"Even a bank can be loved." That's the slogan of the brand we'll be discussing in this podcast. Customer experience is what sets Air Bank apart from the competition. It's no coincidence that according to KPMG's ranking, Air Bank is in the top position, and this is reflected in the growing number of customers.
In 21, Michal Blažej talks to Peter Šmíd, the Head of Market Research, about how the research team functions at Air Bank, what metrics they use to measure CX, and why the devil is in the details in qualitative surveys.
We chose Air Bank because, among financial institutions in the Czech Republic, you are virtually a love brand. I'd like to ask how you perceive the customer in practice and how it functions internally. And perhaps, Petr, what makes Air Bank different from your previous experiences?
Internal functioning is crucial because here when you need something, some help, to push a project, you don't feel any resistance. Colleagues always try to accommodate you. They know that when you come up with something, you definitely didn't make it up for your own pleasure, but it makes sense, there's a procedure behind it, and it will be good for the clients.
It's also very open here. We have flexible office space, and anyone can sit where they want. This means that even the CEO can sit at your desk, and it's normal. Every month we have regular meetings for all employees, explaining what's happening, why it's happening, and what will happen next, which then prevents any doubts.
You work in a Research Team, and I'm interested in your organizational placement and how you interact with other departments.
We are quite independent and, in those four years, a rather wandering unit. Originally, we were under marketing, then we moved under CRM, and we even considered being under the product team, but we realized it doesn't really matter where we are because we have to operate independently.
Currently, we're under CRM, and it has significant advantages because we have access to resources and client contacts. CRM communicates directly with clients, so when we want to reach out to clients with some research, we are right at the source, and it's the smoothest process from creating a questionnaire to delivering it. But as I said, it's essentially the same because we serve the entire bank.
How large is the Research Team?
There are three of us, and we handle quite a significant amount of projects. I just looked at the statistics for October, and we've already completed around 180 projects. So, by the end of the year, we'll certainly complete 200 projects, all of which go through that process.
First, you talk to someone about what's needed. Then you look for a quick solution, and you have to process and evaluate it well. So these are not one-time, quick tasks; we somehow have to manage all of this as a team. Additionally, some of these projects, around 5 to 10, are larger and long-term ones.
How did you manage to make the customer perspective mean anything at all? And what are the specific types of activities you perform? Research can go in various directions. What are you actually working on?
When I started, there wasn't so much research happening. However, after some time, when you show that the information you bring truly accelerates decision-making, improves a process, enhances a product, and is genuinely beneficial, it quickly spreads from one team to another.
Now, we've reached a capacity limit where we're starting to think about prioritization because there are so many requests piling up, and the three of us are getting overwhelmed. But when you explain that this project will be done next month and you have good reasons for it, it's perfectly fine. It's about communication.
As for the scope, we cover all research fields. From satisfaction surveys to employee research, and product development, which means we're involved in all stages of product development. From testing of initial concepts to final testing. We're also in traditional marketing research, which means we conduct ad tests and communication tests.
"We prepare the scenario and conduct the entire interview ourselves. This has added value because we can involve colleagues who are relevant to the topic."
Now we're looking at how it works at the branches. We conduct customer journey mapping across various products, feedback, image research, branding research, and UX research. But, of course, not everyone does everything. My colleague Tereza mainly handles UX research and testing. My colleague Honza is responsible for various innovation directions, and monitors the market, what the competition is doing, and what the world is doing. My area is more focused on satisfaction research, feedback, branding research, and PR research.
How is it possible that you manage to handle such a workload?
We've cut out everything unnecessary. For example, we don't create presentations, we only write summaries of what we found and recommend, which saves hours of work. There are, of course, projects that require presentations, but those are minimal.
We also do most activities ourselves, which may seem like more work, but it's the opposite. Collaboration with an agency often significantly prolongs the entire research process. We can create questionnaires ourselves, and collect and analyze the data ourselves. This brings us from hours to days within the assignment and the final result.
We often use guerrilla methodologies in research, where we involve the customer in the project within hours. But when there's a two-week research project, that becomes quite a significant blocker. How do you handle this?
For qualitative research, recruiting respondents is really the most challenging part. We leave that to agencies we've vetted. Then, we prepare the scenarios and conduct the entire interview ourselves. This has added value because we can involve colleagues who are directly related to the topic. If it's about loans, we invite colleagues who are responsible for loans because they are experts in that area.
