Experience report: differences in media-based sales

Fewer and fewer customers are paying a visit to their bank branch: not even half of them do this on a regular basis. Digital forms of communication are on the rise. Customer service centers (CSC) and digital advisory centers are becoming increasingly important. Senior Manager Sarah Schroeder talked to Danae Mitze and Michael Kerpes. 

Medialer Vertrieb

Looking at media-based advisory services on a time line, how important was it in the past and how important is it now? And what’s next?

Mitze: It feels like media-based advisory services have been around for a long time. But in fact, many banks haven’t offered them yet or are just starting to really put them into practice. The coronavirus pandemic has significantly accelerated the development of this advisory format. Banks first focused on advising their customers on the phone, which established itself quite firmly. We have picked up on this trend and responded even more strongly to customer needs with the introduction of the digital advisory center and the associated video advisory service. Under the slogan “Digital vernetzt und menschlich verbunden” (editor’s note: German for digital network and human connection), we want to inspire our customers by using media formats and by adding our own personality to them.

However, video transmission and a slogan alone do not make for successful media-based advice. In media-based formats – in contrast to advising on the phone – advisors additionally use other media and tools for visualization and for assisting the conversation. Especially when there is a lack of physical proximity, a video call can create a very pleasant and familiar atmosphere for conversations. Our experience has shown that our customers even share their everyday situations, such as a family dinner, while being advised in a video call. This adds a very personal touch to the advisory process. On the whole, customers find such a conversation entertaining, informative and, in the best case, it also offers some variety.

Is media-based sales now moving out of the shadow and becoming a role model?

Mitze: Certainly, media-based sales is leading the way and thus offers a learning effect for all.

As to the customer service center, the CSC: what are the developments there?

Kerpes:

In the past, people liked to use the term “call center”. That’s how I started at my first CSC: a small office with small windows and old furniture, four employees who told calling customers which advisor was available. Together with the branch-based sales staff, we then defined and described processes that could be handled faster and more efficiently in a CSC than on site, came up with legitimation criteria for the secure identification of callers and ultimately started the technical implementation together with Finanz Informatik, the IT service provider for German savings banks.

The start was bumpy, but we were able to gradually increase our acceptance within the bank, since the branches quickly realized that this meant a considerable relief for them, and customers broadly welcomed the offer. Thus, over time, we took over numerous compatible processes. In summary: In my experience, a suitable solution is always developed together with the branch-based sales force. This increases the team spirit and promotes a cooperative attitude instead of a competitive one.

And what is the status quo of the CSC?

Kerpes: The “Vertriebsstrategie der Zukunft” initiative (editor’s note: German for sales strategy of the future) has given the savings banks’ CSC divisions an additional boost. The sales department’s capacities for advisory services were aligned more strongly with a specific segment focus. For segments requiring no or limited advisory services, the CSC should be designed to offer the most efficient, cost-effective and rapid solution to customer requests – ideally from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The CSC thus became the nucleus of multi-channel development, a kind of prototype operated by employees with dedicated media skills. These skills should later be spread to all parts of the institution, even to the branches, so that these employees could meet customers on all channels wherever possible. This offering was supplemented by increasingly growing self-service solutions in online banking, communication via WhatsApp or text chat and other technical innovations. The entire topic gathered pace and had long since stepped out of its niche. And all of a sudden, everyone wanted to “do CSC”.

Does the customer then still notice a difference between the media-based advisory services in the digital advisory center and the customer service center?

Kerpes:

Well, it depends. Banks definitely see a difference here, whereas the customers don’t necessarily. When it comes to service requests, e.g. about online banking matters, customers can approach both centers, both now and in the future. If they require more specialist advice, then a CSC is there to direct customers to the right place: the digital advisory center, the business center or the branch-based sales force. What is important is active cooperation and also a clear separation: the CSC lays the foundation and all systems build on one another. Efficiently handling service requests and properly advising customers is a balancing act. To achieve high quality in both, you need to separate them.

This has to be explained to the customers, for example by illustrating that colleagues in the DAC have additional technical tools or generally schedule more time for a customer meeting. However, one thing is important when providing services or advice: when combining efficiency with media-based processing, it all comes down to standards – in other words, you need to break away from the image that savings banks can fulfill each and every wish.

What are the three most important factors for successful media-based advisory services and CSCs?

Mitze: Our aim is to make our high-quality advisory services also tangible when offered through media. We have to inspire customers and get them onside. They need to experience that advisory services add value. This applies to both branch-based sales as well as media-based formats. The important thing here is to take out complexity and jargon and make the customer journey tangible. It starts with the advisors’ positive attitude. Advising customers only works if you succeed in being authentic and establishing a connection with them. Advisor and customer alike should perceive themselves as a “perfect match”, they need to be in sync.

So customer journey is the first factor, what’s the second one?

Mitze: Processes are the second success factor. Unfortunately, some processes still require a signature. There are already some excellent digital solutions, but we always have to be aware of the fact that we have to comply with regulatory requirements as well. Even so, customers need to be able to also experience processes through media channels, which should primarily be easy to handle for customers, not for bank staff.

And success factor number three?

