Why Asset Managers Struggle with Customer-Centricity – Episode 009

Why Asset Management Marketing Struggles With Customer-Centricity, with John Toepfer and Emiiie Totten, Synthesis Technology

Takeaways from our Asset Management Marketing Roundtable in Chicago

Asset management marketing lags somewhat behind other industries in their adoption of modern marketing trends. It’s a heavily regulated industry, which limits their adoption of new ideas. However, over the past few years, asset managers have been rapidly adopting marketing automation and developing more customer-centric marketing approaches.

We recently hosted our 2nd annual roundtable for asset management marketers in Chicago. Senior marketers from 15 different asset management firms got together to discuss issues they’re encountering and learn from each other. At the event, we heard about some surprising challenges in asset management marketing:

  • There is a huge difference between how Marketing and Sales define customer centricity
  • Asset management marketers have more severe alignment problems with corporate marketing than they do with sales.
  • Asset managers face significant messaging challenges in their efforts to be customer-centric across multiple channels

In today’s podcast episode, I’m joined by our event sponsors, John Toepfer, CEO and Emilie Totten, Head of Marketing at Synthesis Technology. We talked about what we learned at the roundtable, and what asset managers are doing to address these problems.

I wrote up a report about the investment management marketing roundtable. You can download it here.

Disclosure: Synthesis Technology is a client of PropelGrowth and sponsored the roundtable event.

Click for access to key takeaways from our 2017Investment Management Marketing Roundtable

Transcript for Why Asset Management Marketers Struggle with Customer-Centricity with John Toepfer and Emilie Totten

Transcript edited for readability

Candyce: John and Emilie, thank you for joining me. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.

John: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having us, Candyce.

Emilie: Yeah, thanks Candyce.

Candyce: We did a roundtable in May with a group of asset management marketers from a variety of different companies, and saw some interesting trends being discussed at that table. One of the things that really jumped out at me was the discussion around alignment. My understanding was that the alignment between compliance and marketing, which used to be a challenge has actually gotten really good. That was kind of cool, to hear the stories about how well they’re aligned with compliance. It sounds like their alignment with sales is steadily improving, not across the board but we’re seeing improvement there. The thing that surprised me the most was the alignment challenges that the line of business marketers or the field marketers are having with corporate marketing and corporate branding.

John: Yeah, I saw the exact same problem highlighted at the meeting. In scheduling this year’s roundtable, we were expecting to follow up heavily on a key topic from the previous year’s event — the difficulty of sales and marketing alignment. Almost to a firm, [the roundtable participants] did report an improvement in that part of their business.

Then the topic was broached by one participant – an asset management marketer who was having a specific issue with corporate versus business unit marketing, and the whole group jumped on that as a perennial problem. They’re struggling with the question of what is more important to serving the end marketing needs of the business unit? Is it brand-centric messaging from the corporate level, or is it client-centric messaging or market-specific messaging related to the business unit in question?

Emilie: I remember them saying that one of the biggest issues is how they’re reporting up through the line of business. Some are reporting up to corporate, some are reporting into asset management. I thought that was interesting, and maybe a takeaway for companies when they’re thinking about how those lines are drawn in terms of reporting structure.

Candyce: One of the big challenges they’re having, especially with global banks, is where the branding has cover the overall bank: commercial, retail, investment banking, everything. That clashes with the brand for the asset management space. This was particularly problematic in circumstances where that corporate organization is known really well in their home country but not so well in the US, for example.

John: It’s a problem with international firms in the home country problem. But it can also be with domestic companies, where corporate marketing is enamored with the idea that they are the big fish and they have this great brand. They think putting that brand on every piece of literature is the key to selling product. People will buy our assets because our name is known 98% in the last focus group. But this is out of alignment with what the asset management marketing group is seeing in their sales and in their market needs with regard to how to communicate successfully with their clients.

