TBT: A sobering tale of banking and judging by appearance

Not to be judged by its cover.

Not to be judged by its cover.

First posted July 8, 2013.


Here’s a true story about judging by appearances. It sounds apocryphal, but you can verify it for yourself, as I did, with a visit to Snopes.com. Snopes, a reliable resource for verifying or, depending, debunking urban legends, is where I found this true and instructive story.

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On a work day, you could easily mistake building refurbisher John Barrier for a homeless person. Perhaps that was the impression he created when, in late 1988, he stepped into Old National (now U.S.) Bank to cash a check. A teller cashed his check but wouldn’t validate his parking. Validations were for bank transactions, she said, and check-cashing didn’t count. Barrier summoned the manager who, looking him up and down, backed up the teller. “Fine,” Barrier said, “you don’t need me and I don’t need you.” Barrier, who had been with Old National for 30 years, moved his business to nearby Seafirst Bank. His first of many deposits was a mere million dollars.

At the shallow end, the lesson here is “treat people well despite appearances because you might find out they’re rich.” But I’d like to go to the deeper end and suggest that we should treat people well because it’s the right thing to do. Whether or not they turn out to be rich.

At first blush you might think interactive banking should be incapable of judging clients by appearances. But the digital experience is becoming increasingly personal. It may not be long before camera-to-camera use becomes the standard for interactive marketing. Now is the time for a bit of preventive maintenance as we mind how we engage across allchannels.


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Coronavirus and digital payments

NOTE: In no way is the content of this post intended to provide medical advice. See an MD for that.

covid-19-4922384_960_720In 1986, the president of the company that markets LifeStyles condoms referred to AIDS as “a condom marketer’s dream.” Jerry Della Femina, founder and president of the advertising agency handling the Lifestyles account, immediately retorted, “AIDS is not a marketer’s dream, it’s a human nightmare”—and resigned the sizable account. He was cheered the world over.

I chose to open with that incident before reporting on the possible effects of the coronavirus pandemic on digital payments. I want to be clear that I am NOT suggesting that the pandemic is in any way a good thing. It is a human nightmare. 

(I shuddered when a recent Forbes piece used the phrase, “For MoneyGram the epidemic is both a blessing and a curse.” Let’s not tar and feather the author. I do not suspect heartlessness, just a quick but poor word choice.)

That said, the pandemic will surely affect the digital payments business.

I’ll begin with this, from BrokerNewsWire:

Because of the proliferation of cases of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that governments and citizens make payments through mechanisms that do not involve direct contact between the parties or with cash. According to media reports, a WHO spokesperson said in an interview that “people should use non-contact [payment] technology as soon as possible,” which in the eyes of many analysts and experts opens up important spaces and opportunities for digital currencies.

In Italy, where digital payments have been slow to catch on, dramatic increases in diagnoses may catalyze more conversions. According to S&P Global

Cash is at the heart of day-to-day economic life in Italy, making up 68% of transactions at point of sale by value, according to a 2017 research paper from the European Central Bank. But N26 GmbH, a German-based digital bank that has around 500,000 customers in Italy, is already seeing indications of changing customer behavior as a result of the outbreak. “In the last weeks we registered a slight increase in the number of mobile wallet transactions, and we expect this trend to continue, as more people adjust their everyday habits to reduce the risk of transmission,” Andrea Isola, N26 general manager for Italy, said in an email.

While the pandemic may bolster digital payments, ecommerce may be another matter. On one hand, people who prefer to self-quarantine at home may be likely to turn to ecommerce rather than show up in person at retail stores; but on the other, escalating travel restrictions and increasing numbers of people remaining at home leaves fewer people to deliver ordered goods. A PYMNTS.com piece reports that “avenues of transport seem to be getting increasingly choked off. That means goods that have already been produced, or have been ordered or are getting ordered, are unlikely to arrive on doorsteps.” Moreover, 

… if supply chains are truly disrupted (we’re thinking here about consumer goods, such as tech-related or pharma items), the ripple effects may be that inventory in the pipeline is held up, and it will take a while for that new inventory to reach end customers, and then for new demand to materialize and bring those plants back online.

Not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of panic when it comes to handling cash. PaymentsSource recently speculated that the coronavirus could …

… cause a drastic change in payment habits, as consumers shift to digital channels to reduce their risk of infection from handling cash. Many regions are already seeing a rise in contactless transactions, which could be seen as less prone to spreading disease than the handling of cash or paper checks.

According to Bloomberg, increasing numbers of stores are asking customers to avoid the use of cash if possible. 

And across the financial industry, a rigorous debate is brewing over how to address the public’s mounting concern that greenbacks might transmit Covid-19. Studies show it’s at least theoretically possible for other coronaviruses to survive on the dollar’s cotton-and-linen weave, though there’s little agreement on the actual risk of contagion. Fear of dollars is now palpable in the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus.

Reuters has reported that South Korea’s central bank “was quarantining bank notes for two weeks to remove any traces of coronavirus and even burning some as part of efforts to stem the outbreak.”

