In Banking & Financial Services, Customer Intelligence & Insights

When business leaders discuss with me the essentials of good customer service, I harken back to the late 19th and early 20 centuries. It was then that pioneering retailers such as Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field established some of the basic ground rules for customer relationship management. They believed customer complaints should always be handled forthrightly so people would not feel cheated or deceived. Selfridge, who owned a department store in London, coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.”

Today, retailing is undergoing a revolution that would make it nearly unrecognizable to these men, but some things never change. Retailers—and, indeed, any companies that deal directly with the public—should treat their customers with the utmost honesty and respect. The customer is still always right.

I was reminded of this truth recently when a controversy arose over Facebook’s efforts to persuade retail banks to share their customer data. On August 6, when I was sitting at the breakfast table reading The Wall Street Journal, my eyes were drawn to a headline: “Facebook to Banks: Give Us Your Data, We’ll Give You Our Users.” The article told how the social media giant had approached large banks, including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and U.S. Bancorp.

Like many people I’m sensitive about guarding my privacy, so the idea that my banks might be sharing data with Facebook made me a bit wary.

So, a few days later I walked into the local branch of Wells Fargo to find out more about the potential Facebook alliance. I was stunned to learn from the customer service representative I spoke to that he was not aware of the article. When I asked him what steps the bank takes to protect my privacy, he could not give me an answer. It was Saturday, and he advised me to come back on Monday when somebody from the bank’s legal department would be available to speak to me.

I then drove to my local Bank of America branch, asking the same questions. Likewise, the manager there was not familiar with The Wall Street Journal story or the issues it raised. She essentially dismissed the Journal article. When I asked her how the bank protects my privacy, she didn’t give me any details but assured me I had nothing to worry about.

Both of these banks missed an opportunity to reinforce that the customer is always right. In both cases, they should have made their employees aware of the Facebook privacy issue and should have immediately armed them with the information they needed to answer customer questions about it.

Technology is available today to help companies quickly identify controversial issues and to disseminate information to everybody in the organization who might need to use it. In fact, brands have the ability, via data management and analytics, to understand their relationships with every customer as an individual, and, therefore, to anticipate questions or concerns that they might have.

The customer relationship representatives and managers in these bank branches should have been able to pull up a computer screen containing information about the Facebook issue, and another about my accounts, so they could give me immediate, personalized responses to my questions. In many banks, sharing that kind of data internally might require breaking down silos that persist in many financial institutions. But that’s what advanced data management and analytics technology is supposed to do.

In addition, if banks used such technology, they would be able to make unequivocal pledges to customers: We will use your data only with your permission and only in ways that you expressly approve.

But technology alone won’t solve the problem. In the digital age, enterprises should also invest in talent development programs that train employees how to interact with customers in their converging digital and physical worlds.

In the end, the relationship between a business and its customers is based on trust and shared values. These days, brands are called upon to not just state their values but to demonstrate them with actions.

I’m very impressed by companies such as REI and Apple. REI doesn’t just sell its customers outdoors clothing and equipment; it offers customers the opportunity to go on outings together and it invests in their happiness—including making a $645,000 investment in improving hiking trails. Apple has pledged to use 100% renewable energy for all of its facilities.

Great brands aren’t afraid of controversy. They confront it straight on. They’re transparent about what they do and why they do it. They live their values and understand their actions are a critical element of the customer experience.

That’s the path to trusting, and, potentially, lifelong, relationships with customers—who, after all, are always right.

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