Candyce: I remember somebody from one of the largest firms in the room mentioning that specifically — that while the name of the bank is incredibly well known globally, most people don’t know the huge variety of funds they offer and products that they offer. That was an interesting conundrum that she’s facing.

John: Those huge banks, like you’re mentioning, usually have a successful asset management group. But that group may be under-represented in the market. They can find themselves going toe-to-toe with small and mid-sized boutique firms who have their finger on the pulse of their market. These smaller firms are delivering really good content and client-centric messaging that the big company is missing. The big company can often fall in the trap of selling on the scale of their brand, saying, “Buy from us, we’re big,” versus, “Buy from us, we understand you, and we know ‘X ‘about the market.”

Candyce: Yeah, didn’t you have a situation just recently where the sales team was trying to be really customer-centric and there was some discrepancy between what marketing was doing and what sales thought they were doing?

John: It was a fascinating experience that I had last week. I had the opportunity to be invited to the global sales conference for one of the largest diversified financial services companies in the world. This was their US-based division, and there were representatives there from every form of financial services under the sun. If you just walked around reading name tags, you were dizzied by the number and variety of financial services this firm offered. We were participating as a technology vendor in a breakout session that was just for the retirement planning sales teams.

There were 30 or 40 sales reps there, plus management, plus marketing in this breakout session. It was one of the most lively and vigorous discussions I’ve ever seen in my life, with some of the topics becoming quite heated discussions. Marketing was trying to move their branding and messaging in one direction, and Sales was saying, “Oh, no, no, no. You can’t do this.” They wanted to do their version of client-centric messaging versus the marketing department’s version of client-centric messaging.

Candyce: And what was their version of client-centric messaging?

John: The sales department is going out and presenting final sales presentations. Their idea of how to be client-centric as to go to the client’s website — I’m laughing as I’m saying this — and steal imagery. They copy JPEGs and GIFs from the client’s website and plaster those all over the presentation deck, or the finals deck as they call it. They basically rebrand their own materials with the client’s logos and liveries and then they go out and present to the client. That’s being client-centric from the standpoint of these sales people.

Marketing has spent a great deal of time studying this, focus grouping it, and deciding how to be client-centric in a more polished and professional manner. They were coming forth with a whole campaign with a really thoughtful message. I don’t want to give away their message or the client, but it was a really thoughtful message on understanding their client but also emphasizing their brand.

They incorporated their brand and their messaging with great consistency and continuity throughout the presentation deck. But the contents of the slides are all about the client, making sure they understand what the client is hoping to hear and including what they need the client to remember. So they’ve got lots of places and lots of ways that the deck can be customized to be client-specific, but not at the level of replacing their logo with the client’s logo.

The sales department lost their marbles on this. The marketing department was trying to explain that this is the way to go, and this is the way that they need to make it happen. I’m not sure they came to a consensus of opinion in this meeting, but I felt personally that the marketing department was on the right path. Yes, they were bringing forth their own brand and their message more strongly. But I don’t think that a client seeing finals presentations from three different financial services firms is going to decide for the firm that has the best stolen artwork on their slide deck. That isn’t the thing that’s going to carry the day. It’s going to be about the brand and the overall client experience that the brand represents, not losing your brand to the client.

Candyce: There was a conversation at the roundtable related to this. They were talking about the differences in expectations between the sales people selling into wealth management and the sales people targeting the institutional business.

The wealth management sales reps were just interested in the beauty of the paper, the thickness of the paper, the way it felt, and the way the brand was represented. The institutional sales people couldn’t care less about that. They just wanted to make sure the content was right. I think that that was an interesting discrepancy. In a way, it encourages me that the institutional side wanted to focus on the content, but you can’t ignore the brand or just slap a pixelated image of the client’s logo on a deck and think that you’ve been customer-centric.

