Money talk: are financial services getting it right?  

Lauren Ward

Challenging banks to change the way they talk to customers

It’s not just the cost of living that’s on the up. Economic slowdown is also raising the stakes for financial services providers when it comes to the way they speak to their customers. People don’t like talking about money – it’s a sensitive subject – but given the current economic dilemma, there’s really no avoiding the topic. So how can financial service providers find the right words to really engage with their customers? 

Traditional banks and building societies appear to be treading carefully, exercising risk aversion by using high-level, generic language around budgeting and saving. However, our research has shown that pushing the boundaries – rather than playing it safe – could yield better results for businesses in terms of customer engagement. 

We ran text analysis across a range of financial services platforms, from social media to websites and forums, filtering and comparing linguistics in order to understand the differences in customer communications across different types of financial organisation – and, more importantly, how these align with the way that customers are actually talking about their money. Here’s what we discovered.

How do financial services providers talk about money?

‘Confidence’, ‘trust’ and ‘ease’ are used frequently and explicitly across the platforms of more traditional organisations, perhaps by way of dissuading those who believe that banks are untrustworthy and managing money is difficult. There’s a tendency to be formal and assertive when emphasising ‘the importance’ of budgeting, saving or financial education. Communications are focussed on products and their importance more than customer needs.

The word ‘help’ is four times more likely to be used by a traditional provider than a challenger bank, along with terms like ‘control’, ‘management’ and ‘limits’. Money management as a whole is defined in terms of products and services, such as apps and accounts, and the overall tone is functional and advisory. Given the stakes, you might assume customers trust a more authoritarian, formal voice from financial organisations – this will certainly be true of some audiences. Customers are, however, vastly varied in their personal circumstances and understanding of finances, and money is of course a highly sensitive topic. So, is this more traditional, formal way of communicating isolating potential audiences? What are challenger banks doing, and what do customers want?

How do challenger banks talk about money?

Conversely, challenger banks favour more colloquial and conversational language, with a stronger focus on customer need rather than product. Their content and tone of voice is moderated and relaxed as it speaks to real-life experiences of money management. Most of all, they talk about customer aspirations as well as struggles. And instead of focusing on the granular detail of ‘everyday spending’, they talk more about what customers stand to gain or achieve through their spending.

The use of goal-oriented language shifts the focus away from restriction and ‘cutting back’ and centres the conversation around the current needs of the customer. And these needs are continually evolving as we all grapple with the geopolitical, cultural and economic situations of right now. How much do financial services providers really understand this? What’s more, challengers are more active on social media – posting twice as often as their more traditional counterparts. Their language is upbeat, emotive, and their use of emojis is commonplace. These organisations are responding to what many consumers are craving – trust, clarity, and accessible information.

Arguably, both the traditional and the challenger approach have a place and a purpose, depending on customer demographic, expectation, and experience with financial matters. Different audiences require tailored communications. Traditional organisations who do not adapt their approach based on the continuous evolution of their audiences risk falling behind, but now more than ever, all organisations need to develop their communications strategies based on audience insights. We took a closer look at popular finance forums to find out how customers themselves are talking about their money.

How do customers talk about money?

Customers talk about where they are in life and where they want to be rather than discussing the mechanics of money management. Conversations focus on what money enables them to do, and what they’re currently struggling to do – with buying a property remaining a prominent topic of discussion alongside rising energy bills and budgeting tips.

Historically, the sector has seen high levels of inertia with customers maintaining legacy accounts. Extensive research into corporate reputation tells us that people often view all financial service providers as being the same, which renders switching banks or opening new accounts pointless. Is that why, as financial services customers, we are so apathetic? Should we expect more from our providers?

Financial products are discussed as a necessity rather than being perceived as exciting. Money management, and the way in which it is spoken about by financial experts, is intimidating and hard to understand for many customers. Is your communication strategy already considering the information readily available from customer forums? Audiences are constantly telling you what they want to hear, so it’s important to listen.

Speak the same language as your customers

Understanding what your customers want doesn’t require a great leap of faith at a time when risk is already high. Some are already responding to a new era of financial communication, and challenger banks whose communication style and content closely mirrors the discussions taking place on customer forums is reflective of this change. While traditional financial services providers are playing it safe, challengers read the pulse of their customer base and appeal to them on a human level.

It’s a question of knowing how customers perceive your brand and knowing what kind of permissions they’ll give you when engaging with you on products, services and wider world issues. It’s also about what they expect you to have a point of view on – all of which is influenced by their own social and economic backgrounds. You won’t really know what your customers want until you have a holistic and up-to-date understanding of their needs, fears, and aspirations – not restricted to money matters. This depth of customer insight is what drives effective customer engagement across any sector. 

At a time of such economic instability, banks really need to get the basics right, and that means striking the right tone and the right level of empathy to achieve more cut-through. It means being responsive and adaptive to changing customer needs through continuous communication, as well as the continuous evolution of your communications.

Right now, to stand out from the crowd, you really do need to stand by your customers – you are handling their money, after all. Yes, this is what will achieve growth for financial services institutions, as with any business when they truly embrace this mindset as their day to day. But, more importantly, is this a moral responsibility?


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