EXCLUSIVE: Citi Private Bank: Reaping Rewards From Client Feedback

Wendy Spires Group Deputy Editor London May 13, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Citi Private Bank: Reaping Rewards From Client Feedback

Joss Mitchell, head of UK business development Citi Private Bank, and Tim Tate, global head of client experience, explain how the bank’s “Voice of the Client” initiative has rapidly gained traction among both staff and clients.

This case study forms part of WealthBriefing’s latest research report, The New Normal: Codifying Superior Client Experience In Wealth Management, which was produced in association with Barclays Wealth and Investment Management and will launch on 15 May. To mark the launch, a webcast featuring senior executives from Barclays and others has been produced discussing headline findings, and access to both this and the report itself will be free as part of WealthBriefing member benefits.

Here, Joss Mitchell, head of UK business development Citi Private Bank, and Tim Tate, global head of client management, explain how the bank’s “Voice of the Client” initiative has rapidly gained traction among both staff and clients.

Many believe that cash-rich, time-poor HNW clients simply cannot be bothered to fill in questionnaires on the performance of their wealth management provider. But, according to Tate, this is an “absolute fallacy” and clients are only too keen to make their views heard – as long as the right process is put in place and clients believe that their feedback will be acted upon.  Far from being met with indifference, Citi Private Bank has actually seen a “fantastic” client response to its requests for feedback and these insights are proving invaluable to the business, said Tate.

Crossover from corporate

Citi Private Bank’s Voice of the Client initiative actually grew out of efforts made by the corporate banking side of the business to better understand the needs of its client base. Strategically leveraging client feedback has long been a priority of Jane Fraser, head of Citi’s Global Private Bank since April 2009, and Fraser and Tate first began working together on client feedback on the corporate side of the bank’s activities in 2006 (when she was head of strategy for relationships).  When Tate joined the private bank 2010 they then started to talk about putting in place something similar for this side of the business.

These efforts began with senior managers performing reviews with a sample of around 100 clients, which consisted of discussions lasting about an hour (while these were free-form, the interviewers were extensively pre- and de-briefed on what the bank wanted to find out). In 2011 Citi Private Bank then began to think about scaling up the initiative and following the corporate side of the business in moving a significant proportion of the process online.

Convincing bankers

Tate is the first to agree that a private bank asking HNW clients to fill in a questionnaire online would seem to go against the grain in an industry which predicates itself on the highest levels of personal service. However, as long as clients are approached – and questioned – in the right way, gathering client feedback in this manner can yield great results, he argues.

As with all such initiatives, ensuring staff buy-in is the first hurdle to be surmounted, and while Tate concedes that there was some degree of pushback from relationship managers initially, Voice of the Client now enjoys huge support internally.

In the words of Tate, while Citi’s bankers were “initially a little unsure and wary of being criticised” they now see the value of the feedback which Voice of the Client offers. As Tate rightly points out, getting “constructive criticism” can be a real boon to bankers in the current environment of ongoing margin and headcount pressures: “Bankers are under pressure; it’s tough times out there… we desperately want to retain talent and to do that sometimes the bankers need help,” he said.

Convincing clients

Understandably, at first Citi’s staff were also somewhat sceptical as to whether their clients would want to participate in online feedback surveys. However, these fears soon proved to be unfounded and in fact the bank saw high client participation figures right away. The key to this, Tate and Mitchell believe, is the way in which Citi has rolled out Voice of the Client.

In 2011 Citi started asking private clients for broad-based feedback as an adjunct to feedback forms on hospitality events. Event hosts emailed attendees thanking them for coming along, and in addition to asking for their views on the event broader “franchise” questions about the bank’s performance were also posed. (Out of ten questions, five were related to the event itself, four were focused on the client’s relationship with the bank, and the tenth was “Would you like to speak to a senior manager?”)

Having begun with generalist hospitality events, the questionnaires were then rolled out for events aimed at specific client segments and for the bank’s next gen programme.

The first pilot for the franchise-wide Voice of the Client initiative was undertaken on the West Coast of the US, which achieved a response rate of around 30 per cent. Achieving such a high hit rate “even surprised me”, said Tate, who notes that typically online surveys from credit card companies and the like only see a take-up of around 1-2 per cent. The initiative was then rolled out to New York and London, with similar response rates achieved. In the second half of 2012 the bank started to roll out the Voice of the Client initiative market by market in all four of the bank’s regions (the US, Latin America, EMEA and Asia-Pacific) to most clients. These questionnaires are framed by an introduction by the relevant market manager, and while the response rate is not quite as high as for those linked to a client event hit rates are “still significant”, explains Tate.

Listening to clients

So why are Citi Private Bank’s clients taking the time to be polled online? For Tate, the Voice of the Client programme actually answers clients’ deep desire to feel they are really being listened to. “It’s a forum to share their feelings and they appreciate being asked,” he said. Mitchell also points to the fact that clients really appreciate the offer of speaking to a senior manager. “They often want to talk to someone other than their relationship manager and offering senior managers brings a totally open tone to any discussion,” he notes.

While clients clearly appreciate the opportunity to raise issues at a senior level, Tate also attributes much of the initiative’s success to the thought that has been put into the questionnaire process. “We were convinced that if we made it easy, simple and structured a lot of clients would be happy to give feedback online,” he said. Aside from being conscious of how much of a turn-off interminable questionnaires can be and therefore sticking to just ten questions, Citi also put a lot of effort into the framing of the questions asked in order to glean the most valuable data possible.