John: Well, to me, what that emphasizes is the need to make sure you understand all of your channels and that all the channels can’t be communicated to in the same way. If you try and show a retail fact sheet to an institutional buyer, they’re going to be very disappointed at the lack of depth and quality of information. If you try and show a retail buyer documents and data sets designed for an institutional buyer, they’re going to get lost. They’re going to get lost in the details and numbers.

You don’t want to market to your specific asset management channel from just a corporate bank level f messaging. But you also don’t want to market to each sales channel with exactly the same message. You have to really understand not only the channel but the buyer persona and the buying stage within each one of those channels. You also have to understand the sales force that’s dealing with the channel. What’s the nature of the sales force? What are they good at conveying, and what information does that client need to receive to be convinced that your firm is where they should be placing their assets?

Candyce: Yeah, it’s interesting. We also found that the focus on customer-centricity is varied among the firms. Emilie, maybe you can talk a little bit about what we discussed and how it relates to the trends that you see overall.

Emilie: First, on the customer-centricity topic, aligning sales and marketing maybe starts with defining what is “customer-centricity.” I think that the marketing department has a good handle on what customer-centricity means, how to develop a good customer-centric campaign around personas, etc. Maybe they take it for granted, while the sales team may not even know what customer-centricity means, or they have a different definition.

John: Customer-centricity is knowing what type of restaurant to take the client to.

Emilie: Right. That may be the sales person’s point of view.

John: It could be, it really could be.

Emilie: Right. Fair enough. Maybe the marketing person would never think of it that way. There’s a lot that goes into it, but maybe they need to be having those discussions about what is customer-centricity for each of those channels?

Candyce: That is a valid point, Emilie. I think that a lot of these marketers are not getting much access to the customers to understand what the customer’s needs are. They are reliant on the sales channel and they need both but they definitely need to be talking more and defining that. That’s a good point.

Emilie: What stood out to me in the roundtable discussion as being a real problem, was Marketers’ inability to get access to the CRM. This is fundamental if they want to be able to see what’s going on in the sales process. But once they get a lead and pass it off, they have no visibility into the customer lifecycle from that point. I think that’s a real issue. I think Candyce, you were talking to a customer the other day about how the marketing’s requirements were dropped.

Candyce: That was a fascinating conversation. This particular company is a mid-tier global bank that was implementing Salesforce.com. They started in the private banking side of the business and were gathering requirements from both Sales and Marketing. Marketing thought that their requirements were going to be reflected, and that they were going to have a great tool for doing a better job of evaluating the effectiveness of their campaigns and keeping track of what was happening with the customer, so that they could understand what actually converted a customer from prospect to first ticket dropped and then ongoing tickets dropped. They wanted to know what the customers were engaging with so they could do more of that.

Unfortunately, once the corporate side of the house got hold of the requirements and started pricing the implementation, they decided that it was going to be too expensive to meet all of the requirements. This is understandable. But they just dropped Marketing’s requirements without consulting with or even letting Marketing know that their requirements had been dropped. Once it got implemented, Marketing was surprised to find that they couldn’t pull the reports that they were expecting to pull.

Then the firm started extending Salesforce into the rest of the organization. Each time, Marketing’s requirements were put on a back seat because the CRM was viewed as a sales tool. Consequently, Marketing wasn’t able to get access to the information they needed. Meanwhile, the executives at the enterprise level didn’t understand the field requirements of marketing. Their attitude was, “Well we’ve given you the tools, so why can’t you deliver? The problem must be with you, not with the tool.”

John: That really is similar to the lack of alignment we found in last year’s roundtable. Marketers were commenting that Sales sometimes just does not want their input. They don’t want the leads. They don’t the strategies. They don’t want the corporate gobbledygook that comes from Marketing. There was someone from a sales organization in the meeting that year who was saying, “Yeah, there’s not a lot of respect from the sales organization toward the marketing organization.”

Luckily that is a trend that we saw improving this year, but I mean that ties into the client sales conference story I was telling earlier. The sales people were extremely, even arrogantly obsessed with the idea they knew best. They knew everything about application design, font choice, roll-out plans, product strategy, client communications, etc.

