Good Merger Communications Strategies Make or Break Banking Deals

Merger announcements are all upbeat and fanfare. Too little thought goes into how to communicate the rationale and alleviate concerns among two key audiences: employees and consumers. Poor communication (or none) with these groups can doom an otherwise promising pairing. Here's what marketers at banks and credit unions need to know to create an effective merger communications strategy.

For many financial marketers, merger communications can seem to be little more than a series of required disclosures and account migration notifications. Those things are certainly part of the mix, but the manner in which these communications are planned and delivered, “has proven to be the difference between a completed merger and a successful merger,” says BKM Marketing.

Mergers present bank and credit union marketers with a unique set of challenges. No two mergers are alike — combining different cultures, different teams, and, typically, different markets. One of the most important, but less discussed, contributors to success is a well-planned and well-executed merger communications strategy.

It’s a complex subject because many stakeholders have a strong interest in a merger transaction. These include employees of both the acquiring financial institution and the institution being acquired, customers or members of each party, shareholders in the case of a stock institution, the media, and the public at large, including on social media.

Make The Customer Experience Your #1 Priority

All stakeholders are important, but ultimately it’s the consumer who must be the primary focus of merger communications. This is true of business combinations in any industry for sure, but financial institutions in particular can benefit from the lessons of observation and the best practices of predecessors.

“Companies who keep the customer experience at the forefront during the entire process will not only [retain] current customers, but also set the organization up for future success,” says Dan Kiely, CEO of the call-center company Voxpro.

“Change can make people uneasy, and they will be keenly focused on how the new relationship impacts them,” says Kiely, based on his first-hand experience with acquisitions.

Without highly effective communication from the management of the two merging institutions, rumors begin to take hold rapidly, not only among employees, who fear losing their jobs, but among customers, who wonder: “Will I receive the same level of service?”

Many may not stick around to find out, which negates one of the primary drivers underpinning most mergers — adding account holders.

Messaging that is mishandled or nonexistent can lead to the exit of both customers and staff, the brand and creative agency Stackpole says in a white paper about merger communications strategies. On the other hand, “open, honest, timely communications informing both employees and consumers of the rationale behind the deal and important details at every stage of the process” will help retain staff and keep customers on board, the paper says.

Despite Importance, Merger Communications Are Often Ignored

Being able to clearly define the rationale behind a merger is critical. Naturally the rationale has to be sound from the get-go. Otherwise, even the most articulate communication won’t help.

But assuming the deal foundation is solid, a well-planned communications plan plays an essential part of a successful bank or credit union merger. For a variety of reasons, however, such plans oftentimes either aren’t formed or aren’t sufficiently clear or funded.

One reason is money.

“The more constituencies that must be handled, the more work there is to do,” says consultant Robert Sher. In some cases this can include having top executives get on planes to visit key “constituents” while other leaders man the phones to explain what has happened and how customers and the community will be better off. More broadly, on the consumer side, financial institutions must launch advertising and social media campaigns to reach everyone, Sher says.

“Do you have a team in place to manage this? Have you budgeted this cost into the acquisition price?” he asks. “Most companies don’t.”

Public relations specialist Kim Harrison lists several reasons why merger communications frequently fail to get the attention they deserve:

  • A strong merger communications strategy demands intensive time from senior management in a period when they may be totally devoted to other aspects of the deal (e.g., technical, financial, logistical/operational).
  • Mergers between financial institutions involve many complex issues required by law and regulatory bodies. Communication is not legally required, so it is an easy area to bump down on the list of priorities.
  • Communication is not easily quantified and measured, which makes it difficult to grapple with when merger budgets are being established.

It doesn’t help that — at many financial institutions — marketing isn’t always viewed in the appropriate strategic light. An often dismissive (if not derogatory) attitude too often excludes marketing from conversations with major strategic significance.