Mitze: The third success factor is continuous staff training. In addition, we have to constantly seek feedback from our customers in order to determine what they are really concerned about as well as the latest must-haves in advisory services. Training courses and seminars provide the opportunity to effectively adopt and implement these findings in real-life advisory services. To turn media-based advisory services into an experience, advisors need to provide meaningful visualizations and have the right mindset. Thanks to new concepts and formats, our employees always keep up to date with the latest developments.

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Put simply, it is crucial to get people excited about the idea of KSC, to get them involved and to grow together with them.

And what about the three success factors for the customer service center?

Kerpes: In my opinion, there are five success factors: three that people like to talk about and two others. Firstly, it’s about functional and targeted processes. These must never be understood as static variables; a functioning CSC continuously optimizes its own processes. Secondly, you need to have the right technology in place. Here, too, there are continuous further developments with a high level of effectiveness. And thirdly, it’s about employees who are really eager to provide good and media-based customer service. A CSC must not be understood and operated as a switchyard for personnel restructuring, but must be something like the SC Freiburg soccer club is for German soccer. This club can’t afford expensive players, but has a great training concept to get the team fit. Thus, a CSC offers a flexible, modern and varied work environment for all employees.

Now let’s get to the two factors that people don’t like to talk about. Success factor number four: positive management attention. This is key. You can never build a successful and accepted CSC without the backing from the bank’s management. If you have the management on board, then you can make a lot of things happen, otherwise the whole thing just fizzles out. You have to get management to bear the pain of saying that I no longer have to find the right solution for every customer, but it’s totally OK for me to offer a super service for 80 percent of the customers using efficient standard processes. Success factor number five: selecting the right project managers for the setup. This takes the courage to rely on people who have a deep understanding of processes and a high affinity for technology. And perhaps more importantly: these people need to be enthusiastic about it. If I assign this undertaking to someone who has long worked in a branch-based environment and who has since regarded digitalization and standardization as the USP of direct banks, I shouldn’t be too optimistic that this person will do things differently in the new environment. I always refer to this as “attitude beats experience”, which has often proven to be true.

How can you find the perfect employees for a CSC?

Kerpes: Just as SC Freiburg does. If you don’t have a lot of money, you have to rely on talents, their development and a reputation as a stepping-stone to career success. Many of my former employees have developed within the CSC or have subsequently moved to the area of advisory services, and their experiences have brought a huge benefit to the new units. But it’s also about how I promote myself and the CSC: CSC working hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and sometimes also on Saturdays can be seen as a disadvantage – or as a workplace with maximum flexibility in terms of time. The challenge here is: I need to be convinced of this and also exemplify it.

Put simply, it is crucial to get people excited about the idea of a CSC, be open-minded, to also involve these people and grow together with them. When starting the CSC, I always told the team: “Just wait two more years and nobody in the bank is going to laugh at our little CSC.” And that’s exactly what happened. Furthermore, this idea has provided all employees with additional motivation – including me, by the way. I like the story of the small Gaulish village that stands up to the Romans. Today, a good CSC enjoys a high status in every savings bank. But it was a long way to get there.

And how can you win over employees for media-based advisory services?

Mitze: You definitely need to have employees who are very open-minded and who like to break new ground. Especially the idea of advising customers in a video call can be a hurdle for many at the beginning. However, practical experience shows that our customers are totally enthusiastic about the new advisory service. This positive effect is also felt by the employees. In my team, I have established a culture that embraces new ways of working. More precisely: creative approaches to work, numerous organizational options and flexible working hours – oriented to the needs of our customers. As a team lead, I make sure that I involve and inspire my employees and that we can speak openly. This team spirit also makes it easier to find new employees.

What advice should be given to a bank executive who does not yet have media-based advisory services in place and would like to introduce them?

Mitze: Draw on practical experience! Turn to pioneering banks for good advice! My suggestion: don’t try to stubbornly cling to a concept, but act in time once you realize it doesn’t feel right in real-life operations. Consistent and quick action can be an effective game changer.

A holistic view is crucial here. Providing valuable media-based advice always involves good interaction with the branch-based sales force.

And what advice should be given to a bank executive who wants to turn the customer service center into a more powerful organization?

Kerpes: This takes a fair amount of pioneering spirit and courage. You should be convinced of the undertaking despite internal opposition – if not, then better keep your hands off it. Management and its support are the be-all and end-all, especially at the beginning. You cannot build a CSC from the bottom up, only the other way round. If the management doesn’t overcome the concerns of the die-hards, the CSC will be tilting at windmills.

Once again, it is also important to bring people into the CSC who are keen on this kind of work, who like to change things and who also have a bit of a soft spot for technology. Error culture is another prerequisite. Especially at the beginning, such a project is highly prone to minor and major errors. In a CSC, however, errors should be seen as an opportunity to learn and established as part of the continuous development process. Here, too, it is important that this idea is supported by the top management. As soon as errors occur, the CSC directly comes under criticism. But that’s something that has to be endured.

And last but not least: think big, start small. In my experience, it’s good to focus on the essentials first, that is on just a few processes, and then grow from there.

It’s hardly ever a good idea to just look at a nearby savings bank that has been operating a CSC for years, and wanting to get the same thing in less than no time.

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