks engaging in activities to build loyalty must not only fulfill the rational components of the contractual relationship, they must also fulfill the emotional components of the overall relationship. In other words, they must work to eliminate reasons why customers might leave the bank (internal stimuli), and they must also work to create reasons why customer will want to stay with the bank (reduce sensitivity to external stimuli).

Understanding (Real) Customer Relationships

On many occasions, people have asked me to give a simple definition for loyalty, and I find that the easiest way is to think of a marriage. A person that is happy, fulfilled, and engaged in their marriage is less likely to be tempted by other offers (external stimuli) that may present themselves during day-to-day life. On the other hand, a person that is not happy, unfulfilled, and/or unengaged in the relationship is very likely to be tempted by those other offers. In some cases, he/she may even be out seeking those offers and considering the various options. Considering this, and the fact that over 50% of marriages fail (lack of effective communication being the leading cause of failure), [5] maintaining a loyal relationship seems to be a difficult task even when there are only two participants involved. It seems almost impossible for banks to keep potentially millions of customers happy, engaged, and fulfilled, so a closer look at the nature of healthy marriages, and the needs of individuals, could provide a better understanding of the dynamics of customer relationships.

So what is in a healthy marriage?

The general consensus is that universal characteristics like trust, commitment, communication, intimacy and growth are at the core of a healthy marriage. Author Susan Pease Gadoua, who also blogs for Psychology Today’s website asks “just how does a marriage survive”? [6] In her book Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go [7] she draws inspiration from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (originally articulated by Dr. Abraham Maslow in a paper that was published back in 1943). [8] She breaks down her own“Marital Hierarchy of Needs” and uses it to reveal the attributes and traits of a healthy marriage – how it must grow and the deep level of commitment needed to sustain the relationship over time.

Brett King also refers to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in Bank 2.0, but relates them to the banking relationship purely from a transactional point of view, stating that self-service channels will generate more self-esteem by saving time and that comparing and choosing the right solutions over the internet will create a feeling of self-actualization. [9] This ignores the idea that the banking relationship could be healthy and fulfilling for both the customer and the bank. It also implies that bankers must resign themselves to a further commoditization of their industry and a spiral into deeper price sensitivity from the customer.

Considering that the banking relationship is an ongoing collection of contacts and interactions between the bank and the customer, we adapted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is mainly about the individual, to properly reflect a Hierarchy of Needs for bank relationships:

These five elements represent levels of a relationship with a bank that illustrate a hierarchy growing to a more fulfilling relationship with the bank as you move through each stage. Moving through these stages would indicate that the relationship would become more fulfilling to the customer and would create the desire for closer contact, rather than a more distant contact as Mr. King proposes.

One key deficiency common to Mr. King’s approach, as well as many other consultants/authors, is that he views the bank relationship mainly from the standpoint of purchasing and using bank products (The contractual relationship). We find that most organizations have not yet realized the importance of the real relationship in building healthy and loyal customer relationships.

Throughout the course of the relationship, the customer may purchase and use many different bank products, but there is a distinct difference between the benefit that a customer receives from each individual bank product and the value and benefit of an ongoing relationship. As a result, banks must begin to understand and measure the quality of relationships separately from sales effectiveness and service quality. The Relationship Hierarchy of Needs shows the progression of the relationship in terms of the value that it can bring to the customer.

Relevance – Is there a relevant reason for contact with the bank outside of purchasing and/or using a bank product? If not, then the relationship will simply remain that of user/provider (which stimulates sensitivity to price and competitive offers). If banks wish to develop deeper relationships with customers, especially with the hyper-connected, self-serving customers today, then they will need to find relevant reasons for contact outside of sales activities and servicing products that they already sold. Contacts related to planning, budgeting, advice, education, special events, etc. would help to create such reasons for contact outside of sales and service.

Trust & Security – Is the bank a trustworthy and reliable source for these types of contacts and can the bank be trusted to be impartial and act in the best interest of the customer? Many banks offer some kind of advice, but it is usually very strongly tied to the sale of a particular product that they are pushing. In fact, most advice that we come across when visiting different banks is designed to highlight a particular product that the bank is selling rather than identify and act on the true needs goals of the individual. Some advice is given before even asking questions about the individual’s needs / goals. This will surely generate some level of distrust and create a barrier for the customer to pass this stage in the hierarchy.

Belonging – Does the customer feel that they belong in the relationship with the bank? This has a few different implications:

  • Understanding different customer groups and personality types so that the bank can interact with them appropriately
  • Ensuring that customers feel welcomed at any point of contact and that the staff is genuinely interested in creating a positive and fulfilling contact for the customer
  • Creating aspects of a club-like atmosphere where customers can participate in events or activities with people that are in the same customer group or share the same interests

Status / Esteem – How does the customer feel about the relationship with the bank when they are not interacting with the bank? Are they proud of their relationship? Do they talk about benefits that the relationship brings? Do they feel increased status when using the bank card, or talking about the relationship? Banks will need to focus more on how customers feel about the relationship. If customers are unable to feel good about themselves when thinking about the relationship, then the relationship will always be at risk.

