Fortunately, I’ve nothing to say

Nothing much comes to mind just now, which is a good thing because I’m far too busy to write anything at the moment.

Hopefully both of these difficulties will disappear simultaneously some time soon.  Otherwise, either I’ll have lots to say and no time to say it, or – worse – huge amounts of my time (and yours?) to waste on saying absolutely nothing at all.

Statistic of the day (new series)

(I quite like the idea of this as a regular, but obviously nothing like daily, strand.)

The ads on the escalator to the Victoria Line at Warren St currently feature a total of 46 people, as well as two muppets.

44 of the people, and both muppets, are smiling.  The only two who aren’t are the women in the two ads for an abortion counselling service.

Why hasn’t anyone told me about this sooner?

Checking out a footnote in a recent magazine article, I found my way to a Harvard Business Review article published in 2007 called “Companies and the customers who hate them.”

I have a nasty feeling that I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t already discovered it.  But just in case you haven’t seen it either, here’s a link:

Anyway, it’s brilliant.  Basically, it lays into all sorts of service companies – telecoms, utilities, financial services – for making their deliberate strategy of making their biggest profits out of the customers who make the worst purchases from them.  It says that such companies have a mind-set  which is to do with “extracting value” from customers rather than “adding value” to their dealings with them – and that eventually this approach must rebound on companies and bring about their own destruction.

Let’s face it, there are hundreds of examples of this kind of behaviour in financial services, but the sort of thing we’re talking about is the sort of little drama that’s blown up in the ISA market recently to do with the millions of customers who’ve been lured in by short-term promotional rates and now find they’re enjoying their ISA tax benefits on a product that’s now paying them 0.1% p.a.  But you could equally well choose Payment Protection Insurance, or credit cards’ order-of-payment policies, or overseas payments made in sterling at preposterous exchange rates, or hidden charges buried deep in investment funds’ TERs, or….well, as I say, you could choose hundreds of things.

In FSA jargon, all this is primarily the result of “information assymetry.”  The FSA’s perception is that consumers suffer because they’re too stupid and disengaged to understand what’s happening to them, so in the long run the only solution is to increase their “financial capability” until they become canny enough to resist.

Reading the article, you start by feeling a jolt of recognition at the precision with which some of our industry’s worst habits and behaviours are filleted and skewered;  but then, instead of feeling mildly contemptuous to consumers who are silly enough to fall for our innumerable tricks, you go on to feel a cold rage towards all those in the industry playing their part in carrying on like this.

It seems to me that it’s just not good enough to blame consumers for what happens to them.  Forgive me if the analogy’s in bad taste, but it does seem to me to be a response not dissimilar to blaming a woman in a short skirt for being raped:  I think we generally understand now that the blame for rape lies with the rapist and not with the victim.

There are two questions you have to ask yourself.  First, although the authors are clearly and devastatingly right in their analysis of what’s happening, are they equally right about what they claim are the inevitable consequences (i.e. that sooner or later consumers will become so angered about their treatment that they’ll desert the companies concerned in droves)?  And second, insofar as all of us working in financial services marketing are playing our own parts in this shoddy behaviour, how long are we willing to carry on doing so without complaint or protest?

Still not easy to answer the former.  Consumers may be getting angrier and angrier, and they may be hating their mistreatment more and more.  On the whole, though, the depressing reality seems to be that they grumble but stay put, very likely on the basis that in financial services they don’t believe things will be any better anywhere else.  If the internet generations turn out to be a little less inert, or indeed more ert, then I’ll be delighted.

As for the latter, I guess we can only answer that question for ourselves as individuals.  Speaking for myself, this little bleat of protest should be taken as a sign that – continuing the goaty analogy – I’m getting towards the end of my tether.

Mr Angry found inside Pandora’s Box

Not my most accessible-ever headline.  What on earth do I mean?

Travel with me first to Regent’s Park on a dark evening a week or two ago.  Driving home, I narrowly miss a cyclist, dressed in black and showing no lights, riding absolutely invisibly in the middle of the road.  A little further on he stops alongside me at a traffic light, and I wind down my window and suggest entirely aimiably that he’d give me a sporting chance of missing him if he fitted some lights.  He launches a tirade of hysterical abuse and makes to get off his bike and reach in to assault me.  Fortunately, at this point the traffic light changes.

Now let’s go on – painful though it is for me – to Wembley Stadium yesterday.  It’s my beloved Spurs vs Portsmouth in the FA Cup semi-final.  We’re some way short of our best, but we’re absolutely all over them – having, according to the BBC, 31 attempts on goal compared to their 12, and winning 20 corners to their 7.  It’s one of those days when the ball just will not go into the net (and when it does, the ref quite wrongly disallows it).  You might imagine that the 40,000 Spurs fans present would be roaring their team on, providing every ounce of available encouragement to turn domination into victory.

But you’d imagine wrong. Where I was sitting – and, I strongly suspect wherever you were sitting among the Spurs fans – what you’d have heard would have been foul, vituperative abuse.  The fans around me hated our team, and especially certain players in it, with an absolute passion.  They missed no opportunity to scream filthy insults at them.  They detested our team far more than they detested our opponents – and far, far more than our opponents’ fans detested Spurs.  Sitting among these people was a miserable experience, almost more miserable than losing 2-0.

What do I conclude from these two experiences?  That there are an awful lot of Travis Bickles out there, maintaining the semblance of a normal daily life but permanently on the brink of an outbreak of psychotic rage.  I don’t know how many – sometimes it seems like it’s almost everyone – but it’s definitely a lot.

