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Co-creation in the fish tank

July 2, 2009

“I’m not like them” this attractive young branch advisor tells one of her customers. “I’m much more like you than I’m like them. I invested in the same shares you did. I too have lost 40% of my assets.”

The “them” is the management of her French bank. Or any bank for that matter, for she hates them all. “They” are the ones that took excessive pay, invested in subprime and derivatives and caused the global financial crisis. That she might be lumped with these high-fliers galls her no end.

The bank has become concerned about this Stockholm syndrome for advisors. Advisors and customers are increasingly co-dependent and advisors are progressively distancing themselves from the bank. In its desire to reengage advisors and customers, the bank has decided to start with two test regions. In the North, the regional marketing manager is in charge: he’s a classically-trained person. He’s eager to offer his region as the test bed, but wants it done classic market research-style, with no management interference. He wants a well-lit aquarium and a comfortable chair from which he can observe the fish.  In the Center region, Raphael, head of the region, has decided to come to the workshops himself in order to engage directly with advisors and customers. He wants to dive in the tank and swim with the fish.

“But we want unfiltered data” the Marketing Manager of the North states, upon hearing what Raphael, the Head of the Center Region, wants to do. “If I or any of the senior managers come to the workshops, our advisors and customers will be intimidated and their responses biased. I’d rather come to one or two focus groups and observe what’s going on behind the glass. Or maybe I’ll look at the films.”

A few days later, Raphael and his team find themselves involved in a passionate discussion with advisors and customers. It’s about midnight and they’re still going. Advisors challenge him openly in front of customers about the incentive system that occasionally drives them to push products onto unsuspecting customers at campaign times. Raphael pushes back by outlining the economics of the retail banking business, the need for campaigns to create the volume effect required to maintain branches in smaller towns and villages, and the fact that these campaigns pertain to products people happen to need. So where is the conflict? Paradoxically, customers start reassuring advisors that there’s nothing wrong with what Raphael just explained. They’re cool with the fact that the bank has its own economic imperatives, as long as they’ve been made transparent.

The customers in attendance are young people who would typically never come to a bank branch. They have a cynical view of banking, no particular loyalty to any brand, and simply do not care much. There are many yawns in the early part of the conversation. When Raphael starts talking about the community he wants to build in each town, though, chins come up and SMS texting under the table mysteriously stops. He shows them a project he’s doing, restoring one of the stained glass windows of the Chartres cathedral. They deem the project “awesome”. He then lets them see how the mutualist structure of the bank could allow them to participate in its governance and promote their own community projects. Now, they’re positively enthusiastic. They start building with Raphael what the process could be like. that would draw young people to the bank’s mutualist activities.

“But you’re leading the jury” the Marketing Manager of the Northern Region utters one last protest, looking at the film of Raphael interacting with advisors and customers in Chartres. “You’re interfering with the process.”

“That’s the point” Raphael tells him. He has a broad smile on his face. You can tell he’s fully energized by the encounter. “And I’m going to get back together with these kids as soon as we have a concept of that new community process” he announces, almost giddy. Straight back to the tank, swimming with the fish.

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