Is this the future of cross-selling?

In recent years, the consequences of pressuring employees to aggressively cross-sell products have become clear from the Wells Fargo scandal and other problems. Yet it’s also well-documented that the more products customers have, the more profitable and loyal they are. As banks go mobile-first and see fewer of their customers in branches, how to deepen relationships with them becomes more challenging.

The digital-only Ally Bank takes a different approach to strengthening relationships that, bank officials say, eschews cross-sell quotas or goals yet is effective.

“It’s antithetical to our culture,” said Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing officer and along with president Diane Morais, one of the self-described “mothers” of the brand. “We don’t incentivize people to cross-sell. We don’t have branches that people are walking into where people are trying to cross sell.”

Through automated, personalized emails and websites, the bank maintains communications with its digital-only customers. While many banks send out emails and text messages, Ally is getting 60%-70% click-through rates on its emails and 50% loyalty rates when it comes time to refinance. Here are some things it does that may be giving it this edge.

Its communications aren’t all about sales. “Our point of view has always been, let’s not just email with our customers when we’re asking them for something, when we’re trying to cross-sell products to them,” Brimmer said. “Let’s build meaningful dialogue with our customers.”

When customers sign up for an account or auto loan, they get an email thanking them for their business. On their birthday, they get a birthday greeting. Occasionally the bank will randomly pick several customers and send them a thank-you gift card.

“We’ve tried to imbue our entire customer experience with those kinds of things, so that people realize they’re not being treated like a number, but that we care about them and pay attention to them and we’re thankful for their business,” Brimmer said.

These follow-up emails, which may sound simple, are not a common practice at banks. A recent Deloitte survey found that among bank customers that felt their customer experience could use improvement, lack of follow-up from the bank created greater dissatisfaction.

“Even more alarming for banks, these demanding customers also had to follow up with the institution on their own, at a rate that was many times higher than other consumers,” the Deloitte report said. “These findings show a clear, and frankly elementary, customer service failure by banks.”

Ally also sends out a quarterly e-newsletter called My Ally Updates, in which there’s no sales-oriented content. It might include a quiz — what would you rather have: your dream car or your dream vacation? — and push the responses to its Facebook and Twitter pages. The newsletter has click-through rates of 60-70%, according to Brimmer.

Mark Schwanhausser, director of digital banking at Javelin Strategy & Research, thinks these efforts are good and could probably be taken further.

“Banks in general have to wake up to the idea they don’t want to remain in a reactive mode where they wait for customers to come in,” he said. “In that kind of reactive relationship in digital channels, the connection with the customer becomes weaker and weaker because it’s just a transactional relationship.”

But a birthday message only suggests the bank knows the birthdate on an application; it’s not a perceptive insight.

“What I would like to see and where I think things are going is where you personalize to the individual, and that could be related to their personal finances, the status of their personal finances, the things you know about them related to their goals, things you can do to help them become better consumers,” Schwanhausser said.

For instance, a bank could analyze a customer’s income and the bills they are paying, and recommend a specific dollar amount they should be saving.

It automatically generates personalized websites that help it connect with customers. Over the past two years, Ally has spent more than $2 million in customer experience technology, and about half of that budget has been devoted to software called OneClick from ChannelNet, which generates a customized website for each new customer.

When a customer takes out an auto loan, they get a welcome email that contains a link that takes them to a personalized website. It will include information about the loan, the leasing contract if there is one, and there might be content about how to watch for normal wear and tear on a vehicle, or how to keep your credit rating strong. The auto dealers Ally works with can add their own messages to these sites. This wins points for Ally with the dealers.

ChannelNet receives detailed daily customer data updates from Ally that it uses to personalize each site and sometimes enhances it with information about other relevant bank products.

Have to do it another way

“We don’t incentivize people to cross-sell,” Ally’s Andrea Brimmer says. “We don’t have branches that people are walking into where people are trying to cross sell.”

“It’s important to properly welcome the customer, primarily because it’s a great way to build strong customer service and satisfaction,” said Paula Tompkins, founder and CEO of ChannelNet. “It’s also a great time to offer complementary products and services.” (Ally uses a custom version of OneClick. ChannelNet plans to announce basic and advanced versions of its software to all banks and credit unions in mid-March.)

The ability to cross-sell this way is critical to Ally, which started with two products — deposits and auto loans — and only launched credit card, mortgage, investment and direct-to-consumer auto loan products over the past year.

On these personalized landing pages, the bank is getting consistent open rates of 65% -70%.

It doesn’t over-contact customers. “We’ve been very careful about how we communicate, how often we communicate, and where we communicate with our customers,” Brimmer said. “We place a big value on their privacy and on the fact that none of us like to get bombarded with a bunch of marketing messages.”

The bank uses what it calls “mailbox management” to monitor the number, frequency and types of customer “touches.”

“If you are a deposit customer and you don’t have a credit card or a mortgage with us, we may begin talking to you,” Brimmer said. “But I want to be careful that I’m not sending you 10 emails a month trying to get you to get a credit card or mortgage product with us.”

The bank has developed algorithms that suggest how many times it could offer another product or service before the customer will opt out of all emails.

“When we see opt-out rates starting to rise, that to us is an indicator that people are getting annoyed with too much messaging,” Brimmer said.

Ally only recently began to send customers text notifications and here again, it’s cautious.

“We want people to opt into that, you want to avoid tipping into any kind of an annoyance factor,” Brimmer said. “You never want to put a communication in front of the customer that doesn’t add value to them.”

It diligently tracks response numbers. “We’re in the data constantly, looking at the way customers are responding, both through the click-throughs and the opt-outs,” Brimmer said.

A lot of this work is done in Adobe Audience Manager. A cross-sell and CRM team look at Ally’s customer activity data every day, to see what people are clicking on, the response rates, what information seems to be resonating with people, what’s driving people to what parts of Ally’s website.

The bank measures the amount of time people spend on the personalized websites. It’s five to six minutes.

It also creates heat maps of the pages that show which content customers are dwelling on.

“We know by where they’re hovering their cursor what they’re reading, what content is most interesting to them and what they’re spending the most time with,” Brimmer said. “That allows us to tailor or change up the messaging based on the things that are most interesting to people.”

Ally tracks whether people come back to the bank to refinance as a result of the targeted landing pages. Right now, 50% return. The bank originates around $40 billion of auto loans per year.

It adjusts what it’s doing based on all these numbers.

“We learn every time we go off and do an email campaign to customers,” Brimmer said. “All kinds of data comes back and tells us what we should do next time.”

Ally plans to expand the use of the personalized websites to all its products. “We have things we need to do first relative to getting our data in order, getting the cadence of things right, and then we’ll be looking at, later in the year, expanding them to our other products,” Brimmer said.

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at



Penny Crosman

Penny Crosman is Editor at Large at American Banker.

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