The Bank of Korea (BOK) said it is also putting currency notes through a high-heat “laundering” process, as it always has, before releasing them for circulation. “For all cash coming to the central bank from local banks, the Bank of Korea will keep it in a safe for two weeks, given that the virus usually dies out after nine days,” a BOK official told Reuters.

Even so, paper currency is considered a lower-risk conveyor. Coughing and wheezing pose the greater threat. According to The Financial Brand, the World Health Organization has simply recommended hand washing after handling cash as “a common-sense precaution.”

Any havoc the pandemic wreaks on the global and local economies and any effects it has on the payments business pale in comparison to the cost of lost human lives. I am all for the growth of the digital payments industry. But not this way.

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TBT: What do you mean, that’s not marketing?

This, too, is a marketer.

This, too, is a marketer.

Originally posted March 21, 2016

Maybe it was his red face. Maybe it was the steam coming from his ears. Either way, it was clear that Brent was worked up.

Asked what was bugging him, Brent replied that, just the evening before, his neighbor said something rather insulting. “You’re in marketing?” the neighbor said. “So is Mike, down the street.” The insulting part came next: “He’s the top salesperson at an auto dealership.”

Top salesman at an auto dealership? Perhaps you can see why Brent was upset. Brent occupies an office on the 22nd floor of a prestigious tower. The tower happens to be ivory-colored, but this is surely coincidence. There, seated at a desk beside a window overlooking the city, he carefully culls and crunches marketing data. “That’s marketing,” he said, with not a little pride. To say that a mere seller of cars was a “marketer” was to trivialize the level of Brent’s expertise and accomplishment.

This was not the time to make Brent angrier. He was holding a briefcase he could easily have deployed as a weapon. 

But between you and me, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Marketing” is a large umbrella covering many valuable functions. These include research, product design, packaging, data mining, creative work, media analysis, branding, programming, planning, Brent-style number crunching, and more. All of these require specialized training and expertise. But for any specialist to say that salespeople aren’t marketers would be like coaches and sports analysts saying that the folks wearing helmets out on the field aren’t football players.*

It is equally naïve and unjust to claim that face-to-face selling requires no specialized expertise. If you knew Brent, you would agree that he is the last person you should turn loose on customers, his MBA notwithstanding. He has great data skills, but he has the people skills of a ground wasp.

It’s important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal, and of what ultimately pays the salaries, of the above-listed marketing functions. Namely, getting someone to buy something. News flash: shorthand for “getting someone to buy something” is selling.

Marketing is a euphemism. It has the advantage of sounding more hifalutin and avoiding the pushy salesperson stereotype, but it has the disadvantage of allowing people like Brent to lose sight of what their profession is about.

To dismiss salespeople as not-marketers is more than snobbish. It is shortsighted. People who are daily face-to-face with customers know things that traditional kinds of research will not turn up. Input from salespeople might just add real-world perspective to all of those programs and policies descending from Floor 22.

Brent would do well to spend a bit of time on the sales floor. (Provided, that is, that he only observes. Trust me on this, you don’t want him talking to customers.) He might pick up valuable information that his numbers will never show.


*No analogy is perfect. To assert that the folks wearing helmets on the field aren’t football players may be correct in the case of teams that are not the Denver Broncos.

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TBT: To the Swiftest Go the Spoils

motorcycle-1690452_1280Originally posted April 29, 2013

Seven years later, the data-driven race to trim turnaround-times and enhance the customer experience is still on.

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WHEN YOU SEE WORDS like “estimate” and “90 percent” flung about without supporting data, it’s wise to assume you’re dealing with a guess landing somewhere between wild and educated.

But when no less than IBM does the flinging, I’m inclined to pay attention.

IBM recently suggested that 90 percent of all data has been produced within the last two years. Whether the statement is informed or speculative, and regardless of what they include (or don’t) in “all data,” the point is well taken. We are compiling data at breakneck speed. There is no reason to believe the trend will slow, and there is every reason to believe it will accelerate.

“Accelerate” is the operative word. Marketers aren’t just upping the speed and volume of data accrual. Sophisticated tools analyze on the fly, cutting response time to seconds. The goal? To show up on mobile devices in hopes of influencing customers in the very moment they are thinking about buying.

In an article by John Adams, Ross Christi, manager of LoyaltyEdge at American Express, has this to say: “The volume of data isn’t necessarily the challenge. It’s about using it intelligently and managing it in an efficient way.”

Keeping and analyzing customer data isn’t new. Savvy marketers have done it since the early days of direct mail, the original interactive medium. They didn’t call it data back then, but a rose is a rose. Data at the time pretty much consisted of name, address, purchase type, frequency, and average spend. In today’s interactive and mobile world, data comprise much more. And while at first it seemed as though privacy fears and laws would curtail data gathering, something interesting happened, and fast: consumers began volunteering the very data that fear-mongers had earlier convinced them marketers should not be allowed to obtain on their own. Mobile device users willingly reveal the merchants and products they like, where they’re shopping or dining at the moment, what UPCs they’re scanning, and more. Add up enough of those voluntary data points (and, for existing customers, overlay them with established buying preferences), and a picture emerges of who is where and thinking about buying what. Respond to the picture fast enough with a compelling offer sent to a mobile device, and you increase the odds of winning customers while they’re still at the point of purchase and, hopefully, still in a buying frame of mind.

