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Increasing the Net Worth of the Customer Experience

Creating the Un-Bank Experience

Too many banks hide behind account terms and conditions, asserts Arkadi Kuhlmann. 

Authenticity is delivering the customer experience promised. "If customers feel that something is wrong, then it is wrong," Kuhlmann, CEO and founder of ING Direct (USA), said during his keynote at the Conference Board's Senior Marketing Executive Conference 2010. In banking, what scores of customers feel is wrong are banks that overload them with fees and deliver a less-than-adequate customer experience. Kuhlmann's
response to that sentiment was to build a new type of banking experience by emulating retailers. 

Retailing takes a high-value, low-margin approach, in which marketing and IT take the lead. ING Direct focuses on keeping costs low, delivering a unique customer experience, and marketing more like a retailer than a bank. Its few brick-and-mortar locations are designed as cafés and offer such perks as seminars on saving, investing, and the like along with frothy cappuccino. The bank's marketing focuses on behavioral cues rather than on value, preferring to deliver a consistent level of service to all of its customers. "There's no point in saying [through marketing] that we're going to do everything for you," Kuhlmann said. "Customers won't believe it. They believe word of mouth." In fact, 41 percent of ING Direct's new business comes by word of mouth. 

"We have the lowest acquisition costs in the industry," he added. "It's a measure of the quality of experience, instead of the quantity of contacts…banks need to stop scripting; get the engineers out of the call center and get the marketers in there. It's about customer experience. We have 28,000 moments of truth every day. You get buzz by doing what you say you're going to do day in and day out."

The bank does no outbound sales calling and customer service is handled in-house. "We have no call centers outside the U.S. because Main Street doesn't like it," he said. "Most people still hate toll-free numbers." ING Direct doesn't use an IVR; it has live associates answer every call. And it's a commodity business, so associates provide information, not advice. "Why do the same as everyone else?" Kuhlmann asked. "You don't need a points program; you just need to answer the phone."

But Kuhlmann doesn't want to serve all customers. He prefers customers who fit the bank's approach. For example, the bank shuns customers who want to open an account with more than $1 million—either they got the money illegally or they're wealthy and will have an expectation of specialized, value-based service the bank doesn't offer. "You want customers who love you," he said. "Bad customers destroy your brand. You need to get rid of customers who don't fit."

According to Kuhlmann, ING Direct wants to make savings cool. Doing so means simplifying financial products while other banks complicate them. "How do we deliver on our brand promise? We keep it simple," he said, adding that the company's advertising focuses on that simplicity and on having fun while calling out the differences between ING Direct and its competitors, like its aversion to hidden fees. (One ad, for example, reads, "Bank fees are the sand in your swim suit.") 

The bottom line: ING Direct's approach is customer-driven. Its aim is to deliver a straightforward customer experience that outshines the competition, to be open with customers, and to be fair. As a result, it boasts thousands of evangelist customers. "Customer experience is not what we think it is," Kuhlmann said. "It's what the customer thinks it is."