Transforming financial services through customer insights: M&G’s global head of client strategy
In the latest episode of our podcast series we speak to Giulia Ajello, global head of client strategy at M&G, about overhauling the company's customer insight strategy - and how financial services must transcend transactional customer relationships.
In the latest episode of MYC'D UP we speak to Giulia Ajello, global head of client strategy and innovation at savings and investment firm M&G.
Giulia has spent the last three years overseeing an overhaul of the company's customer insight strategy, and in this interview she discusses how she tackled such an ambitious project, how to ensure that insight leads to action - and also how the world of financial services can, and indeed must, transcend transactional customer relationships.
When we do a customer experience workshop, having real customers in the room is really important. Because if I am the customer voice then people can argue with me - but if the customer is in the room, then it's very difficult for the business to argue with the customer.
MYCUSTOMER: Thanks for joining us, Giulia. You serve 28 markets and have relationships with many different audiences. So having a timely and deep understanding of your different customers is obviously crucial. Over the past three years, you've overhauled M&Gs customer insights strategy. Could you tell us a little bit about why the decision was made to undertake this project? And what was changed and improved?
GIULIA AJELLO: To answer this question, I really need to give a little bit of context about M&G as a business. So M&G floated on the stock market at the end of 2019. And it did that after demerging from what was Prudential PLC, the international savings and investment business, and brought together Prudential UK and M&G investments, which were two sub brands of Prudential PLC. So the moment that came together, obviously, we had two very different companies with a different culture, different business setup, and also differently capabilities within the business. What we realised pretty soon is that to be able to succeed as a PLC, we needed to have an end-to-end view of our customer base. M&G PLC as a business covers 28 markets, but really in the UK you have the prominent brands, which are Pru UK and M&G investment. With pension products, investment products, we have a platform business, we have a small direct-to-consumer proposition. And also we have an asset management business in the rest of the world, through wholesaler and institutional clients. So in that sense, we needed to get a view on what the needs were by the different audiences, but also understanding their characteristics and how we could manage them and how they could come together into a single customer experience strategy and into a single purpose. So we knew that we needed to start from inside. That's always for me the starting point of any customer experience initiative. And what we found was a very fragmented landscape. So for example, we used to have a UK consumer tracker, but it was only focusing on Pru. And for example, we had a small customer partners, but again, they were only talking to certain audiences. So we were only tracking performance of customer side in Europe and not in Asia. So what became really important really fast was to create this consistency to be able to have the same language, and then bring it back to the board to the senior stakeholders. So at the highest level, that's why we started. We've actually been delivering on it now consistently for the past 18 months. So it's it's been fantastic to be seeing the performance of the different markets and the different client bases. And it's been informing more and more strategic discussions, the more we brought into the business. So initially, it was a massive undertaking, with all of the procurement processes that go with it. But actually the benefit has been fantastic across the organisation and we've been having targets based on customer experience across the organisation consistently for for the past couple of years now.
MYCUSTOMER: So I know that one of the big challenges encounter is ensuring that the data insights that you gather are actually used effectively to drive customer centric change, or indeed, are used at all! You're responsible for translating your clients insights and market trends into new propositions. So perhaps you could share some advice on how you're ensuring that that the insights delivered by this new programme are actually leading to action.
GIULIA AJELLO: So I'm working in financial services which means that we are obviously a fact and figure type of business. So for me, insights have always gone hand in hand with with data. I place a lot of importance on qualitative insight. And I still believe that there is nothing more powerful than having senior leaders in the organisation or just colleagues in the organisation, sitting down with customers and clients and talking to them. Because that's the biggest thing. For example, when we do a customer experience workshop, or when we join a workshop with the business look about propositions, having real customers in the room is really important. Because if I am the customer voice, then people can argue with me, but if the customer is in the room, then it's very difficult for the business to argue with the customer, because the customer will tell you what he's experiencing, and what he feels and what he needs from you. And that becomes really, really, really powerful. So on top of that emotional side of things, face to face interaction and also the customer panels that we've been running are building this consistency view of performance, and for six, nine months in a row, you see the same trends shared by different people. On top of that, there is a data limit, which for me is really, really important. So the team has been focusing very much on the outside-in dynamics, engaging with social parties, NGOs, chartered use, universities, but also from hard business data, to understand the behaviours, to look at the trends that are happening into the market. The cost of living is extremely important for us as an organisation and understanding how our customers are reacting to it. So being able to take it from the market very much understanding from our own data - how our own customer base is reacting to certain things, or not, talking to those audiences on a regular basis through the panel, understanding their performance of the tracker - all together is making it a very powerful story that it will be difficult to argue with. What I must say is that the capture is extremely important in an organisation. If the board are not ready to listen to it, then it becomes difficult to have this conversation. In a position like ours, where actually there is a real desire to have this information and to go through the journeys and to understand the market dynamics, and how we react to it, to support the customers in it, then I think that the job is made easier in that sense.
MYCUSTOMER: You mentioned the cost of living crisis, of course, a moment ago - just one of the of many disruptive factors that we've seen over the past few years of the pandemic, recession, inflation, and so on. All of these factors obviously influence customer behaviours, preferences and opinions. And what advice can you share in terms of how CX and insight is called do their best to anticipate the market?
