Amid the coronavirus lockdown, asset managers are finding new ways to communicate with their clients remotely. The industry has much to learn from tech and e-commerce companies that deliver top-class client experience from a distance.
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, a businessman is asked how he went bankrupt. “Gradually, then suddenly,” he replies.
This pithy summary also serves as a neat description of the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020. News of the spread of a novel coronavirus in East Asia gradually filtered through the headlines in January and February – and then suddenly the pandemic went global. Major economies ground to a halt, businesses ceased operations and markets crashed.
Some companies have fared better than others under lockdown conditions. Leading technology and e-commerce firms have benefited from surging demand for their services, partly because they have developed smoothly intuitive apps that deliver a seamless experience to users, wherever they are based.
Other industries are lagging behind, including asset management. Many asset managers have failed to adapt legacy technology to satisfy the needs of clients who have come to expect personalisation, convenience and on-the-button responsiveness from companies. This failure could prove particularly damaging during the current crisis.
We won’t be able to offer a best-in-class client experience without digital
“Our clients want interactions to be quick, simple, flexible and with a personalised approach – now more than ever,” says Michelle Calcutt, head of client experience (CX) at Aviva Investors. “The lockdown has emphasised what asset managers should have known for a long time: we won’t be able to offer a best-in-class client experience without digital.”
Rise of the client-centric asset manager
Digital tools hold the potential to vastly improve CX in asset management, from customised client portals to interactive data-driven platforms that provide a 360-degree view of portfolios. But to ensure these digital solutions are fit for purpose, asset managers need to pay close attention to who their clients are – and what they really want.
For many years, asset managers focused on building and pushing products rather than serving customers. They relied on above-benchmark investment performance and star fund managers to lure clients and keep them happy. Sales professionals would recite the Field of Dreams mantra: “If you build it, they will come.”
This has changed in the last decade. The global market meltdown of 2008-’09 eroded trust among investors and new regulations affected the products and services asset managers could offer. Meanwhile, disruptive FinTech companies emerged, offering cheap and intuitive algorithmic investment platforms that left some traditional asset managers looking flat-footed and unresponsive. High fees became harder to justify.
Better CX is correlated with improved client retention during periods of sub-par fund performance
Client research starkly illustrates the rising importance of CX. Better CX is correlated with improved client retention during periods of sub-par fund performance,1 while a negative client experience is usually fatal to the relationship. A recent survey from Deloitte showed poor CX was a factor in 76 per cent of manager terminations.2
Given these findings, it is not surprising that the industry is starting to recognise the importance of CX. But progress has been patchy. While most asset managers regard CX as a “key priority”, the majority of firms are still “getting themselves organised” in this area, according to a recent survey. Creaky technology and a cultural resistance to change are commonly cited obstacles.3 Accomplish, a specialist CX consultancy, finds 75 per cent of asset managers lack a CX strategy and sufficient CX governance.4 Indicators suggest an unfavourable CX is far more common than a favourable one.5
“Multi-decade trends of supply and demand mean that client experience is the only reliable differentiator asset managers have left,” says Adam Grainger, founder and managing director of Accomplish. “But many asset managers are yet to recognise this, even though they wouldn’t dream of investing in a tech company that didn’t have a good user experience.”
The pandemic is injecting new urgency into asset managers’ CX efforts
The pandemic is injecting new urgency into asset managers’ CX efforts. Amid the market uncertainty, clients are seeking real-time updates on the performance of their portfolios, as well as up-to-date intelligence and analysis on the wider economic and policy backdrop. In a survey carried out in May, Accomplish found 68 per cent of asset managers expect CX to play a more important role in the wake of the crisis.6
As they adjust to this fast-changing landscape, asset managers would do well to pay close attention to the leaders in CX across other industries. In this article, we present four principles for excellence in CX, derived from research across tech, retail and finance. It all starts with the basics: knowing your customer.
1. Know your customer
- Tech firms’ customer-centric approach is the benchmark for other industries.
