January 23, 2015

Who Do You Work For?

Written by Craig Hughes

During a recent family driving expedition, my teenagers were surprised at a rest stop along I-95 when an attendant began filling our gas tank. “Why is that guy pumping our gas?” After providing the short answer (“New Jersey is a rare state that prohibits consumers from servicing their own vehicles”), I reminisced about “the good old days” when gas station attendants not only filled your tank, but checked the oil level, put air in your tires and washed your windshield—all at no additional cost! “Why would they do that?” “Customer service. That’s how they competed for your business.” Those days really do seem so far away, don’t they?

In the early 1990s I did a project for Richmond, VA-based Crestar Mortgage (pre-SunTrust merger). I was helping to define the business requirements critical to replacing their loan origination software and a question that came up early in the discussions with their executive team was “why don’t mortgage systems interact with the bank’s customer information file?” That was a good question then, as it still is today. Most consumer banking systems are predicated on a customer information file (CIF) to connect all the various banking products and services the customer might use. Consumer banking systems are generally customer centric, thanks to that CIF, which is critical to good customer service and, not coincidentally, cross-selling and retention. Marc Smith, CEO of Crestar Mortgage at the time, promoted customer focus as a key aspect of company culture, so much so that his organizational chart was inverted—his role was at the bottom of an up-side-down pyramid, supporting the management team, who supported the staff, who served the customer. In short, Marc felt that everyone should act as if they worked for the customer.

Mortgage systems, unlike their consumer lending brethren, and for reasons I still cannot understand, are loan-centric by nature. Sure, they deal with borrower and property data, but at their core, they are all about the loan. They deal with the details of this one loan, no matter how many times the property has been bought and sold, how many times this particular borrower has refinanced the same property, or what other banking services they may use. Is it any wonder that customers have such limited sense of loyalty to their lenders or servicers when there is no reciprocation?

It was a great pleasure to be back in the Richmond area a few years ago (nearly twenty years after my Crestar engagement) working with Jeff Coward, SVP of Mortgage Lending at Virginia Credit Union, and his management team on an LOS selection. While defining the business requirements for crafting an RFP for our vendors, Jeff made one thing very clear: “Whatever system we implement has to allow us to pull member information from the CIF into the loan app. They are members; we can’t sit there and ask them to tell us information we should already know.” No commercial system provided that capability out of the box, so Jeff paid dearly for customizations to make it happen. For a state-chartered credit union, customer loyalty—or member loyalty, more accurately—was paramount. Accepting anything short of respecting that relationship was simply out of the question. The real question is why haven’t more lenders pushed their system vendors to do the same?

More recently I’ve been working with the Export-Import Bank of the United States to help find opportunities for making business processes more effective. Improving the customer experience is one of Ex-Im Bank’s strategic goals, so we are continually looking for opportunities to improve both process efficiency and customer experience. Ex-Im Bank takes this goal seriously, so much so that they have a Vice President of Customer Experience, Stephanie Thum, who I often have the pleasure of working with. Stephanie’s efforts include significant amounts of customer interaction, directly and through focus groups, to gather input on their experiences in working with Ex-Im Bank, their impressions on the levels of effort required to transact with the Bank, and ideas they have for making the process a better one.

Creating a senior management role focused directly on the customer and the experience they have with doing business with your organization is a very powerful statement, and an effective means to measure your success in meeting your customers’ expectations. More companies need to take that step like Ex-Im Bank, insist that technology systems support the customer relationship like Virginia Credit Union, or simply challenge conventional modes of operation by the symbolic gesture of inverting the org chart like Crestar.

Sometimes we should just wash a few windshields. It could serve to remind us who we really work for.

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