Sharpen Your Commercial Communications

by Hillary Kelbick

How to take on your three key challenges: audience, channels and voice.

Here’s an observation many bank marketers can agree on these days: communicating effectively to commercial customers and prospects is not easy.

Compared to the more straightforward challenges of personal and small business marketing, commercial businesses can often seem like little worlds unto themselves, guarded by gatekeepers and driven by hidden agendas. It’s difficult to know what will motivate an individual commercial customer or prospect. Is it price? Is it service? Is it credit availability? Is it reliability? What’s the right approach? On a more basic level, you’ll often find yourself struggling to figure out which person within the organization you should be targeting in the first place.

I think of the commercial audience as a different breed entirely, with its own unique challenges. Following are some tips to help you get a better handle on what those hurdles are, so you can begin confronting them head on to create a more effective communications strategy.

Challenge #1: Who are you talking to?

Time to stop thinking about your commercial banking audience homogeneously. Instead, imagine that you’re talking to three groups, each with different needs and motivations:

  • The Decision-Makers are the CFO, the controller, and other senior-level executives. They are driven by a big-picture vision of the financial relationship your bank offers.
  • The Money Managers are the people in the company who make day-to-day financial decisions using the tools your bank provides, like cash management and reporting. These customers care most about specific advantages and conveniences your products and services offer, as well as the levels of personal service and attention you deliver.
  • The Implementers are the people who make the system run: from the technical experts who install and maintain the software to data entry personnel and others who work in a hands-on capacity to input or extract data. Their primary concerns are with ease of use, dependability, and quality of customer support.

Once you understand that you are talking to different groups with different needs, you can start using this insight to create the building blocks of a stronger, more targeted communications strategy. For every product in your commercial lineup, think about the competitive advantages you can offer to each constituency. In fact, it’s extremely powerful to imagine that you’re talking to three people, not one. Read the draft of your communication, whether it’s a letter, a landing page or a simple email notification, and ask yourself: have I addressed each of these people’s needs? I guarantee you this will result in a better communication.

Challenge #2: How do you reach them?

Here’s a second unique challenge of working with this audience: they can be devilishly difficult to contact.

  • Write an email to prospects, and spam filters will begin weeding out your prospecting efforts as fast as you can send them. Even when writing to customers (who have presumably given you access to their inbox) the read/recall rates can be surprisingly, depressingly low.
  • Mount a telemarketing effort and you’ll deal with the massive black hole that is today’s corporate voice mail.
  • Even direct mail, traditionally the most effective channel for the commercial audience, has its challenges. Mail rooms and executive assistants are highly effective in tossing anything that looks the least bit promotional.

So as you can see, no single channel offers a reliable avenue for your commercial communications efforts. Which is why the solution, in almost all cases, is to use more than one.

In my experience, a multi-pronged communications approach is more critical to commercial customers than to any other group in your marketing universe. Rely on just one channel to get your message across, and your results will suffer for it.

Of course, this solution raises a new challenge: using multiple channels will require the right information, namely a reliable database of names, titles, phone numbers, email addresses, and preferably job functions, for both your customers and prospects. Does your bank have one? If not, I can assure you, you’re not alone.

It’s surprising how many banks end up using a new commercial marketing project as the impetus for developing a better commercial database. Better late than never, that’s for sure. But by the time a project is on your agenda, it’s frequently too late. That’s why you should make a commitment to the creation and ongoing maintenance of a centralized customer and prospect database for commercial marketing.

In most cases, this will mean soliciting the support of your sales staff for prospects and your relationship managers for your customers. But the good news is, once the database is established, generating lists of contact names for review on a regular basis can be automated, and it doesn’t have to be overly time-consuming for your staff to maintain. The result will be communications that allow you to use multiple channels far more effectively. (Just imagine: with a fully functioning database, you won’t have to use that dreaded salutation, “Dear Valued Business Customer,” ever again.)

Challenge #3: What do you say?

Once you get your strategy and your channels all squared away, you’ll need to figure out how to deliver your message to commercial customers in a voice that is true to your brand and appropriate for your audience. For many banks, that’s a lot harder than it may seem. Here’s why.

In my experience, some bank brands manage to effortlessly bridge the gap between addressing the needs of, say, a free checking customer and those of a CFO. Other banks have taken a different approach, developing a series of special provisions for commercial customers, such as a slightly modified brand line, a distinct but complementary color palette, or a more restrained tone of voice. But for many banks there are no provisions at all, either because communications to commercial customers are infrequent or they are limited to matter-of-fact business letters.

Banks frequently deal with these issues of brand adjustment “on the fly,” making subtle amendments to accommodate a commercial audience as part of the copy and layout for a specific project. There is no standard solution, because so much depends on the latitude the existing brand allows. But if in doubt, it helps to remind ourselves that CFOs are consumers just like the rest of us.

Besides, most of your customers and many of your prospects are already familiar with your brand anyway, so a radically different tone will likely ring false to them. My advice usually is, don’t sabotage your own brand because you’re worried it’s too retail for commercial customers. It’s your brand, so own it. Keep to your established brand voice with as few tweaks as possible, and you’ll stay true to any expectations your audience may have about your organization.

Hillary Kelbick is president and CEO of MKP communications inc., a New York based agency specializing in financial services marketing and merger communications. [email protected].