Fear-mongers are still at work doing their best to decry fast-responding marketers as manipulative or sneaky. Nonsense. Sound marketing is a win-win. Marketers win by creating or growing customers. Customers win by receiving usefully timed information and offers on products they actually care about. And, of course, no data is shared without express permission from the customer.

John Knuff, general manager of global financial services for Equinix, said (as quoted by Adams), “What we are seeing now with intelligent targeting is more data mining is going on and happening within the customer session—so if a consumer is getting instructions on what to do to access or redeem an offer, a lot of the information to drive that has to be transferred in real time.” Knuff adds a caution: “… if the data set is on the West coast, but the session is on the East coast, the data has to traverse three to five vendors and has to travel three thousand miles several different times during that session. That’s really going to bog things down.”

Time has always been money. But in the marketing arms race, shaving—by even an insanely infinitesimal amount—the time it takes to turn data into a well-executed marketing response will give the marketer a serious advantage over competitors.

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Soybeans and data privacy

Digital SoybeansNext time you drive past a soybean farm, look closely. You may be staring at the center of a data privacy controversy. One that carries an important PR lesson for all of us.

Farmland owners who don’t wish to farm often lease their land to people who do want to farm. It’s an arena into which, inevitably, the gig economy found its way. As early as 2012, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture came up with an “Airbnb for farmland” app. It matched would-be farmland lessors with would-be farmland lessees. They jokingly referred to the app as “eFarmony.”

Today’s best-known eFarmony-type app is Tillable. It leases farmland from owners and sublets it to farmers. “Tillable was created to help landowners receive fair rent and get the insights they need about their farm’s performance,” the app’s home page says, 

while also helping great farmers build their reputations and expand operations. We’re using the power of data and technology to make renting farmland easier, more profitable and more efficient than ever before.

Late last year, Tillable announced a pending partnership that would link the app with the Climate Corporation’s Climate FieldView app, which “does the listening so you can get the most out of every acre.”

We’re your data partner to seamlessly collect, store, and visualize critical field data, monitor and measure the impact of your agronomic decisions on crop performance, and manage your field variability by building customized fertility and seeding plans for your fields to optimize yield and maximize profit. 

PR Newswire reported:

Approximately 40 percent of U.S. farmland is rented or leased, according to USDA estimates. Despite the sizeable $32 billion farmland rental market in the U.S., Tillable is the first and only digital platform to optimize returns for landowners. The platform also helps farmers access land to expand operations. Now, FieldView farmer customers using Tillable can more easily share farm operation details, such as planting and yield data, that they’re already collecting through the FieldView platform.

But all that initially great PR about Tillable’s data and technology wizardly turned on a dime into a PR nightmare.

It began when Tillable started signing up landowners en masse. The practice ended some longstanding relationships between landowners and renters. That alone displeased renter-farmers, but a deeper concern soon unfolded. Farmers who had been using FieldView to maximize yield and profits wondered if Tillable had used their data to woo away landlords with promises of greater returns. Last week NPR News reported:

Farmers on Twitter started sharing suspicions about the Tillable-Climate Corporation partnership. They accused the two companies of trafficking in farmer data. [Tillable CEO] Corbett Kull denies this. The accusations “were absolutely false,” he says. “We had never accessed the data from Climate [Corporation].” Yet the storm on social media forced the two companies to announce that they were cancelling their partnership.

There’s a postscript to the story that everyone in the business of compiling and mining data should take to heart:

Parker Smith [who led the protest] says that he never worried about his farm data before, and who might be able to see it. Now, he and a lot of other farmers probably will.

Indeed, public suspicion of data mining will only grow. Sophisticated data manipulation is a two-edged sword. On one edge is the ability to improve the customer experience, reduce fraud, match needs with solutions, and increase efficiencies. As EvidentID.com reports, “Companies participating in the gig economy can easily scale their operations to meet demand and easily navigate economic tides. This approach works for customers, workers and businesses.” But it adds a word of caution pertaining to the sword’s other edge: “What makes the machinery of the gig economy churn is also the industry’s biggest risks: sharing and storage of sensitive data.” 

Ride share innovator Uber learned this the hard way in 2016 when hackers … stole the personal data of 57 million drivers and ridersThe New York Times reported. The firm was so embarrassed by the intrusion that it waited for more than a year to publicize the event, a decision that drew immense backlash from both customers and the contract employees that trusted Uber to keep their data safe.

As the Uber and Tillable anecdotes bear out, besides the risk of harm from misuse of data is the PR-risk side of things. Customers worry about use of their data, from suspicions of being spied upon to worries about being unfairly manipulated—think Cambridge Analytica.

It goes without saying that financial institutions must have in place rigorous protections against the misuse and appropriation of data. But it’s also important to manage customer perceptions.It may be true that Tillable did not access and abuse data from FieldView, but from a PR standpoint, that’s irrelevant if users reject Tillable’s innocence claims. It’s also important always to have at the ready a plan for handling data breaches. Including perceived ones.

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