When Commerzbank, the second largest bank in Germany, announced in August 2008 that it would purchase 100 percent of Dresdner Bank, steps were taken right away to make sure customers would be affected as little as possible. To start, a customer listening program was established to ensure that the customers' point of view would be considered in every step of the integration. With its focus on customer care, Commerzbank managed to keep its customer base stable throughout the brand merger, which was completed in June 2010. Martin Nitsche, head of marketing for private and business customers, describes how the bank helped its customers adapt to the changes and helped its executives learn about how customers think.
Customer Strategist: How did you help keep things running smoothly during the Dresdner Bank acquisition?
Martin Nitsche: We started off by surveying customers to find out what they would consider to be unpleasant side effects as a result of the acquisition, or what would make them anxious. This helped us create different worst-case scenarios, and then we did everything we could to avoid those scenarios. For example, our customers told us they were worried that we would change their account numbers. So we made a promise to not change any account numbers. They also let us know that they didn't want to use another branch, so we decided to only combine branches to bigger units if the branches were in the same neighborhood.
We then had to decide how to organize the communication activities surrounding the acquisition of Dresdner Bank. From the beginning, emphasis was on transparency and speaking directly with our customers about all aspects of the integration. One tool was an advisor blog on the Internet where two branch advisors wrote about the integration from their points of view. Customer mailings were quite focused on what was important for the customer to know at that moment in time. And we used clear and accessible language, and avoided technical terms as much as possible.
CS: What about the visual aspects, such as the new logo?
MN: We took a step-by-step approach to ease customers into getting used to the new color of Dresdner Bank's communications. The branding for Dresdner Bank was green, and Commerzbank is yellow. We increased the percentage of yellow in the communications for Dresdner Bank customers each month over a two-year period. The result: When we changed the logo and the name this past summer, the customers hardly noticed the difference at all. The personal experience was that nothing had changed. The account number was the same, the branch was the same—only the color had changed to yellow.
CS: You formed a customer advisory board as part of a customer listening program. How did you recruit customers?
MN: In October 2008, during the merger process, an ad campaign was placed in German print magazines to encourage Commerzbank and Dresdner Bank customers to apply to become part of the customer advisory board. Feedback was very positive: We received more than 5,400 applications. Using a three-step process we got down to 40 final participants. First, the applications were closely analyzed. Then we held telephone interviews, and finally one-on-one interviews. In the end, the best-fitting 20 customer candidates from Dresdner Bank and 20 from Commerzbank were chosen to be part of the final 40. Our segment communication department was responsible for the entire process, which was accompanied by an independent HR company to guarantee objectivity.
CS: And the more than 5,000 applicants from the beginning who were not chosen?
MN: They were invited to be part of an online community with discussions about products and services. Most of them joined the community, and more than 1,000 are highly active users.
CS: How do you leverage the customer advisory board on an ongoing basis?
MN: Twice a year we hold a customer advisory board meeting. The topics discussed vary and usually revolve about current happenings. During the financial crisis, for instance, dialogue centered on the lack of information, and the board asked Commerzbank to explain in easily understandable terms how the crisis arose. As a result, the internal advisory department developed a brochure, together with the 40 board members, to help customers better understand the financial crisis.
But that's just one aspect. In between those meetings, the customer advisory board reviews our ideas for product and service innovations to help us tailor our offering as closely as possible to customer needs. We also get the opinion of the board on our advertising. For example, we shared the storyboard ideas for a TV spot on a free-of-charge current account and got feedback on it from the board. For many brochures, members of the board often get the opportunity to have a look at the first draft. Sometimes they complain, saying "It's too complicated. Make it simple." And we do.
CS: Do their ideas affect both marketing and products?
MN: Yes, but customers don't make that sort of distinction. They let us know where they see a problem and we have to decide internally how to tackle the problem from a sales, a product, or a marketing perspective. By looking at what the board members talk about and what they bring up, we can learn a great deal about what customers in general think.
CS: What are some of the internal changes that have come about from ideas in the customer advisory board?
MN: We developed a customer charter where we expressed five customer rights: 1. The right to receive premium advice; 2. The right to get first-rate products; 3. The right to receive the best service; 4. The right to count on us; and 5. The right to influence the bank's decision-making processes. The five rights are displayed in every branch, with wall-size displays in larger branches. Customers also find smaller versions of the charter on the advisors' desks. Our experience is that the customer rights are a source of discussion. For example, we've had customers say, "Look, we've talked for about half an hour now, but you didn't offer me anything to drink. That's not what I call excellent service." So it comes down to the customers letting us know how they want to be served, which ultimately improves the relationship between customers and the bank.
CS: I would imagine that for the charter to work, employees' mind-sets also had to change.
MN: Yes, and on different levels. For one, we organized an intensive training program for employees. For management we introduced a new bonus scheme; executive managers are now paid in part according to customer satisfaction [Commerzbank uses Net Promoter Score]. And the third change is that we made this official by publicizing the charter, as I explained. We told the customers that they have these rights, and if they feel that they aren't observed, they are welcome to contact the bank.
We have a well-organized unit that handles customer complaints. And if that unit can't solve a problem, the complaint gets passed on to our customer lawyer. The customer lawyer is a neutral person who acts as an intermediary to strengthen the relationship between the bank and our clients. The goal is to find a solution that the customer and the bank are happy about. This institution hasn't been in place for long—the customer lawyer started his job in mid-June of this year. I am pleased to report, though, that he hasn't had many highly critical cases. Solving problems early on is our main ambition.
CS: Can you share an example of a case that the customer lawyer has taken on?
MN: Sure. A customer was interested in our free-of-charge current account, so he visited one of our branches to open an account. The employee in the branch said that there was no one available and that he would need an appointment to open an account. The customer was unhappy about that, since he was sure that he had seen some free associates. Our customer lawyer analyzed the case, and after speaking with both the customer and the branch manager, he determined that there was a communication problem. The branch manager called the customer, apologized for the communication problem, and offered the customer an appointment to take care of everything. Actually, the customer was quite happy with the outcome.
CS: Can you quantify the results from the customer listening program?
MN: We have 11 million customers, and in the first eight months of 2010 some 25,000 complaints were registered. Of these complaints, only about 300 were concerning the Dresdner Bank integration. We also have a daily social media tracking tool and we observe that we are not being criticized much. And if someone is complaining, most of the time the complaints are handled in the forums before we can get to them. What we see from a management perspective is that our customer base is stable.
CS: How do you plan to grow the customer strategy that's currently in place?
MN: The task for us over the past two years was to make the big integration work and to not lose customers. We wanted to stay stable; growing the customer base was not our focus. We are now starting to intensify sales and marketing again. But we won't be using the old methods of product marketing. We know that we have to see things from the customer's point of view and to look at marketing as a service for the customer. Satisfied customers are recommending us more often, which is the biggest compliment a customer can make.