Client First Drives Business Performance


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“Our client-centric banking approach is driving momentum in our core business fundamentals,” said William H. Rogers, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of SunTrust Banks, Inc. Business results for SunTrust are on a steady growth path, which the company attributes largely to renewed emphasis on Client First as a guiding principle. In my online talk show interview with Jeff VanDeVelde, Senior Vice President of Client Experience and Loyalty at SunTrust, he explained: “As our executives were re-writing our enterprise guiding principles, we determined the need to put more focus on being client 1st as a guiding principle, and especially the need to change way we include client voice in our decision-making process.”

What Does Client First Mean?

“One of the biggest challenges of people who do this work is they think that client experience and client loyalty is something that front-line people do,” said VanDeVelde. “We’ve tried to help people understand Client 1st is really everybody’s job, whether you’re doing item processing or deciding where to put your ATMs, or anything else. It means you’re using client input to inform all your decisions, not just when the client is in front of you. We engage our non-client-facing teammates by having them ask “Is this what the client would want as I design this process, or make this effort?”

Customer-Focus in Place of Product-Focus

Migrating from product-focus to customer-focus is a massive cultural change. “Part of our DNA is to take care of the client,” he continued. “We knew that some client-facing personnel were doing a really good job of this, but we weren’t sure they were delivering on Client 1st the way the client defines it. So we asked them “What’s most important to clients?”, and then we asked clients “What’s most important to you?” Since the two answers didn’t always line up, we realized we need to make sure we use less of our own intuition and more voice-of-client to drive our decisions.”

In November 2008, SunTrust executives rated themselves on a set of 50 client-first dimensions, and they ranked in the bottom quartile of companies participating in this assessment. “18 months into our journey we re-assessed ourselves and found we moved into the top tier of companies that exhibit these 50 customer-centric behaviors and traits. We’re excited that our effort to be client-centric has yielded this benchmark leadership.”

This transformation was achieved not only by capturing client feedback effectively, but also changing the way the company coaches, trains and hires to make Clients 1st. It had to be looked at as performance management, not only as research. “People started asking in meetings: Do we believe X because we’ve been bankers for Y years, or because clients told us?” VanDeVelde continues: “As our chief marketing officer and our head of cross-channel strategy began doing that all the time, it became common practice throughout our company. Then you begin to seek it and call people on it when they don’t. So we have a culture where we’re trying to put the customer in the center of our decisions.”

Voice of the Client

“We see a triangulated approach to client feedback:

1) Surveys based on things most important to clients during interactions (tracking, over time)

2) Qualitative client listening program via social media monitoring daily (1 full-time exclusive staff)

3) Panels associated with some communities we’ve built — so if we see something we don’t understand we can ask the panel, which in turn informs our qualitative listening approach.

“We look at our open-ended comments on recommendations, compliments, and complaints. A lot of companies look at sources of dissatisfaction to reduce them. We look holistically at compliments showing what we’re doing well, and at suggestions and recommendations as ideas — we don’t throw out any voice of client. We’re using text mining to use open-ended comments for innovation.

“They’ve made us a Center of Excellence so we’ve tried to aggregate all the surveying going on in the company to facilitate that. Our relationship managers run these programs with the lines of business (LOBs), and they’re charged with really understanding what’s important to the lines of business, and to work closely across them to find where learnings can be aggregated and facilitated out. This is a goal of the Center of Excellence. We also designed an enterprise portal to search on different research pieces we’ve done, kind of like a research library, and we’ve made access available to anyone in the company.”

Spreading Successes

“Internally we have a Client Experience & Loyalty Forum, conducted monthly for two hours, to bring in champions from across the LOBs, talk about practices, techniques, and what’s working. For example, ‘This worked for Private Wealth, so how about using it for Middle Market?’ Forum participants brings good ideas back into the LOBs; we’re always trying to cross-pollinate.

“We spend a lot of time talking about cross-channel performance. Clients have a channel preference, but the average client uses 7 different channels. So we think about cross-channel strategy to really take care of the clients when they interact with us across all the channels. And proliferation of social media is something we’re looking at, too. Our director of cross-channel strategy reports to the chief marketing officer and serves the enterprise. The stakeholders are clients first and LOBs second, to understand channel needs of clients and make sure the LOBs have prioritized the needs and are fulfilling those needs through that channel. Channel strategy is a very strategic role here at SunTrust.

“For our 1,700 teammates serving our customers on the front-line, we established a consistent way to know how way to treat clients, called Service Excellence. When our Human Resources group re-focused their guiding principles, not only did they lead out on being Client 1st but also focused on teammate engagement. We believe that highly engaged teammates deliver great experiences which cause clients to be loyal, and creates profit growth. We worked with our HR partners quite a bit to understand how we can coach teammates to be more engaged, get leaders to encourage more engagement, know that they’re creating great experiences for clients, and measure that. HR was also highly involved in our training programs to create our model of Service Excellence. And we ask clients to give feedback on these things, to make sure they’re getting what is important and relevant to them, since our clients are the ones that helped us build our Service Excellence criteria.”

SunTrust’s CEO William Rogers says: “We remain focused on executing our strategies to drive better core performance and efficiency across the organization.” And VanDeVelde sums up their formula for success: “The business saw Voice of Client 1st as part of a larger business transformation. It’s about positioning investments in capturing client feedback and performance management and addressing it holistically, beyond market research: How you are leading, using insights, prescribing action, holding people accountable, and how you’re communicating the value of it.”

Hear the full 28-minute interview on the Customer Experience Optimization online talk show, along with recorded interviews with numerous other companies that are making impressive strides in strengthening their customer-centric culture.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Lynn Hunsaker

Lynn Hunsaker is 1 of 5 CustomerThink Hall of Fame authors. She built CX maturity via customer experience, strategic planning, quality, and marketing roles at Applied Materials and Sonoco. She was a CXPA board member and SVAMA president, taught 25 college courses, and authored 6 CXM studies and many CXM handbooks and courses. Her specialties are B2B, silos, customer-centric business and marketing, engaging C-Suite and non-customer-facing groups in CX, leading indicators, ROI, maturity. CX leaders in 50+ countries benefit from her self-paced e-consulting: Masterminds, Value Exchange, and more.


  1. The CEO is clueless if he thinks he is offering his customers good customer service. I have my bank accounts and mortgage with Suntrust. We recently had lightning struck our garage & it caught on fire.

    Insurance check = no problem
    Contractor working = no problem
    Cashing the check = HUGE PROBLEMS

    I cannot believe how much red tape and bureaucracy there is to CASH a CHECK. We received the insurance check July 17. I am STILL WAITING on Suntrust. The garage will be finished this Friday and we have no money to pay the workers. I called the Suntrust HQs and they literally told me “there is no one that will help you get your money faster” and I said let me talk to your boss. He says to me, “My boss is the CEO of Suntrust and he will not do anything. If you call him, he will just direct the call right back to me.” I asked for a phone number to talk to someone in the insurance claims department and he said “I will not give you the number”



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