What Banks Can Learn From Apple, Zappos, Disney and Southwest

Today’s world of instant gratification is driving a paradigm shift of customer service for financial institutions, where expectations are formed by firms like Apple, Zappos, Disney and Southwest Airlines.

By Dr. Patricia A. Sahm, Customer Experience & Channels Practice Lead, Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group

Consumer expectations are being formed by service experiences outside of the financial services industry, where content, interactions, and features are rich, delivering an engaging and rewarding experience.

We are experiencing a customer service paradigm shift. Unlike any other time in history, today’s informed consumer is in the driver’s seat and holds the power to buy or not buy from a business depending on their experience with a product or service. Consumer expectations are shaped by the customer service they encounter across all industries, and they are accustomed to intuitive and easy to use products, positive human and virtual interactions, and getting what they want when they want it.

According to a national consumer survey of 1,002 U.S. consumers conducted by Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, nearly half of survey respondents (47%) say the customer service quality of their primary financial institution is not as good as great customer service companies across all areas of business.

Subscribe TodayThe CG study revealed that consumers value four key attributes of great customer service: personal attention and reward for loyalty, responsiveness and flexibility, well-trained and helpful employees, and easy to use products and services. Unfortunately, consumers reported that all four of these attributes are not as good in the financial industry.

So what can financial institutions learn from the other industries? CG’s research unveiled, four new cultural norms, detailed below.

Anticipatory Customer Service

As noted by consultant and Forbes.com contributor, Micah Solomon in a Forbes.com article, “Service at Apple begins for the customer before they even arrive at the store. Using the Apple Store App, the customer can make a reservation, ensuring an employee is waiting for them when they arrive. Upon arriving at the retail store, customers are greeted by an Apple representative, continuing the customer experience. Employees pass descriptive customer details along to other employees (such as ‘Jim Johnson, plaid shirt, a BlackBerry—yikes!—in side holster.’) And employees make a point to use the customer’s name. With this level of anticipatory customer service, no wonder Apple is the number one global brand.”

Culture of Advocacy

Zappos has been named a “customer champion” by J.D. Power & Associates, creating a case study on what makes the company so unique. J.D. Power found that Zappos builds their brand on a “platform of core values and culture.”

Zappos gets it right by hiring the right people, and then ensuring new hires share the company’s values and vision. Almost all new hires – from executives to accountants – must participate in a four-week customer loyalty training course. Company employees can then share the culture and the vision with customers. During the second week of training, an offer of $2,000 is made to new employees to quit. This litmus test weeds out employees that don’t share the company’s overall vision.

Zappos strives to “deliver happiness” at work, which ultimately drives top-quality service by creating a culture of customer advocacy.

According to Mark Miller, Senior Director, Contact Center Solutions at J.D. Power and Associates, “If you are better on the phone and you are servicing your customers better, you are going to experience higher retention and increase advocacy. Customers will be praising your brand, which makes it easier for your marketing efforts to work, reduces the sales cycle, and also protects your pricing power.”

Employee Enablement

Southwest Airlines gives their employees latitude – the authority to make snap decisions within boundaries – to make things right in the name of customer service. This latitude not only helps with consumer relations, but also makes employees feel empowered to rectify a situation on the spot (without having to go up the chain of command for approval), which drives employee engagement and retention.

Teresa Laraba, senior vice president of customers for Southwest, gives the example of a man who approaches a flight attendant with the news that he’s going to propose to his girlfriend in flight. In an effort to make the moment more memorable for the couple, the flight attendant makes the decision to grab a bottle of champagne (at no cost to the customer) and then teaches the man how to use the intercom system.

“When you give employees latitude, it makes them feel happier in the workplace and when they come in contact with a customer, they only extend how they already feel about their environment,” said Laraba.

Positive Peer Pressure

According to Micah Solomon, bestselling author and consultant on customer service and contributor to Forbes.com, paying attention to the positive peer pressure dynamic is a secret weapon for companies with strong cultures and great hiring practices. Why do you think that everyone at Disney picks up trash when they see it?

It’s not because it’s taught at orientation (although it is). It’s not because Walt Disney did on-the-spot firings of those who didn’t pick up garbage (though it’s reputed that he did). It’s because the tradition is so entrenched in long-time employees that it affects the behavior of every new hire. They see the successful in-group picking up trash. And they realize pretty quickly that that’s the way to fit in: whether you’re a VP or a janitor. The employees you hire will ultimately exert peer pressure –negative or positive– on other staff members, who, when it’s their turn, will directly interact with customers.

In today’s highly mobile, digitally connected and socially engaged world, it’s no longer good enough to be the best in a certain industry … you need to be the best across industries because customers are measuring your service according to their life experiences.

Today’s banks and credit unions have some learning to do from its non-financial industry cousins to be great at customer service and customer complaint management. These learnings can be the gateway to differentiation and success for an industry already under the customer experience microscope.


Dr. Patricia Sahm is the Customer Experience & Channels practice lead for Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group. She has over 20 years of experience serving clients in the financial services industry. Prior to joining CG, Pat was a Managing Director at ACG and a Manager for the Retail Banking practice at McKinsey & Company. Dr. Sahm received her Doctorate in Information Systems and Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University. You can follow Patricia on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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