Customer Stories Aren’t Created Equally

A recent Citi Card ad campaign focuses on customers’ stories. In one, a 20-something tells her story:

“I don’t cook. So I made my eat-in-kitchen a fabulous walk-in closet. Since I enjoy a day of shopping far more than cooking, I decided to do a bit of home remodeling. With my Citi card in hand, I set out to get some closet organizers. I bought a shoe rack for the oven, sweater boxes for the cupboards, and 12-inch baskets for handbags up above.”

The ad’s tagline is “whatever your story is, your Citi card can help you write it.” US Banker quotes a Citi exec as saying “Our hope is to get into the heart of the Citi cardholder’s head and make an emotional connection…we want people to select the Citi card because, in so doing, we can help them live a piece of their dream.”

My take: This is a step in the right direction (from a marketing perspective), but falls short of being effective.

Contrast the Citi customer story with this one about why a woman says she’s loyal to her bank:

“My partner and I had been trying to adopt a child for some time, when we received word from the adoption agency that a child was available for adoption — in China. But we needed a short term loan in order to make the trip. My bank bent over backwards to approve the loan and get us the money in 24 hours. For that, I will never leave them.”

Or this story:

“My ex-wife and I were going through a divorce and I called one of our financial providers to cancel a credit card and insurance policy we had with them. The rep on the phone said ‘I hope I’m not overstepping my boundaries, but if you’re going through a divorce, we have a whole department that can help with all the financial arrangements you need to make.’ To make a long story short, we were able to transition our accounts easily. For making it such a painless process, for being there when I needed them, and for figuring out that I needed help in the first place, I’ll never do business with another financial firm.”

Do you notice anything different in the stories I’ve related and the one that Citi tells in its ad?

Seth Godin wrote “marketing is the story marketers tell to consumers.” He’s wrong. Marketing is figuring out which stories you want customers to tell themselves. Stories that come from their personal experience and that strengthen their loyalty to the company, product, or brand. A story that a customer tells to herself (even subconscious stories) is the most important factor driving customer satisfaction and loyalty.

But not all stories are created equally. There are three important differences between the stories I re-told and the Citi story:

  • An element of the unique. What exactly is so special about having the Citi card in this example? Answer: Nothing. In the story that Ms. WalkInCloset tells, you could pretty much tell that story substituting a Capital One, Amex, Discover, or any other credit card. But not every financial firm could have done what the firms in the other two stories did. For a story to become a “story that a loyal customer tells” it needs to be something that not just any financial firm could do.
  • An element of the unexpected. A woman goes into a store, buys a shoe rack, uses her credit card to pay for it. Nothing out of the ordinary about that story. But getting approved for a loan — and getting the money — in 24 hours? Or having a call center rep figure out that there’s something deeper than just closing out a couple of accounts? You don’t expect that to happen. And it’s the unexpected that drives the most important customer stories.
  • An element of the emotional. While it might be important to Ms. WalkInCloset that she is redoing her kitchen, buying a shoe rack or a sweater box doesn’t quite rise to the level of emotional content that needing money to travel to China to adopt a child, or getting through the stress of a divorce does. Citi is right in wanting to make an emotional connection, but it takes an emotional situation to develop an emotional bond (this doesn’t have to be a negative, or stressful situation — positive ones work well too).

Despite my critique, I give Citi credit for recognizing the importance of customer stories. That’s more than I can say for a lot of other financial firms who try to make an emotional connection by simply telling customers and prospects that they help customers achieve their dreams.

But the importance of these stories goes beyond the advertising. Think for a moment: How did the customer stories I re-told come about in the first place? By accident? No way.

In the first story, somebody at the bank in question — at some point in time, based on who knows what input or information — decided the bank should have the capability to process loan apps overnight. So when the need arose to process the loan in 24 hours, they were able to do so. And a satisfied customer had a story to tell.

At the firm in question in the second story, how did the rep know that the caller was going through a divorce? Because she went through one? Maybe, but doubtful. It was because that firm analyzed previous interactions where customers canceled multiple, unrelated products and it found a common thread: Divorce. They then trained call center reps to ask customers who called with a request to cancel multiple products that if there was extenuating circumstance like a divorce that was causing them to cancel the accounts.

The fact that these firms were able to do what they did, and that those actions led to stories that their loyal customers told was no accident. It was marketing.

Hat tip to CUNA’s YES CU blog.

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