Growth & Transformation – How does the bank relationship help the customer to achieve his dreams, goals, and aspirations? People do not dream of a relationship with their bank, or a mortgage, or a car loan. They do, however, wish they could have a better day-to-day quality of life, need help solving a problem, or require assistance realizing their goals / dreams. If a bank can play a role in helping with these items, with the growth and transformation in a person’s life, then the true meaning of Maslow’s self-actualization can be achieved. If not, then the relationship will be unfulfilling for the long-term. The bank customer may be satisfied with the quality of usage of the product that they purchased, but the relationship will not fulfill the highest components of the hierarchy of needs.

If banks begin to view their relationships with customers with the possibility of helping their customers achieve their dreams, goals, and aspirations, this is a much more appropriate use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it applies to the banking relationship. If we combine this with the concept of a marriage between the customer and the bank, it is easy to see the role that a bank can play in the marriage. And to extend this idea even further, it is possible that customers, happy, engaged, and fulfilled with the relationship, might choose to consolidate their financial activities in one place – in effect transitioning simple loyalty (which allows a customer to be loyal to more than one provider) to monogamy (loyal to and consolidated into one relationship).

This marriage would be nirvana for bankers – lower operating/infrastructure costs, lower risk, lower cost of acquisition per customer, lower customer attrition, higher profit per customer, higher deposit balances, higher number of products per customer. What banker would argue with these benefits?

As explained above, the Relationship Hierarchy of Needs provides the missing piece of the puzzle for considering banking relationships. Adding this element to the relationship dynamic below illustrates the complete cycle of customer relationships in banks; however, most banks lack a structured model for measuring the quality of customer relationships outside of the contractual relationship.


In fact, most banks lack the processes, measures, and management models to effectively manage the quality of contacts that are outside of selling and servicing products. For example, a sales process for most bank products is likely to be completely standardized with multiple measures of efficiency after the application is filled out, which is usually the first step in that particular process map. But in many cases, the interactions, conversations, and information exchanges that lead up to the application are unmapped, unstructured, and untracked. As well, operational and transaction processes defined for renewing or servicing products that customers already own are often standardized, measured, and managed for quality; whereas simple contacts outside of product purchase, renewal, and/or usage are rarely monitored, captured, or managed.

Moving to a relationship-centric model, banks will need to structure their management models, processes, and performance measures to account not only for the efficiency of the contractual relationship with customers (and the rational drivers of quality) but, also, to effectively measure and manage the real relationship with customers outside of pure sales and servicing of individual products. Understanding that customers may use dozens of bank products throughout the course of the relationship, bankers must expand their focus from managing the inner workings of the bank to include proper measurement and management of the real relationship with each individual customer.

Measuring Relationship Strength

Over the past decade, we have come to rely on a detailed architecture of a relationship-centric banking business model along with the efficiency measures and customer management tools required to maintain long-term, loyal customer relationships. This architecture includes a framework for measuring the strength of relationships as a whole – both the contractual and the real relationships with customers.

While other measures of customer satisfaction and loyalty have historically failed to illustrate significant correlation with actual customer behavior and financial results, the results of the various implementations of this Relationship Strength scoring methodology have been quite interesting and have been consistent across income segments, age groups, and geographies within individual banks as well as in different banks and in different countries. Customers (and customer groups) that score higher using this Relationship Strength methodology are generally less sensitive to price, more forgiving of errors/faults in usage, and less interested in considering competitive offers. Correlation with the Relationship Strength Score and the revenue earned per customer, number of products per customer, and average balances (relative to different income segments) has been consistent. And, customers with higher relationship strength scores tend to have fewer banking relationships, indicating a trend of consolidation of their relationship into one bank that has earned their loyalty.

While NPS and other loyalty measures have the benefit of being generally accepted and provide the opportunity to benchmark against competitors and global best practice, they simply do not provide a clear link to actual business performance and provide little insight on what to do next. Measuring the strength of customer relationships provides much better guidance in improving real business performance by revealing what customers really want from their bank.

[1] – B. Joseph Pine II, Jim Gilmore, The Experience Economy, Updated Edition (Boston: Harvard Business Review, Press, 2011), p. 245.

[2] – du Toit, Gerard, Beth Johnson, Maureen Burns, and Christy deGooyer. “Customer Loyalty in Retail Banking: North America 2010.” (2010): 10-22. Web. 20 Jun. 2013.

[3] – Reichheld, F., and F. Reichheld. The ultimate question 2.0. Rev Exp edition. Boston: Harvard Business Review, Press, 2011. 52. Print.

[4] – Keiningham, Timothy L., Lerzan Aksoy, Bruce Cooil, and Tor Wallin Andreassen. “Linking Customer Loyalty to Growth.” MIT Sloan Management Review. 49.4 (2008): 54. Print.

[5] – “National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trend”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011.

[6] – Susan Pease Gadoua LCSW, “Five Needs a Marriage Has”, October 12, 2009.

[7] – Susan Pease Gadoua,Contemplating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go (New Harbinger Publications, 1 edition, August 2008).

[8] – A. H. Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,”Psychological Review, 50, 370-96,1943.

[9] – Brett King, Bank 2.0: How Customer Behaviour and Technology Will Change the Future of Financial Services, (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Business, 2010), p. 26.

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