This really builds trust in the research. From my experience, whenever we show someone a presentation or maybe even a recording, it never has the same strong effect as when the person sits right there.
It can also be dangerous because the product manager can form an opinion. They don't know that the previous client said something different, so the final truth from the research must come from us. Also, information don't get lost between the lines. If an agency produced it, no matter how good they are, they're still not experts in banking.
I'm also interested in more specific examples. Could you highlight a successful project where the company benefitted from your research and turned it into specific value for the customer?
I'd probably start with the staggered payment, that we introduced in January as our new product. It's been about two to three years since we started thinking about it. We investigated whether people would even want such a service, and we were surprised that the interest was really high.
Originally it was supposed to be a completely free service, but clients themselves in interviews said it's not entirely right because it's still some sort of a loan, and everyone should think at least a little before spreading their payment. So, a hygiene fee of 50 crowns for the instalment was introduced, which is a one-time payment at the beginning, and then it's interest-free.
"We don't exactly love NPS, but it's a verified metric that works quite well in expressing the relationship with clients."
Although any fees at Air Bank are perceived as a negative thing because we are primarily a fee-free bank, in this case, it's a hygiene factor. Clients understand why it's there, and it's still a very good deal when you can retrospectively split a payment you made a month ago.
It doesn't work exactly like a loan; it's more about managing the cash flow. When you suddenly run out of money at the end of the month, and you can see that last month you paid 10,000 for something, you can get that 10,000 back into your account by just clicking on it. And you only start repaying it from the next month, effectively extending your cash flow for the following months.
So the insight from the customers was that they didn't want it for free, right?
Offering it for free would have led to situations where people would spread even their basic expenses. It's really meant for extraordinary expenses. And the 50 crowns at least make you think about it a bit.
The entire process illustrates your work well. In the background, you do trend hunting, where you see Clarna. You conduct some concept testing and then incorporate it into the development plan. And at all these points, you, as the research team, represent the customer.
My colleague is responsible for trend hunting, and he has developed a method for tracking trends across all industries. We look at what's happening globally and how it's approaching the Czech Republic. When something new comes up in China or the United States, it will be here in a year or two.
Then we show it to the product teams and other people who should focus on it. So they can plan their capacities because there comes a moment when the innovation is so close that you already don't have the time to develop it. Of course, all banks monitor innovations and what's happening, but you must plan your capacities to keep up. For example, when Apple Pay was introduced, there was a race to be the first. Of course, clients are also excited when they are first and can show others how it works.
I'd like to focus a bit more on quick research. You already mentioned the accuracy and credibility of your results. How do you evaluate at such speed whether something might need more time? And how are you sure when it's sufficient?
This, of course, varies from case to case. We have relatively frequent meetings with other teams to know what they are planning. We spread awareness about how long things take. You can't create a customer journey in a week, and you can't complete significant product development in 14 days. We plan it together with the product team to be synced.
We've managed to set up communication so that whenever something starts in product development, marketing, or communication, we are there at the beginning so that we can assess whether it's even necessary to conduct research. If you have better, existing data, it's good to know about it at the beginning, so that you don't do the same work unnecessarily.
"NPS is still just a number; the main work lies in the comments people write to us"
Then we identify the questions that need to be answered, and there's no other way to answer them than by conducting research. We spend the most time on preparation. Once the research is well set up, you can finish it relatively quickly. It's been really useful to have detailed discussions with product teams and communication to clarify what the actual goal is and how the research will be used.
Previously, the requests used to come as: "We need to find out how much people like this product." And we researched how much people liked the product. But the actual goal was how it sells, which is a slightly different question. So, we dedicate most of our time to the initial phase, where we clarify what the research should actually achieve. In the end, no one examines which method we use or how we process it because we know that what we do, we do well, quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively.
There is quite a lot of pressure on us because when we conduct research, it is relatively quickly implemented. For instance, if we say that about seven percent of people will be interested in a product, but two months later, when it's launched, only one percent is interested, colleagues start asking what was the problem. Whether the target audience was wrong, the research was flawed, or the communication was off. But when you're here, it's assumed that you know how to do your job. What you experienced at the beginning of your career when they were asking you why you asked that question instead of another, that, fortunately, no longer happens here.
So, it requires a fair amount of seniority. When a team of three needs to deliver value quickly, experience must be present. We talked about trends. What are the things that you measure in the long term, and at which you look at through your metrics?