Start With Brand To Build Your Merger Communications Strategy

Before you launch any merger-related communication initiatives, you must focus on your brand, according to Stackpole. “Nothing is more important to the success of a merger than brand, yet it’s the thing most overlooked by financial institution leadership,” the agency says in its white paper.

Stackpole notes that a strong brand aligns the cultures of two merging financial institutions, “unifying separate teams by creating a shared purpose and identity.” Brand also conveys that unified presence to the marketplace.

Other suggestions relating to merger communications include:

Establish a core communications team with designated primary contacts by function, recommends BKM Marketing. Among many other responsibilities, the team should determine the scope of the communication needs, create a detailed strategy with recommended channels, and develop a targeted timeline.

Follow a framework to help manage the complexity, says Harrison. Understand all stakeholders, know the goals, write a plan, craft messages, and select media. And very importantly: “Always communicate. Non-communication is still communication because it sends negative messages.”

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Employees Make or Break a Merger — Talk to Them

“Regardless of the brilliance of vision and fit in a merger, the subsequent success of the deal depends mostly on the employees,” says Harrison. When people are uncertain, he continues, they start to speculate, which invariably becomes paranoia as they chat to workmates. “The grapevine goes overtime with rumors. Productivity starts to drop.”

“Financial institution employees won’t much care about impact on consumers immediately,” adds Sean Williams, a vice president at True Digital Communications. “They’ll care about changes to their jobs, benefits, pay, etc.”

And when that happens, customer experience suffers. And customers will only put up with so much. Changing financial institutions is not nearly as difficult as it used to be.

“Regardless of the brilliance of vision and fit in a merger, the success of the deal depends mostly on the employees.”
— Kim Harrison, CuttingEdgePR

A clear, timely plan for internal communications once a merger is announced is critical to managing the grapevine, even using it for positive reinforcement.

Williams, who has been through eight mergers, and was formerly the head of employee communications at two large companies, offers the following advice:

Move quickly, even in the quiet period. “There’s an uncomfortable place at which many mergers start,” Williams says. “The deal may be announced, but various approvals are still needed before closing.” Neither employees nor consumers are apt to understand this delay. He urges management to explain the quiet period and to push for as much openness as possible, giving people regular updates.

Open up channels of communication quickly. Use every incoming vehicle you can muster: discussion boards, email, voicemail, and face-to-face meetings with leaders. Answer all questions and closely watch social media. “Acknowledging the questions being asked is critical to demonstrating that the new organization is listening,” says Williams. “The lawyers and compliance folks will worry about you doing that — but stick to your guns. Just make some rules about what is and isn’t appropriate and, if nothing else, communicate that!”

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Don’t Leave Consumers Out, Better to Over-Communicate

Kiely and others emphasize that maintaining and ultimately improving the customer experience must be kept at the forefront of any merger execution process. Communication is critical here.

Both institutions — acquirer and acquiree — need to keep this critical audience engaged in a consistent and relevant format across all channels. Customers and members want to feel valued, and they want clear, honest, and simple communication including reassurance that there will be no disruption to their accounts, the Stackpole white paper says.

Stackpole offers several suggestions for an effective merger communications strategy specifically targeting bank customers or credit union members. One key point was: Reach out early and often. Research shows that most account holders who end up leaving a financial institution will do so during the first month of transition.

Here are a few more recommendations from Stackpole:

Make the most of direct mail. Begin with a message from the CEO personalized by segment. For customers or members of the acquired institution the message would welcome them, speak of the benefits of the combined institution, and provide guidance on where to get relevant information.

Consider building a microsite. The link to the site should be included in the letter from the CEO and elsewhere. The site should include FAQs, updates and an easy way to provide feedback. A video on the site would be a warm welcome to those coming on board and express how much value the institution places on them.

Use a marketing automation platform to monitor merger communications. Using the functionality of available marketing technology the acquiring institution can see who is opening emails, going to the microsite or using social media. The bank or credit union can then tweak communications to react to what it finds and respond to questions that it’s seeing.

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