GIULIA AJELLO: Yeah, so it's a very good question. Where the conversation has become really powerful on customer experience in the past few years is what does the link between the brand and the business purpose and customer experience all meet up? And what customer experience can do in that case? I think customer experience can be the translation of the business purpose of the organisation for customers. And most often than not, that translation is very much a purpose-led conversation with customers and society. So I mentioned earlier, the fact that we've been engaging regularly with charities and other external parties, and thought leaders. So what what is important is that when we look at things like cost of living crisis, the immediate reaction could be, what product is there in the market that can support the customer on cost of living crisis. And that's really important, but actually what we are seeing from insights is that customers are looking for reassurance, they are looking for clear communication. They are looking for financial services, companies that they can trust, and they can have a dialogue with to understand their circumstances. That's the same things that financial advisors are saying to us. So when we're asking our financial advisors, how are you advising your customers right now in the market about what's happening? Most people say hold tight - you need to ride the wave. Obviously, we will be looking at your circumstances, we will be understanding your portfolio, but don't make any rash decisions because that's the moment where you actually crystallise what's happening to your finances. That reassurance that is very easy in a personnel interaction with a financial adviser sometimes can feel extremely transactional with a financial company. So how do we break that chain? And how do we move into much more human dialogue? And what we've been doing as an organisation over the past few months has been very much piloting a different way of engaging with citizens. So we have set up a community, and it is about looking at the trends, or what's happening in the market and reading the trends. We opened our community around the link between sustainability and finance. So most people know there was a fantastic campaign a couple of years ago, where you could see someone asking people walking on the street: Do you know if your pension does any harm? And the person was saying, What do you mean membership does any harm? So do you know where your pension is invested. And the reality is that there is a good part of the population that doesn't know that their pension is actually invested, they consider a pension, almost like a saving, but they don't understand the mechanics behind it. So what we are trying to do is have a purpose-led conversation, which is about what is the role of finance in sustainability? What are the values that are driving people's decision? So what are the trade offs that everyone needs to do, and he's having to do on a day to day basis, to very much marry up their idea of a more sustainable world, but also their need to have, obviously, profitable finances? So what are the what are the psychological barrier that people find in this sense? And what's what's come out of the community that we've been running for the last four months now, it's an incredibly warm dialogue. So there are benefits, not just in the way that the members perceive the organisation, and actually how they think about them in terms of sustainability or a financial provider. But there are incredible benefits in terms of the insights that we are gaining on how to talk to the members and how to talk to our own customers. So when members say to us, I don't don't engage with me with a complex thing, we're really bringing it back to the basics. And we're creating a dialogue on on small building blocks. So on a weekly basis, we have very snappy, small updates, whether it's a one minute video or a one minute article and infographic, and what they are pleading to us is, don't give me more than that, because I won't be bothered. And that's funny when you then relate that to our day to day of the business, which is still used to sending a 50 page document to customers to read. How on earth can we believe it the same people are going to engage with 50 pages? And that's for cost of living crisis - this is not just about sustainability. It's about giving them the reassurance and education for them to understand them to make informed decision by themselves. So, let's not be scared about talking about what's happening in the market, because we can all see it, we can all access news. So there is obviously a very strong talk between what is guidance and what are factual information, and what is advice. And obviously, that is extremely important that needs to stay there. But there is a factual conversation that I think as financial services we can manage differently. And I do think the conversation about sustainability is only going to get stronger and stronger. So to get on the front foot about that, and to have a real and human conversation about it can be a differentiating factor without trying to sell something.
MYCUSTOMER: It's very interesting that you say financial services is traditionally viewed as very transactional. But the reality is, the harder the economic environment, the more emotive financial services becomes for society. We're obviously entering a period at the moment where many families and the elderly are going to be poorer than ever before. So it sounds very much like you're saying that you're focusing your attention on the role of M&G not just as a product provider, but in terms of the engagement and conversation that it can progress with the wider public and the role that financial services can play in today's society, which is very, very important now and I guess not all financial services are viewing it in that way.
GIULIA AJELLO: For me it for me that the two key principles are very much about care and about confidence. And for me confidence means that even when someone needs help, being confident about asking for help. We see too often people lost in their financial matters and don't know where to go, don't know where to ask for help and almost having this parent-child conversation. For me, equipping people with the right knowledge at the right level, for them to start to make sense of some of the things that they're seeing in the information they're getting is only going to empower them to be to be more assertive in the way that they're managing these important aspects of their life. And then there is the care. Someone said to me: why do you work in pension investment, it is so boring! We have such a crucial role in people's life. And if you think about the fact that we help people live in all their life, we help them plan for, hopefully, a very long and healthy period of their life where they will be relying on those investments. It definitely needs to go beyond the product, and it needs to go into that support on how they make the most of it, what are the things that they need to consider? What is the family conversation because then unfortunately, then, as you get older, you enter into a care conversation, you're entering very deep aspects of their life. And we are one of the pillars that allow them to live their life comfortably.
MYCUSTOMER: On a final question Giulia, and this is one that we ask all of our guests: could you share one piece of advice for fellow customer experience professionals, perhaps something that you wish you'd known when you were first starting out in this field that would have would have benefited you
GIULIA AJELLO: Be happy to be the minority voice in the room - cherish it, because of the hearts and minds conversation. I think it's customer as long-term benefits. I think people who work in customer experience and deeply believe in the value of relationship with customer and the more emotional side of the business, should be ready to be that minority voice and find a way to be assertive and work with the business. And if you see that the business is not receptive at the top... walk away! So that's what I would say.
After two decades of experience working as a journalist and editor covering business and technology, including over 15 years as editor of MyCustomer, Neil now works as senior content manager at skills-based workforce management platform provider Spotted Zebra. ...