Wells Fargo Uses Ethnographic Research to Design a Better Customer Experience

Wells Fargo CXEthnographic research is the scientific study and description of the various customs and practices related to the individual people of a specific culture. More than simply collecting feedback and data points from focus groups and surveys, however, ethnographic research involves an in-depth and comprehensive study of subjects. It’s a practice that is becoming increasingly valuable for customer experience professionals seeking to understand how personal habits and consumer behaviors are affecting customer engagement.

This ethnographic approach is how Wells Fargo develops a comprehensive CX strategy. And during a Speaker Spotlight Q&A at Forrester’s CXNYC 2015 conference for customer experience professionals, Mark McCormick, Wells Fargo’s Head of Wholesale User Experience, talked about how past customer experiences shape consumer behaviors and how understanding deep emotional values can inform CX models.

“We had the hypothesis that what customers are doing today has not changed,” said McCormick. “They still borrow money. They still get advice from friends and family before they make big decisions. They still pay their bills. But, of course, how they do these things has changed dramatically.”

McCormick attributes this to four fundamental drivers: The rise of mobile, the rise of social, the rise of millennials as an important generational demographic, and the disintermediation of the financial services industry, which relates to how technology is changing the way people interact with a company. Or, how apps make money transfers possible without the need for a professional banker, for example.

With these drivers in mind, Wells Fargo set to learn how such forces are shaping customer behaviors by undertaking a well-planned ethnographic study. McCormick and his team chose the parameters of the study carefully, especially when considering the location.

Sacramento, California, was chosen because it was near the San Francisco Bay area while still containing a high number of average households. Austin, Texas, was chosen because of the tech savvy nature of the residents. And New York and New Jersey also made the cut because of the affluent nature of its residents and the strategic proximity to many of Wells Fargo’s various interests. 

Before entering the field, customers across these communities were recruited for a diary study, which charted their behaviors, emotions, and attitudes. Of this particular segment, Wells Fargo chose 50 of the most articulate people to study further by actually requesting invitations into their homes.

“Ethnography is as much an observational science as it is data-driven,” said McCormick. “It is not just about listening and talking. It is about observing, and we wanted to see their technologies, their tools, their systems. And, of course, we wanted to understand their emotions.”

Through this in-depth and comprehensive ethnographic method, Well Fargo acquired a range of insights that McCormick believes to be undeniably transformative to the business. McCormick detailed a crucial double-sided insight he called Post Traumatic Financial Disorder and Personal Epiphany Financial Awakening.

This is the idea that anything that happens to a person regarding money will shape their financial feelings and influence consumer behaviors. These experiences can be positive or negative, and the behaviors they spark can be rational or irrational. Either way, if Wells Fargo wanted to better serve the financial needs of a customer’s future, it knew that it must first understand how these intimate stories shaped personal histories.

Throughout its study, Wells Fargo acquired very deep and personal insights that informed the ways different people viewed and handled money. Some people had once received bad financial advice decades ago, and had since stopped listening to advice altogether. Wells Fargo found that couples in relationships often displayed very stark and contrasting opinions on how to handle money. Still, other people looked to religion and other various spiritual considerations before managing finances.Wells Fargo customer experience

The key takeaway is that every single person had a different and unique story to tell, but each also helped Wells Fargo see the bigger picture as it assembled a mosaic of customer experience considerations.

For Wells Fargo, ethnography proved to be a better way to manage and build customer relationships going forward.

“There are ways to draw out those money scripts, those things people tell themselves about money that may or may not be true or rational,” McCormick said. “So at Wells Fargo, we are looking at how we can train our bankers and advisors to uncover these stories, to talk through them, to help people manage finances more effectively.”

These stories generally don’t come from focus groups or surveys. Such profound insights require an approach that offers an inside glimpse into the lives of customers. The good news is that brands don’t have to be a part of the financial industry to acquire similar insights. Ethnographic-based customer experience research can help anyone better understand and appreciate those they wish to serve. 

About the Author: Mark Johnson

Mark is CEO & CMO of Loyalty360. He has significant experience in selling, designing and administering prepaid, loyalty/CRM programs, as well as data-driven marketing communication programs.

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