During almost 185 years of loyal service to the financial services sector, Standard Life has seen a lot but only changed a little. Now it’s time for the old-timer to learn some new tricks. Jo Mayes and Mary Harper talk Future Banking through the dramatic transformation the insurance giant is undergoing today to become top dog tomorrow.
Standard Life has been a notable fixture on the financial landscape since its inception in the 1820s. As wealth grew in Regency Britain, people were beginning to look towards their future, retirement and ultimately death.
At that time, Edinburgh - by then the second-most important financial district in the UK - was home to a growing number of financial firms offering products such as life insurance; once the preserve of aristocracy.
Today, the world and the market for these products has changed substantially. Standard Life now has more than six million customers across its global network, operating out of more than 50 countries. One of the firm's most significant changes came in 2006 when it demutualised and distributed shares to one and a half million people.
However, with its roots firmly in traditional financial products - offered and serviced in a supportive, but traditional manner - the business is currently facing one of its biggest challenges: how does it maintain those core standards in today's modern, fast-paced, tech-savvy world?
"We want to be innovative and that's a challenge because we're an older B2B brand," acknowledges Mary Harper, head of customer digital marketing.
"And we're looking at customer demand," adds Jo Mayes, head of customer experience. "When we deal with many brands, we don't necessarily differentiate between sectors, we just set a certain expectation in terms of what we'll get from that organisation.
"What we'll see more of in future is customers not making allowances or concessions if they're getting one thing fabulously from one brand and something much less satisfactory elsewhere."
The road ahead
Mayes is clear that Standard Life is changing, but there is more work to be done by her organisation in order to ensure that it meets the ever-changing and demanding needs of today's market. She says there is a new philosophy within the business that requires a dramatic cultural shift and represents another major stage of evolution from the company's foundations all those years ago.
"We really want to behave more like a retailer and less like a traditional long-established financial services business," she explains.
"While that's absolutely important because we have a really strong legacy and history, we want to become more agile and dynamic so we can start to be like many of the others [financial services providers], and fulfil and exceeded customer expectation and needs."
In order to achieve this, the institution has accepted the need to open itself up in a way it never has before, making substantial investments into digital channels.
"Jo is talking about us being digital first and acting more like a retailer," continues Harper. "Part of us trying to do that is to put our customers in the driving seat. That's been a big challenge for us in the past because we weren't a customer company really, we were in the B2B space."
Harper acknowledges that what was done in the company's past was perhaps a little dated and, given the nature of today's financial services sector, might have left Standard Life somewhat wanting, if it hadn't taken action. She says that the business may not have spoken with its customers as much as it should have, leaving competitors to flirt with them and possibly begin more meaningful relationships.
"Once every quarter, we would produce a big campaign and make a noise that would have a particular call to action," she says. "Then we'd go quiet, and the next quarter do something different."
According to Harper, things are changing, with the business starting to look at new technologies. "We're just at the beginning of the journey but we will be ramping things up over the next few months and that's part of our key strategy for getting this right," she explains.
For an institution that sometimes presents itself somewhat self-critically, there is already a lot of good being done. Boasting a strong presence across a wide array of social media platforms, Standard Life is already engaging with its customers, soliciting questions and enquiries, and responding.
It already blogs on trends and issues that might affect customers, such as government initiatives, taxation changes and wider economic issues.
But, as Harper concedes, the use of social media requires a cultural shift across the business.
"There is the famous case of the Superbowl where the power went out and whoever was in charge of the Oreos social media channel, posted 'you can dunk in the dark'," she says.
"That went viral and was brilliant for their brand. You have to empower lots of people across the business to respond quickly and in a natural way on social media channels."
Mayes and Harper ooze tech know-how when discussing the work they have done in search engine optimisation, electronic mail shots and affiliations with forums and other web players away form their own portals.
But, as Mayes highlights, ensuring you have all the digital channels covered and a strong online presence is still not enough in today's all-access world. Customers are looking for more than just being able to see an insignia or brand and find generic information. Today they want a service that's tailored to them.
"The days when large organisations were impersonal and none responsive are gone and we need to open up to put the customer in the middle," she explains.
"I suppose historically, like Mary said, we've been traditionally B2B oriented and haven't really invested in direct relationships.
"So typically, if a customer had a policy with us, they might hear from us once a year through an annual statement on how their investment is doing or their pension has grown.
"Customers tell us time and again through real-time feedback or commissioned research that they want to hear from us more."
To this end, the business has invested a lot of time and resources into understanding its clients and ensuring it has a service that meets their individual needs.
Mayes explains that they have introduced a number of new initiatives over recent months to track and measure customer behaviour and company "effort".
She says the company monitors daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly interactions to understand customer "sentiment" and track trends.
"We can really see from the data analysis what a customer is referring to, which helps us target the areas we need to focus on, to ensure those journeys are improving and meeting customers needs.
When we receive positive and negative feedback, we have in place an alert system so that we can contact the customer if they have had a bad experience, and in some cases try to turn that situation around."
Make the first move
Beyond servicing customers in new ways, Standard Life has also had to look at the way it initiates engagement with its customers.
"We show a customer we're trying to help you save more because we recognise the goals that you have and the life you want to live, and that you want to have enough for your retirement as well.
For the savings that you make throughout your life, you need help with that and you're saving for a reason and we want to understand that and empower you.
That's not about products, but support and engagement. It's really hard for the industry to understand that because, since its inception, it's been about selling policies and products," Harper says.
But today's increasingly investment-aware, money-conscious consumer simply won't accept that any more, he or she is looking for the best deal and even better service.
"Other industries are getting that," adds Harper. "We do too, and that's what we're starting to build a proposition around."
In a promotional video on the company's website, one investor, a long-standing pensions customer, says: "Not everyone is savvy and a lot of these companies are hugely confusing. It helps massively if they're straightforward."
This is a point that Mayes is keen to address head-on.
"They want more engagement because it's as if they invest with us and don't really build a relationship," she explains.
"So we know that customers need to understand and learn more about how to manage their finances effectively. We need to play a more critical and active part in building that engagement capability in our business, so that we can reach out in a contextual way."
Standard Life has evolved and will continue to respond to change, drive change and evolve, that is what has made it a sustainable business. It is now clearly it is making up for that inaction now by embracing technologies and customers in an unprecedented fashion.
"There's a lot to do but we believe our approaches are sustainable and ensure the customer gets the right outcomes," concludes Mayes.
"But there is more to do and the challenge isn't unique to Standard Life. As an industry, we need to evolve, and it has to be more on the customers' terms. We need to be more responsive and put the customer more at the centre of what we do."