- Personas can form the basis for customised client service in the absence of granular customer data.
In January 1997, shortly after he’d guided his online bookselling company through its initial public offering, Jeff Bezos sat down for an interview with Wired magazine. Bezos explained his vision for the firm, whose share price was then hovering around the $18 mark: “We have to totally obsess over our customers and figure out what they want, what's important to them. And whatever it is that’s important to them, we’ve got to figure out how to provide it.”7
Amazon has built a cutting-edge data apparatus designed to gather information on every individual customer
More than two decades on, Amazon’s share price is over $2,5008 and Bezos is one of the world’s richest men. His company’s obsession with the customer is a big part of the reason why. Amazon has built a cutting-edge data apparatus designed to gather information on every individual customer; it uses this knowledge to improve the functionality of its website and accuracy in recommending new products and services. Many other tech firms have followed Amazon’s lead in revolutionising CX with responsive digital platforms.
Although asset managers can learn much from this customer-focused ethos, Silicon Valley’s approach to CX cannot be precisely replicated without access to granular data on individual customers’ behaviour – and this is difficult to come by in a heavily regulated, business-to-business industry like asset management.
Over the last decade, retail firms have been able to fill the customer knowledge gap through the use of “personas”. Inspired by the work of pioneering software developer Alan Cooper, whose book The Inmates are Running the Asylum is a key text among CX professionals, personas are composite characters that neatly encapsulate the outlook of a certain type of user or client.9 Typically created using feedback from interviews with representative customers, personas furnish companies with actionable insights about the requirements of a particular group.
Personas are archetypal descriptions of a target client
“Personas are archetypal descriptions of a target client. In most instances these have been used in a retail environment, but increasingly we are beginning to develop these in a B2B environment,” says Richard Sedley, chief design officer at EY Seren, a consultancy that works with companies to implement persona-based CX initiatives. “These personas focus on roles as opposed to just the names of the clients – and the roles can have very different needs.”
By providing guidance on customers’ requirements, personas can yield dramatic improvements in CX. One UK-based telecoms company used personas to prioritise the work of its relationship managers, increasing client face time by eight per cent. As a result, complaints fell by over 20 per cent and overall client satisfaction increased by as much as 56 per cent.10
Personas can be effective in asset management, too. Typically, asset managers categorise clients by the type of organisation they represent – pension fund, insurance company, financial advisory firm – even though the individuals in those organisations will have vastly different roles and responsibilities, and therefore different requirements from their manager relationships. Segmenting clients using personas can ensure they receive services appropriate to their needs.
If asset managers think about clients in terms of what they need, they can provide better, more-tailored services and improve the overall customer experience
“An analyst is likely to require more-detailed information on fund performance than a lay trustee, for example,” says Andrew Morrison, head of client experience enablement at Aviva Investors. “If asset managers think about clients in terms of what they need, rather than the organisation they work for, they can provide better, more-tailored services and improve the overall customer experience.”
Attending to client needs helps build trust over the longer term. Research from Deloitte shows investors appreciate dealing with managers that demonstrate an understanding of the specific pressures and challenges they face.11 In the current environment, this would include the personal and professional difficulties caused by the coronavirus disruption.
As Samantha Owen, a director at financial advisory firm Beckett Investment Management, puts it: “What we would like to experience, in terms of relationship with fund management groups, is regular interaction – and we want them to understand how we work; we don’t really want it to just be a fund push.”
2. Map the client journey
- Journey maps can help identify “moments of truth” in the client relationship.
- Comparing performance against industry standards can highlight opportunities for differentiation.
In January 2020, electric-car manufacturer Tesla revealed an impressive set of quarterly earnings that sent its share price rocketing to new heights: the company’s market value surpassed the combined worth of Ford and General Motors for the first time.12 The firm’s share price has stayed resilient, despite the wider pandemic-related market decline.