First, there's the conceptual perspective where we look at the past, present, and future. In the past, we focus on feedback. This means that we regularly ask our clients how they rate our services, how satisfied they are with us, and what would they improve.
Then we monitor current things, such as brand tracking, where we track how well we are known to both clients and non-clients and the entire representative population. And, of course, we look into the future at new trends and concept testing.
In terms of metrics, we don't have many. The main and only metric for us is NPS (Net Promoter Score). Not because we love NPS, but because it's a metric we can use to compare with others. It's a verified metric that works well in expressing the relationship with clients.
"We collect feedback from 100,000 people a month."
For Air Bank, it's crucial in client acquisition, how people get to us. Almost everyone asks their acquaintances which bank is good and which one to turn to when they need a new product. Our clients must know that if someone asks them, they can say, "Yes, I'm so satisfied with Air Bank that I'll gladly recommend it without hesitation, and with clear conscience."
When is NPS a relevant metric for you?
It's the only metric we track within the measurement of satisfaction surveys. But it's still just a number. It's nice to have a goal and increase it every year, however, the main work lies in the comments from customers that accompany this number."
We approach about one-twelfth of our client base, which means around 100,000 people monthly, with feedback, and every month, we receive thousands of textual responses and justifications for why a person is so satisfied or dissatisfied. This is the most significant treasure we work with. We genuinely read all the comments and categorize them according to the product and team so that everyone has up-to-date numbers every month, knowing what to improve and correct.
It also helps us to see how these topics evolve over time. Some topics emerge suddenly, grow, and continue to grow until resolved. Then there are long-term topics, and when they are fixed, they gradually disappear from the comments, which is the goal. There are also seasonal topics. So, it's an excellent tool for tracking the mood of our clients. What, and when a particular action suits them, like for example discounted rates for foreign currency payments during vacation season.
Do you really read all those comments manually?
So far, we have processed them manually. I'm not saying we won't use technology in the future, but the added value of enriching ourselves with the context of what clients are saying, and how they're saying it, is significant for us. Perhaps certain models can reveal what clients may want, like more ATMs or branches, but what's missing is how they discuss it, whether they are very upset, and so on. So, the quality is still lacking.
Where do you think research at Air Bank will be in a few years?
Here, we can actually do whatever we want if it makes sense. When you come up with an idea that you want to start researching and implementing, and you know why you want to do it, no one will say no.
Even the feedback on NPS wasn't here, and some people were concerned about how it affects clients when we would contact so many of them every month. Whether it would bother them or not. But it turned out that it works; people are happy to respond, and it makes sense. They even respond happily multiple times because besides we ask them questions, we have to show them that we're doing something with their responses.
Things that need to be addressed are dealt with immediately, so we sometimes call customers back, as it also functions somewhat like a complaint department. Every year, we send them a list of things that have changed based on their feedback. Sometimes it's visible, sometimes less, but something always happens. When clients know this, it motivates them to respond, so we have a significant response rate, and you can see how they elaborate on it.
We also organize various informational and entertaining events for colleagues to spread the knowledge we acquire, and we try to connect everyone. We're trying to find an optimal balance in information delivery so that we don't overwhelm them but, at the same time, reach as many people as possible. We're still looking for it and experimenting with different methods, frequencies, and formats to get the information to people. The path forward is more about spreading this knowledge than seeking for new information.
The last question I ask every guest: What is the biggest design challenge you would like to solve in your life?
It smells a bit like a UX question, but I would aim it more broadly. What bothers me in today's world is how diversity, originality, and uniqueness are getting lost due to efficiency and costs, and everything is becoming more and more similar. So, for me, the challenge is to bring back diversity, originality, and uniqueness to any service. So the client knows why they use Air Bank. That it's a bit different, a bit better, a bit more interesting, and more user-friendly. That would be my wish, for it to be more diverse, and for us to be an example of that diversity.
That's a beautiful challenge in this late capitalist world, where everything is a commodity, and everything is also uniform. Analytical work is directing everything towards universal equality. And for that, we must involve creative work as well.
Research probably contributes to it as well because when it's used poorly, you naturally end up with an average of everything, and everything looks the same. Averaging is hell, so research needs to be used smartly and correctly so that the results contribute to that diversity, and don't flatten everything into one grey box.
Yes, and those extremes can be inspiring.
Exactly, and that's usually where trends begin.
Listen to the whole interview with Petr Šmíd in Slovak:
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