“We’ve been really, really specific on how we word this, and how we structure the questions and the answers,” said Tate, who is of the view that questions like “rate your banker on a scale of one to ten” yield very little in the way of useful data. Instead, Citi has been posing questions like “how do you view your banker?” to ascertain the extent to which clients views them as a trusted advisor. “This way we’re not just saying ‘give us a number’, we’re asking clients how they feel,” he said.

While Citi is aiming to glean high-quality feedback data, the bank is also cognisant of the need to make its questionnaires easy to fill in, and as Mitchell points out this is particularly important at a time when clients are likely to be completing them via a mobile device “on the go”. Therefore, Citi has restrained itself to a small number of highly-focused and easy-to-answer, “tick-box” style questions.

Identifying opportunities

Voice of the Client questionnaires may be easy for clients to complete, but they are gathering invaluable data for Citi which is already producing measurable results for the growth of the business.

As Mitchell points out, one of the most useful outcomes of the initiative is in helping relationship managers to “zero in” on hitherto unexplored areas of client interest. To his mind it is easy for bankers to sometimes develop a narrow view of what clients want; moreover, it is not uncommon for clients to say in a questionnaire that they are interested in a particular asset class or product while having never brought this up with their banker. “It’s really interesting; a client will say ‘Well actually I’m really interested in credit’ but the banker might say ‘Well hold on I’ve never done credit with this client, he’s always given me the impression that he doesn’t want it’… it’s really valuable in that respect. It suddenly means that the client and the banker are on the same page,” Mitchell said. “Once a banker knows this information, then they can act on it, and that’s the whole point of this.” “To be able to say to a banker ‘these are the three things that are on your client’s mind’ is very helpful,” added Tate.

As Mitchell points out, asking clients these types of questions is a particularly valuable exercise in the UHNW segment, since there is often the potentiality to do a lot more business with clients and win wallet share away from competitors. “We are lucky enough to have some really, really valuable clients and this initiative is really helping us to broaden those relationships. In the current environment there’s very little new business out there so it is all about increasing penetration, and this is a phenomenal way of us being able to focus our minds on what we’re trying to do for these clients,” said Mitchell. In fact, Tate cites one example where a UK client gave some feedback, which was then acted on and the bank won a “very serious mandate off the back of that”. 

The data to come out of Voice of the Client questionnaires is also proving to be a very useful aid to bankers’ planning processes. As Tate points out, rather than bankers being “stuck” as to what to talk to clients about, it might be the case that they have indicated a particular area of interest, like trusts, and so “there’s your next conversation”. “One of the things we’ve institutionalised over recent years is proper client planning. This was intended to get bankers spending some time thinking about what the client really wants and needs based on our entire understanding of that relationship. This initiative plays very nicely into helping them to do that effectively,” said Tate.

Being able to fine-tune the bank’s offering in response to current client demand is another major benefit Citi is seeing from the Voice of the Client initiative, since the data is also mapped on a regional level. “We can be very reactive…if it’s within the realms of what we’re allowed to do and what we want to do, then yes absolutely we can expand the offering,” said Tate. “It’s very useful from a strategic perspective and helping us to answer the question “Where are the holes?”

But aside from flagging up opportunities to introduce new products and services to clients, Citi is of course also keen to nip client dissatisfaction in the bud. The fact that the process obviates the need for clients to actively make a complaint is obviously key here, as is the simple human propensity for clients to remain silent and simply take their business elsewhere rather than confront niggling problems.

“In some cases it can be very valuable as an ‘early warning system’, because the banker may think that the relationship is going along swimmingly but actually there is just something not quite right,” said Mitchell. “It’s like a bit of grit in your brake disc: over a series of miles it will start to make a heck of a racket and it will trash the relationship. It’s about trying to make sure that piece of ‘grit’ is found quickly before it does too much damage. From that standpoint we’re seeing the initiative as really valuable too.”

While Voice of the Client data is mapped on an individual banker level, Mitchell and Tate are keen to emphasise that this is emphatically not about giving bankers “bad marks” (although client feedback is “baked into” discretionary compensation structures to a degree). Tate explains that he was in fact “adamant that we didn’t put a scorecard number down for people” and said that instead the bank’s approach is very much about looking at feedback data in context.

Growing enthusiasm

With bankers assured that they have nothing to fear from formalised client feedback, enthusiasm for the Voice of the Client initiative continues to grow within Citi Private Bank – despite bankers’ initial reservations. “Now we’ve proved to people that there are serious gains to be had from it we’re not getting resistance at all. In fact, we are actively being encouraged and asked to do this,” said Tate, adding that after the project’s first pilot market managers “from basically every geography” began actively asking him when their area could become involved.

According to Mitchell and Tate, one of the key factors behind the internal success of the Voice of the Client initiative is the bank’s complete “ownership” of the project, since no third parties have been involved at any stage, and the highest echelons of management are seen to be making strategic use of the data gathered. This “actioning” of feedback data is also highly visible to clients, since any specific actions and changes suggested are revisited after six months (this may be online or in person).  

Industry kudos

Mitchell believes that the Voice of the Client initiative means that Citi Private Bank is “really at the forefront of things” when it comes to the strategic use of client feedback, and bank has actually been singled out for this in winning several prestigious industry awards; clients’ advisors are also really impressed by it, said Mitchell. So why is it that more wealth managers aren’t making similar moves?

According to Mitchell and Tate there are several reasons behind this. “There are a lot of people out there who are dragging their feet, for whatever reason, be it headcount, costs or worries about how they execute it,” said Mitchell. It is perhaps ironic that it is sometimes the least “visible” investments – like client feedback initiatives – which are the ones which yield the best results. In Citi Private Bank’s case at least it would seem that such investment is really paying off, not just in ensuring happier clients but also in terms of the bottom line.

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