The Customer Effect

Send flowers: How banks are wooing customers with personal gifts

  • Facing increased competition, banks are rushing to personalize the customer experience through gifts and random acts of kindness.
  • Analysts say these efforts are important elements of customer acquisition and retention.
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Send flowers: How banks are wooing customers with personal gifts

Talking to a bank customer service representative is something many customers dread — except when they help chip in for your broken bike, host your wedding or send flowers after a breakup.

Capital One customer and Pittsburgh resident Christina Grady, who was going through a difficult time after a breakup, phoned Capital One’s call center last year after her credit card was shut down due to suspicious activity. Tonya, the customer service agent, did more than just reactivate the card. She gave Grady miles to use on a vacation and sent flowers. Grady posted her story on Facebook, and it went viral on social media. Tonya and Grady met for the first time as guests on Ellen DeGeneres’ show last September.

Banks are increasingly trying to forge a human connection with customers through what they call a “surprise and delight” customer experience strategy. This means empowering customer service agents to go the extra mile to make a connection with the customer.

“Surprise and delight — this is what empowers associates to bring humanity to banking,” said Joseph Whitchurch, Capital One’s head of customer experience and innovation for small cards, speaking at the Customer Experience for Financial Services Conference in Boston earlier this week. “Every single one of us, whatever our job is, has the power to reach out and impact these customers.”

Through this approach, Whitchurch said, Capital One decided to let front-end service representatives send small gifts to customers or mark life milestones with cards (though birthday cards aren’t allowed). Employees can go on Amazon and Etsy to find the gift that best suits the occasion. (Whitchurch said most gifts offered by service agents are under $10.) It’s a tactic that seems to be working, with customers sending hundreds of thank-you notes each month, along with birth announcements and event invitations.

“It was really profound; we hadn’t developed operational processes when customers called in to get them transferred to the right agent to say thank you,” Whitchurch said. “There are customers who are insistent that they’re not going to get off the phone until they talk to the CEO and say how great this random stranger was.”

Other big banks like TD are trying to nurture relationships through customer appreciation days and social media campaigns like #TDThanksYou.

Another method is to focus on connections between bankers and the community. Umpqua Bank, based in Portland, Oregon, is focusing on empowering employees in branches through a universal associate model, which means employees are cross-trained to perform a range of tasks beyond what most tellers would do. These staff members also are empowered to buy gifts for customers, supported by a dedicated customer appreciation budget per branch (the bank wouldn’t say exactly how much). They are also encouraged to carry out random acts of kindness to reinforce the community vision.

A couple of recent examples include when a Vancouver, Washington, Umpqua Bank branch hosted a wedding for a couple after a nearby venue burned down and when bank staff members from a Modesto, California, location chipped in for the cost to replace a man’s bike after it was bumped by a car nearby.

When asked if the tokens of appreciations are an effort to buy customers, Eve Callahan, Umpqua Bank’s evp of corporate communications, said it’s more about creating a personal connection.

“If we were trying to buy customers, there are institutions that offer customers money to come and bank with them,” she said. “Helping customers move or hosting a wedding, these are very human acts; [employees] are being encouraged to recognize the opportunity to help and come up with creative, thoughtful and generous ways to do that.”

Analysts say investing in these extras is part of customer acquisition. “It costs much more to create a new customer than retain one,” said Blake Morgan, customer experience analyst and author. “These banks have tons of money, and it’s just a shift in the thought about marketing the company; they can invest in nurturing the relationship.”

By building the connection with the customer, the bank can keep the customer tied to its ecosystem, so the customer can look to the friendly bank when they need to buy a new financial product.

“These touches reinforce the relationship, so when that infrequent moment to buy a product comes, the bank will get the call from the customer,” said Dan Latimore, svp of Celent’s banking practice.

With a growing financial services ecosystem, banks now need to think about incentivizing customers to stay loyal for the long haul.

“Banks historically had been in a position where they could dictate the terms of experience,” said Latimore. “Fintech companies and other tech-driven companies have raised the bar on customer experience, and in so doing, changed customer expectations.”

Photo: Umpqua Bank employees in Modesto, California, chip in for a new bike after a man’s bike was destroyed in a nearby accident. (Courtesy of Umpqua Bank)

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