It’s a deeply depressing thought.  But if you’re one of the many marketing evangelists who’s keen to invite consumers into ever-more-active roles in owning, building and projecting your brand, it’s also a deeply scary one.  Nestle rightly picked up flak recently for their clumsy attempts to prevent the interactive part of their website from being hijacked by anti-corporate saboteurs.  But although their response was silly and counterproductive, the issue they faced was a real and difficult one which more and more organisations offering open access to anyone who fancies it are sure to encounter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Spurs website doesn’t provide anything much by way of chatrooms or discussion boards.  It’s a pity – a lot of 21st century marketing, comms and CRM people would say it’s a major missed opportunity to engage with the fans and build a truly customer-focused, 21st-century style brand.  But those people should keep quiet until they’ve had the experience I had at Wembley yesterday.  You really wouldn’t want any of those psychos anywhere near your website.

Social media, Victorian-style

It was back in 1840, with the launch of a postal service that promised to deliver a letter anywhere in the country for a penny, that the first of this country’s social media really took off.

As the volume of private correspondence grew at an astonishing rate, the new phenomenon gave advertisers plenty to think about.  Organisations that had happily confined their media selections to newspapers and stage-coach seatbacks quickly came under pressure:  did they have a social media strategy?  What were they doing to make the most of the post?

At first, I suspect, the aim may well have been to persuade letter-writers to take on the additional role of delivering advertising messages.  This must have seemed an extremely attractive option to the advertisers, not least because it wouldn’t cost them anything.  If they could provide letter-writers with amusing “viral” content about Pears Soap or Beecham’s Pills or whatever early Victorian brands existed in those distant days, then the word would spread like wildfire among the corresponding classes – while, most wonderfully, budgets could be slashed to the bone.

In the event, the experience of the following 170 years shows that it didn’t really work out quite like that.  Letter-writers carried on writing letters to each other, or at least until the technology was successively superseded by phone, email and text.  But they never really made more than the odd passing comment about Pears Soap or Beecham’s Pills:  irritatingly, they preferred to write and read about things that actually mattered to them, rather than things that mattered to an advertiser with a social media strategy.

Which didn’t at all mean that advertisers failed to find their own uses for this powerful new medium.  They did.  From the Victorian age to the present day, they’ve poured billions and billions of pounds into their own, parallel stream of commercial correspondence, and often their activities have achieved excellent results for them.

But for those who now believe that smart advertisers can encroach seamlessly and organically into today’s generation of social media, enjoyed and appreciated by users and integrated enthusiastically into their own personal communications, it must be a bit depressing to remember that over the years, the medium invented by their predecessors has invariably become known as “junk mail.”

I’ll never set foot in a bank branch ever again. Unless….

I can’t think when I last set foot in a bank.  And it’s even longer since I set foot in my own bank – so long, in fact, that in writing this I had to pause for a minute to remind myself where it actually is.

Being that kind of customer, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been a bit mystified by the industry’s recent surge of enthusiasm for branch banking. The papers are full of the plans of all sorts of institutions and consortiums to acquire large numbers of branches from big existing players like RBS and, I think, Lloyds Banking Group.  And considering the extremely limited scope of his immediate plans, my old friend Anthony Thomson has done incredibly well to make the forthcoming launch of his very branch-based new operation, Metro Bank, sound like the Big Four are about to become the Big 5.

Still, as I say, from a personal point of view, all this stuff about re-emphasising the role of the branch as the cornerstone of the customer relationship has all been sounding like sentimental nonsense to me – or, worse, like a rather poor-quality smokescreen intended to obfuscate the reality of the situation, which is that the moment you enter one of their sodding branches you’ll be manacled to a comfy sofa and not allowed to get up until you’ve agreed to buy a bucketful of stupid useless payment protection insurance.

As I say, that’s what I thought.  Until I heard Anthony Thomson himself tell a story about the success of Metro Bank’s US-based role model, Commerce Bank.  In America, he explained, Commerce Bank branches are mainly located in suburban residential areas, and open long hours seven days a week.  And one of the most successful parts of their re-invention of the role of the branch has been to give every customer a safe deposit box.  Why?  Because thousands of female customers owning expensive jewellery keep it in their safe deposit boxes;  drop in on a Saturday afternoon to pick up the items they want to wear that evening;  and then drop back in on Sunday morning to put their rocks back in their box.

Admittedly a Sunday morning image involving swarms of robbers with swag bags and stripey jumpers hovering outside Commerce Bank branches waiting to pounce on the ice-laden suburbanites does come briefly to mind, but actually the truth is that when I hear this example, I do have a lightbulb moment.  If a bank branch could make itself useful to me (or indeed to Mrs Camp) in this and maybe half a dozen similar ways, then, yes, I can imagine that much to my surprise a) the branch could become the focal point of the bank’s relationships, and b), as a result, the branch could indeed play a crucial role in enabling the bank to recruit and retain customers.

But “maybe half a dozen similar ways” – now, there’s the rub.  I’ve only heard two other less good examples from Metro Bank:  every branch will have loos (tempting, though a bit unfair, to call these a hygiene factor), and also a coin-sorting machine for the pennies and twopences in my candy jar (useful once every two years when the jar gets full).   One good idea and two much less good ones aren’t enough to make me re-evaluate my views about the role of branches.  But another four or five really good ones, and it could be a different story.