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Beyond the Sector: Cross-Sector Reputation Benchmarking

How High is Up?

Recently I was presenting results to an alva client in the financial services space. We were reviewing how their company ranked relative to its peers in terms of customer experience (CX). As is often the case in this sector, the competitive set was relatively closely grouped together in terms of a CX-related reputation score. So the client, fairly, asked me “What about outside financial services? How good could we be?” I responded by talking about work we’ve done in sectors that have more volatility and greater variation in terms of customer service, and immediately this sparked an excellent discussion on the opportunity for the client not only in terms of the score itself – a means to an end, after all – but also in terms of being inspired by the specific types of operational- and communications-related initiatives adopted by leaders outside the sector. Let’s explore why this type of exercise can be so useful.

Internal vs. External

There are two types of benchmarking, broadly speaking: internal and external; internally focused benchmarking looks inside a company to establish scores, identify best practices, etc., while external benchmarking looks outside the company. Both are necessary, but there is an evolution here that is worth discussing: external benchmarking can itself be divided into ‘within-sector’ and ‘cross-sector’ measurement. Most communications functions are very ‘within-sector’-focused, driven to find out how their company’s reputation compares to those of its close competitors, or indeed how the company performs relative to these competitors in terms of specific issues or with specific stakeholder groups.

However, it’s well known that looking outside the sector can pay dividends: in 2013, a team of three European academics published a study focused on this very issue. As detailed in the Harvard Business Review, the study focused on the notion of creativity – specifically, the creation of ‘novel’ solutions regarding work safety – among three different groups of people. It conclusively proved that the greater the “distance from the context of [the] target problem,” the more novel the solutions were. Less formally, roofers had more novel ideas than carpenters did about carpenters’ respirators, and inline skaters (!) surpassed the roofers in that regard.

Cross-Sector Comparisons

Think about this from a communications perspective, and it becomes interesting. For example, customer service is critically important in the retail sector, where day-to-day interactions can have an impact on the lifetime value of customers (i.e., how often they come back); in certain other sectors, however – perhaps those that are more embedded in the supply chain, and / or have a historically dominant market position – then there are likely other areas of operation that have been prioritized. However, there is no reason why the organizations in the second situation can’t look to the retailers for inspiration. Similarly, there are sectors that have naturally experienced more complex challenges than others in terms of given issues, for example banks in terms of data breaches, cybersecurity, and fraud. Therefore, as a discipline or area becomes important in a given sector, companies should look at leaders in sectors that have experienced those issues already for inspiration.

Inspiration in Practice

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s revisit the conversation I was having with my client at the beginning of this post. You’ll recall we were focused on customer experience. First, within the financial services sector, there is a good deal of variation. Leading the pack in the US in terms of CX are three investment companies: Fidelity, Northern Trust, and MassMutual. So banks, insurance providers and other investment companies that don’t score as well reputationally when it comes to customer experience – I won’t name them, but anyone reading the news for the last couple of years will have a good guess – can look to these three for inspiration in terms of what’s driving that reputation. Are short wait times a key factor, is it speedy issue resolution, or is it some other value-add?

Looking outside the sector takes this exercise to the next level, however; now you’re not only able to see best practices from your likely very familiar competitive set, but also to identify companies that excel in terms of CX in other sectors; so for example, looking at Abbott Laboratories in the healthcare sector, Hilton Hotels, and the supermarket Publix. What are the things they’re doing well that have an analog in the financial services space?

Another example comes from work we completed last year for another client in the financial services space; they had two questions: (1) how do we compare to our peers in terms of our reputation as a recruiter and employer? and (2) which companies are perceived as the best employers and recruiters? With these results, the client was able to identify specifically what the companies that are perceived as leaders for recruitment and employment are talking about – providing inspiration for communications strategies for 2020.

Mapping the Fortune 100

To bring this all to life, we’ve analyzed the Fortune 100 and how each company fares in terms of these ten key issues for today’s communications leader:

  • Climate Change
  • Community
  • Customer Experience
  • Executive Pay
  • Gender Pay Gap
  • Innovation
  • Leadership
  • Product Safety
  • Recruitment
  • Workplace

The results are fascinating, and I’ll continue to share more on this blog. To build on a phrase from a very well-known CCO – he knows who he is – not only can the communications leader ask themselves “what does my company want to be famous for?” but they might also want to ask “who else is famous for this and what can I learn from them?”

Jasper Snyder, VP Head of US at alva

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