Tesla has focused on providing a market-leading, end-to-end experience
Tesla’s prospects have been boosted by the design expertise and marketing savvy of its CEO, Elon Musk, as well as rising global demand for sustainable transport. But the company’s success also derives from its attention to CX. Tesla has focused on providing a market-leading, end-to-end experience; from a finely tuned sales pitch in showrooms to rapid complaint resolution for Tesla owners. This is part of the reason the firm now reports unprecedented levels of loyalty and advocacy among its customers.13
Companies can follow Tesla’s lead by implementing a design tool known as a journey map. The map picks out key moments, or touchpoints, from the client’s initial awareness of the company until their final contact. When combined with personas, journey maps can be used to monitor how different types of clients interact with the company and to measure their levels of satisfaction against industry norms over time. A study by Boston Consulting Group finds companies that focus on transforming the end-to-end customer journey can generate improvements in customer advocacy of 20-40 per cent, cost reductions of 15-25 per cent, and revenue increases of 10-20 per cent.14
Journey maps are not linear, and maps for different clients will overlap and intersect
In asset management, a typical journey map is likely to begin with a client’s awareness of the firm; extend through the sales process, onboarding of assets and fund reporting; and finish with the termination of an investment. Journey maps are not linear, and maps for different clients will overlap and intersect; a former customer may become a new prospect, for example, while new services may be cross sold to existing clients. The key is to view each touchpoint from the client’s perspective and to constantly refresh the journey map based on feedback.
“Cross-referenced against wider industry standards, journey maps can illustrate how a company measures up against its peers,” says Morrison. “That’s useful, because it highlights potential areas for improvement and opportunities to differentiate.”
Psychological insights can enrich journey maps and help companies decide where to concentrate their CX efforts. Take the “peak-end rule”, first described by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. Kahneman discovered that people tend to rate an experience based on the difference between the “peak” moment of pain or pleasure and how they felt when the experience ended, rather than their average level of satisfaction throughout the whole process.15
The implication is that people’s perception of an experience is based chiefly on how memorable it is. And negative experiences tend to linger in the mind for longer than positive ones. As the academics John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister observed in their recent book The Power of Bad, four pieces of good news are needed to outweigh a single piece of bad news.16
In asset management, onboarding delays are a frequent bugbear for clients
This may explain why poor service at a single touchpoint in the client journey can disproportionately influence perceptions of the overall experience. In asset management, onboarding delays are a frequent bugbear for clients: resolving this issue has been found to greatly improve satisfaction levels.
A journey map in which each touchpoint meets expectations, so that “everything works”, is the benchmark. The best-performing asset managers will be able to identify touchpoints where they can offer service that exceeds industry standards, such as best-in-class interactive fund reporting. An effective journey map will also remain flexible, so that the firm can respond with bespoke solutions when new circumstances affect the process – as will likely be the case amid the COVID-19 crisis.
3. Leverage the power of data
- Digital platforms tailored to client needs can improve outcomes.
- Internal data management solutions can be as important as client-facing ones.
Finance has struggled to keep pace with other industries in offering customer-centric digital solutions; this is partly due to legacy IT systems and costly regulatory compliance obligations. But these factors will be of little interest to clients who have grown used to the smart and personalised platforms offered by Amazon or Netflix and see them as the new benchmark.
One recent survey of retail customers found 79 per cent of individuals will now only consider brands that “understand and care about me”. Most respondents commented they now expect all their interactions with a company to be personalised through intuitive online platforms.17 There is no reason to believe asset management will be impervious to these trends, which will only accelerate as the coronavirus pandemic forces us to conduct more of our professional and personal lives online.
Many investors now expect more up-to-date methods of communication
Client expectations were already shifting before COVID-19, and many investors now expect more up-to-date methods of communication. Emailed fund updates with cut-and-pasted performance figures will no longer pass muster, especially when it comes to attracting and retaining the growing cohort of younger, “digital-native” customers who are beginning to rise into affluence.
“Clients want easier access to data,” says Susan Ebenston, president and chief operating officer, Aviva Investors. “They also want to cut and slice and dice this data in any way they choose, so asset managers really need to look hard at their capabilities in this area.”