They knew everything better than Marketing, in their humble opinions, which were not very humble. So there’s clearly room to improve in that area. Marketing is going to have to build the relationship with sales leadership, so that they can have the proper voice and the proper access, so that the decisions firms make are collaborative and beneficial to all parties in the organization.

Candyce: Emilie, we talked about that in the roundtable in terms of the division. We asked everybody to kind of talk about whether they were customer-centric or product or investment-centric and it seemed like it was about 50-50.

Emilie: I remember in particular one marketer said that they’re trying to get with Sales before they go too far down the path on a campaign. They try to create a customer-centric vision by asking questions of the sales person. They’re asking, “WHY? Why would this [prospect] care?”

Half of the firms in the room were having good success with being customer-centric. They’ve formed a partnership with Sales, and they’ve been successful working together on these campaigns.

I remember another firm saying, “Sometimes, the customer is thought to be Sales. Sometimes, the customer is thought to be FINRA.”

One marketer…I think she was from a mid-tier asset management firm…said “Sales is our partner.” That has been their mantra, and something that everybody has embraced in their organization. It sounds like they’re having good success with being customer-centric, because that partnership has been dictated from the top.

The other half of the asset management firms say they’re still struggling with being customer-centric. These firms are more product focused. There, the portfolio managers have a lot of say in the way that they want to do things and Marketing’s approach is kind of getting pushed out. It sounded to me like a shift that has to happen, but the mentality comes from the top down. There has to be a unifying vision for moving forward where Sales and Marketing are in a partnership.

Candyce: Yeah, it seems that the alignment problem is solved the more the firms focus on answering the question, “What does the customer need?” If we align to deliver what the customer is looking for as a team, then Sales/Marketing alignment becomes less of a problem.

I remember somebody saying that even their portfolio managers and strategists got on board with this approach, once they had an opportunity to be in the same room with the customer and hear the customer’s goals. When they focused on that, even the Portfolio Manager/Marketing alignment became easier.

John: Access to hearing the customer firsthand, or fully understanding the input coming from a customer, is absolutely huge.

I’ve seen many examples where the portfolio management team comes up with an idea. These are very smart people, and they understand their financial instruments like nobody’s business. So, often they come up with an idea of what to sell. Then they go to Sales and say, “Hey, can you sell this?” Sales says, “Sure, I’ll sell this.”

But no one has asked whether it’s a good idea or asked the client, “What are you looking for me to create for you?” It starts with a bright idea and a sales person running around pitching it, with no client feedback in the loop. The more progressive firms are always putting the client feedback in the loop and sometimes originating their product design with client feedback and focus group sessions.

Emilie: That’s a lot like how our business is run.

John: Yeah, exactly. Most of our product innovations come from direct feedback through our client service teams from the clients saying, “This is great. What would be better is if it could do this also….” That’s the type of thing that leads us down our path of refining and improving our product lines.

Candyce: That’s a great transition to customer retention. Retention is something that all of the firms at the roundtable need to work on, and you guys are particularly good at it. Quite frankly, you’re the envy of a lot of technology firms because you have something like a 95% client retention rate going back 17 years. It’s not like a client retention rate over a couple of years. You’ve had clients for 12, 15, 17 years. Talk about how you’ve accomplished that.

John: It really comes down to being entirely client-focused in how we manage our business. In fact, even when we build something that we’ve thought up internally, it’s not built in a vacuum. We’re always spawning off of something a client has said, such as, “Here’s a hole in my business. Here’s a problem I need solved.” That’s when we might say, “This is something in our wheelhouse, and we can extend our product line to deal with it.”

Basically, by being client-centric day-in and day-out in every conversation with customers, we earn the status of being a trusted vendor. We’re a firm that a client can confide in and tell us what they’re really thinking versus having conversations that are abstract.

