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In a merger, don't forget your customers

Companies may want to steal a page from banking giant Wachovia. It discovered that a commitment to customers was essential to ensure a successful transition.

With so many mergers and acquisitions happening in the banking space, it's almost understandable that customers would return to hiding their savings in a sock under the bed. In addition to names and logos, customer service, interest rates and account features may change with each succeeding company.

Wachovia Corp., the fourth largest bank in the U.S., is no stranger to M&A issues. The former First Union bank already had a reputation for having a strong customer focus when it merged with Wachovia and took over the brand name in 2001. During the merger, executives decided that a commitment to customers was necessary to ensure a successful transition. "We've done mergers before that had destroyed value, and we were determined not to destroy value

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this time," said Gwynne Whitley, executive vice president and director of corporate customer service excellence. Customer focus and integration issues "became go/no-go components of the merger."

For every decision, Whitley's team asked, "what's the downstream impact on the customer?" If it was negative, they either changed the plan or abandoned it. Whitley says the CFO dug into the financials to correlate the value of strong customer relationships to financial growth. "The cost-to-serve is driven down, customers don't mind higher fees and there's lower customer attrition," she said.

Building back trust

Once the merger was complete, Wachovia turned to strengthening relationships with unnerved customers. The bank began an initiative to improve interaction with individuals. It enlisted research firm Gallup to conduct customer interviews within 72 hours of visiting a branch, going online or calling a contact center.

Now, the company conducts upwards of 80,000 interviews each quarter, and reviews weekly, monthly and quarterly results with all levels of the company. In addition, regular coaching sessions are held in each bank branch and corporate department to inform employees of both positive and negative customer perceptions. The company doesn't specifically go after high-value customers, but its focus is on retention and overall share-of-customer growth, Whitley said.

As a result, Wachovia saw customer satisfaction scores improve 18 out of the last 19 quarters, and its American Consumer Satisfaction Index score jumped 15 points since the merger to 76 last year. "We ask customers to rate their agreement with the statement, 'I can't believe in a world without Wachovia,'" Whitley said. Her goal is for all customers to agree completely.

Chasing customer centricity

JPMorgan Chase also feels the pressure of an upcoming merger with Bank One. Emily Chien, senior vice president of marketing, said that for the financial services firm, finding the right mix of products that's right for individual customers is the ultimate goal.

"We look at individual beliefs around financial products," she said. Beyond demographics and revenue metrics, the company tries to learn the level of knowledge customers have of financial services, level of debt, how they feel about banks, price sensitivity, etc. The company uses surveys and other personal interactions to gain this data. "It's an incredibly helpful tool to understand and cross-sell based on things that are important to them," Chien said. "We care about their best interests, which can be a very powerful lever."

Copyright © 2004 Carlson Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Peppers & Rogers Group is a Carlson Marketing Group Company.

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