Using personas and journey maps, asset managers can start to build innovative digital platforms tailored to the needs of different groups of customers. A corporate pension fund trustee may be looking for a quick update on whether her scheme’s investment is delivering as expected – and the reasons why – in a way she can clearly articulate to stakeholders. A digital fund report that provides the relevant figures, embedded with a brief, clear and concise video clip in which a portfolio manager fills in the market context, would suit these requirements.
Analysts or investment consultants, on the other hand, typically need more detail: they will benefit from a fully interactive digital portal that enables them to dive into the data and assess portfolios from different angles. They may want to check levels of risk or environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics that they can use to populate their own reports and financial models.
Asset managers need to find ways to securely and efficiently store data
To build these kinds of tools, asset managers need to find ways to securely and efficiently store data. Aviva Investors has invested in a “data lake” for this purpose – a central repository for information that acts as a single source of truth across the organisation.
Whatever approach they take, asset managers must recognise that business-as-usual is not an option. Silicon Valley is developing its capabilities in financial services, while the likes of Alibaba and Tencent have already grabbed market share from traditional asset managers in China thanks to cutting-edge, mobile-optimised investment apps.18 A fit-for-purpose digital offering is essential for asset managers seeking to stay resilient in the face of this ongoing market disruption.
4. Build a client-centric culture
- Silos can hamper good client experience.
- Client-centric culture should pervade the whole organisation.
There is no point in investing in client-focused digital platforms if organisational structures get in the way of the client’s experience at different points in the journey. Rigid departmental silos can prevent teams from nimbly responding to customer requests, for example, even where the relevant data is readily available internally.
How do you put the client at the heart of everything you do?
“Good client experience is about technology – but it’s also about process and people,” says Morrison. “How do you put the client at the heart of everything you do? You really need to ensure everyone in the business is singing from the same hymn sheet.”
One simple way to avoid siloed thinking and improve awareness of client needs is to ensure that a cross-functional group of employees participates in each of the steps outlined above – from learning about the client to mapping the journey to developing digital platforms. This should encourage buy-in from across the organisation and ensure everyone feels accountable for delivery.
“Everyone across the organisation has a part to play in delivering to our clients. It’s therefore vital they understand the impact of their actions and decisions, however small, on the client experience. It sounds obvious, but we all need to have that ‘client first’ mindset,” says Calcutt.
According to KPMG Nunwood, a consultancy that measures CX performance across various sectors, companies that provide the best experience instil client-focused principles across the firm; from senior management and marketing to human resources and frontline staff. These firms tend to implement training and development programmes to ensure every individual in the business understands their relationship with the client, along with specific CX-related incentives that focus minds on client objectives.19
Leading CX experts are increasingly treating the employee experience and customer experience as two sides of the same coin
The leading CX experts are increasingly treating the employee experience and customer experience as two sides of the same coin. As KPMG Nunwood notes: “These organisations are looking at their people through the same lens as they do their customers and applying the same engagement strategies to improve attraction, motivation, and retention.” Get it right, and companies can create a truly client-centric culture.20
“You need to remember CX is ultimately about people: you can build sophisticated software, but human beings have to use it,” says Calcutt. “Creating a CX-focused culture can ensure clients are treated with understanding and empathy at every point on the journey. This is even more vital during times of challenge and stress, as the current crisis has illustrated.”
In his landmark book Flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described how the most-productive organisations use culture to bring teams together to bring about a sense of collective purpose. Individuals in these companies become “a single organism, moved by the same purpose…all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power”.21
Asset managers may find that doing better by their customers is the key to their own long-term fortunes
Asset managers that attain this single-minded focus may find, as the likes of Amazon and Tesla have already demonstrated, that doing better by their customers is the key to their own long-term fortunes as the world is transformed by COVID-19. As for those that fail, they are likely to find themselves falling behind – first gradually, then suddenly.