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A Four-Step Plan for Keeping New Customers in the Fold

A Four-Step Plan for Keeping New Customers in the Fold

The battle for customer loyalty is often won or lost in the very early stages of a relationship.

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A Four-Step Plan for Keeping New Customers in the Fold

WASHINGTON — If your bank is like most, 20% to 30% of the customers you acquire this year will never really become your customers. They will leave before they ever complete a transaction.

Banks have two choices in this regard: try to avoid acquiring customers who don't engage (very hard) or improve the yield from the customers you do acquire (much easier and more effective).

The battle for customer loyalty is often won or lost in the very early stages of a relationship. One bank found that 80% of inactive customers—those who hadn't conducted a single transaction by month four—closed their accounts within 16 months of opening them. Active customers stayed for an average of seven years.

The first days and months are critical. If you want to lay a solid foundation for long-term relationships and accelerate top-line growth, engage your customers early. The average U.S. bank loses about 32% of its new customers within the first 12 months. That means losing their business as well as million in acquisition costs.

Investments meant to engage customers in the early stages of a relationship often pay for themselves within a year. For most banks, reducing new customer attrition by 1 percentage point would accelerate growth by 15% to 30%.

To achieve big improvements in your yields from new customers, you can take four steps:

Size the target. How much is early engagement worth to you? One bank found it was losing nearly half the new customers of a major product line within two years. Though the cost of acquiring a new customer was only $75, the effective cost of acquiring an active customer was $200.

Consider: Could you take 2% to 5% of your inactive customers and turn them into average customers. What would that be worth? It could be 2 to 5 percentage points of deposit growth at a $75 billion-asset bank with multiple product lines. A bank that attracts 35,000 new customers per year might expect to create 700 to 1,750 more active depositors. At a cost of $5 to $10 per customer, the investment, totaling less than $500,000, could yield a twofold to fivefold payback within the first year and much more over time.

Diagnose root causes. You need to understand precisely which customers remain inactive or leave, and why. Examine new customers day by day and week by week. Find out what drives their actions.

Back-office system errors trigger many departures: Thirty percent of one retail bank's customers said they switched banks because their checkbooks arrived either late or contained errors.

Another bank discovered three primary triggers for new customers closing bank accounts: poor branch service, a delayed checkbook, and superior offers from competitors.

Why were competitors' offers superior? Many of these customers had simply been sold the wrong account and were incurring fees they might have avoided. Simplifying the product line reduced customer departures and operating and marketing costs.

Influence behavior. Start by finding out what happens when good customers do engage. Then ask what you could do to encourage every customer to engage early.

The standard way companies initially serve and market to new customers (often called "on-boarding") is seldom sufficient.

One innovative credit card company tries to sign up customers on the phone for its rewards program when they activate their cards. Those who sign up spend 80% to 100% more than those who do not and are less likely to leave.

What will you do about the customers at risk of failing to engage? Consider talking to them about whether they have the right product, offering to walk them through your service features, or providing incentives to induce them to activate their accounts.

Fix your measures. Finally, look for early indicators of customer actions. For example, what proportion of your customers activate their product within the first three weeks? How many have made new purchases? What is the departure rate each week or month?

Most companies reward their sales or acquisition teams according to the number of new customers they acquire. Instead, try tying management incentives to the value of customers acquired and retained.

Bank of America Corp. revamped its performance-based pay to reward customer engagement. It measured the extent to which customers used its products and the average balance in deposit accounts, rather than just how many new products were sold.

Engaging customers early turns out to be hard. Few companies have tried it. Those that make the modest investment, however, discover that it is one of the most effective ways to accelerate growth.

Mr. Markey is a director of Bain & Co.'s financial services practice in New York.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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