For example, a client might tell a vendor, “Hey, I wish you had a button that did this.” Our customers would never call us up and ask for a button. They would tell us, “I have a business problem that sounds like this. How would you guys solve it?” We might say, “Well, you need a button, but you also need a data source, and we can help you plan that out.”

We work with the client to get to the need, so we move the client away from talking about the tactical solution and into the strategic solution. The end result of that is very beneficial to all parties. Synthesis ends up with what we would consider a very sticky relationship with our customer because we’re doing things that are unique and no other vendor can provide for that client, and the client ends up with a trusted partner who they know they can tell the truth to and ask for things that are out of the ordinary and not just in a box.

Emilie: I think, too, it goes back to our depth of knowledge in the business of asset management marketing. 100% of our clients are asset management companies, so we’re focused on this vertical, we understand the data, we understand where it’s coming from, we understand the common problems. When you’ve been doing this for as long as we have, you’ve kind of seen everything. You’ve seen the challenges, the things that can come up, you can anticipate things that might come up and you just have a better handle on trends in the industry over time. Really, this is going back to customer-centricity, you can speak their language. You can use their terminology and use it correctly and if flows off the tongue because this is … we’re living in this asset management bubble. This is all we do.

John: One of our biggest challenges in extending this model, though, is that we see a trend where companies in the buying cycle for technology, especially if it’s being run through a purchasing or vendor management group, tend to treat the candidate vendors at arm’s length and make it very difficult for the vendor to really, really understand what’s going on in the client’s world. We see clients doing very interesting things in terms of shielding us from the information we need to be really successful for them. The successful client stories are the ones where a client opens up to us and other candidate vendors and has really candid and open conversations so that we can do our best job of serving them.

Candyce: Yeah, that’s an interesting observation and something that I think is becoming a challenge as banks try to consolidate vendors, as they try to drive more of the decision process through a procurement office, that sometimes we get too distant from the actual problem we’re trying to help solve. That’s not to the client’s benefit.

John: We find, at times, the purchasing department has abstracted the business group from the vendor group so thoroughly that you don’t have honesty and transparency flowing back and forth, whereas the most successful purchasing relationships that we’ve developed are where the business unit is directly involved and is very open and honest with the vendor community and the purchasing department’s job is to facilitate that those conversations take place appropriately and in a fair and impartial manner.

Candyce: Yeah, I think that’s such a good point because in order for firm to truly be customer-centric, they have to know what the customer needs and what is underneath the surface needs, what’s driving those needs. Otherwise, it’s awfully difficult to really deliver a solution whether you’re a technology vendor, like Synthesis, or you’re an asset manager trying to help a client — an institutional client or an RIA or whoever — meet their objectives, you have to understand the objectives and really be able to partner with the firm if you’re delivering any kind of sophisticated solution to your client.

John: What we’re finding in the communication practices for the asset management marketers that we service, a great deal of their literature, of course, is designed to influence their channel partners and their intermediary partners. What they’re learning is not to just dump data in front of those people. It’s to make sure that they’re helping these people understand the story behind the product line and then hopefully that story gets conveyed forward to their clients and becomes a part of the selling activities. At that same sales conference I mentioned earlier, it was … had about 25 different asset management companies represented and acting as sponsors of the event. All of them were ringing the big breakout room with tables containing literature and giveaways.

As I circled the room and looked at the materials, I was kind of impressed that they were not just dumping fact sheets on their audience and saying, “Look at our performance by our fund.” There were definitely plenty of fact sheets and fact-oriented literature available, but the literature that was most prominently placed had real story-telling and client-centric messaging.

I’ve got a few of these in front of me now. Here’s one that tells a whole elaborate story on why they’re constructive on oil. Here’s “The Importance of Downside Protection” and “Generational Approaches to Investing.”

The documents are written to convey knowledge and expertise about their firm to an intermediary, who can then say, “Ah, this is an intelligent firm,” and share that message downstream to their clients. That type of literature and that type of communication seemed to be the dominant theme among the materials distributed at this conference.

Candyce: Well, and it sounds like that material is also oriented toward helping those investment advisors in that channel to help their customers achieve their goals. It’s like you have to help your intermediary succeed because it’s a channel business and if your intermediary doesn’t succeed, neither do you.

John: It’s absolutely true. We find different levels of approaches to that at different firms. Some firm’s message and way of supporting their sales channel is to say, “You are not an originator of information or strategy, your job is to make sure the client is happy and the calls are made, and that the right dinners and golf outings are participated in. We, the asset management company upstream from you, will take care of strategy and designing plans and literature and messages for you to give out.”

That’s the type of communication we see in TAMP-style asset managers, which is extremely clear of the difference between the retail sales rep on the street and the wholesale sales rep. Other firms blend the messaging more artfully in that they don’t want to pretend that the financial advisor or RIA is not making up strategy, but they’re trying to influence the strategy messages that they’re putting in front of their audience, and of course, hoping that that influence leads to selling of their assets.

Candyce: Yeah, that’s a very different approach. I suppose that there’s some validity to both sides of that because some investment advisors are really strategic and client-centric and some really are just basing their business on relationships. Both types can be successful.

John: Right, absolutely. The art from the originator standpoint or the asset manager standpoint, is to make sure that you’ve got the right literature to support both types of intermediaries.

Candyce: It’s a complex business problem for a marketer because that’s a lot of buyer personas.

John: It really is. One of our largest clients has been talking to us about breaking down their content strategy in a more detailed manner across channels of buyer personas. She’s talking about multiplying the number of pieces of literature that they’re producing by four or five times. That’s a very daunting task, but unless you’re going to skip channels or skip personas, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing decision of whether you’re going to craft your message that precisely or whether you’re going to say, “Forget it, I’ve got one-size-fit-all literature and we’re just going to hope for the best when it hits the street with the sales rep.”

Candyce: There’s a big trend, not just in the asset management space but across different large enterprises, of creating content that is modularized in order to do just that. It’s interesting. Your technology is certainly well suited to make that possible.

John: That’s absolutely true because what we find is that the thought leadership pieces, the educational pieces that are put out there are terrific, but they almost always need facts and data to go with them. Not only to back up the presentation or the argument being made in the commentary aspects of the literature, but also just because at the end of the day, there is a product that you’re trying to place, even if they’re convinced by this story you’re telling that this is a great strategy, the next thing they’ll want to know is how well your product performed within that strategy. You’ve got to have the numbers that go with the argument that’s being presented. That’s where Synthesis often comes together with our clients in terms of making beautifully branded content-driven data accurate pieces that can satisfy both the story telling and story reading need and the data consumption need.

Candyce: Well, this is a great place to close. I think we’ve run out of time, thank you so much, John and Emilie, for participating. It’s been a fun conversation.

John: Oh, it’s been our pleasure.

Emilie: Yeah. Thanks, Candyce. It’s been great.

Takeaways from the Asset Management Marketing Roundtable

My biggest takeaway from this discussion and the broader discussion at the roundtable is that asset managers are most successful when they’re focused on being customer-centric instead of product or investment-centric. The firms that are most effective are those where the entire team – Sales, Marketing, Portfolio Managers and Strategists get the most direct access to hearing what customers need and want. When asset management firms become more customer-focused, everyone in the organization becomes more aligned around a common goal. In the end, the firm, the customer, and the various departments all win. But this strategic focus has to be driven from the top.

For more information about the roundtable, John Toepfer, Emilie Totten, and Synthesis Technology, follow the links below:

Roundtable Report: Trends in Asset Management Marketing and Sales

John Toepfer’s LinkedIn Profile
Emilie Totten’s LinkedIn Profile
Emilie Totten’s Twitter Profile
Synthesis Technology Twitter
Synthesis Technology Website

Interested in Sponsoring a Roundtable?

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