Kristen Simmons joined Experian as CMO in 2014, right when a number of high-profile data breaches were making the news, bringing the concept of credit fraud, identity protection, and security breaches to the forefront of consumers. Simmons knew it would be part of her job to regain customers’ trust with the credit industry.
Since then, Simmons has helped Experian shift its emphasis from acquiring new customers to expanding on the services it provides to current customers, including helping them make more informed decisions that will enhance their financial health.
Over her career, Simmons has served in senior marketing positions at Mazda North America, Ford Motor Company, and Young and Rubicam. She was partner at customer experience consulting business Lighswitch just prior to joining Experian.
Simmons spoke with CMO.com about her efforts to bolster Experian’s customer experience, marketing to a large base, and not getting “all hung up on” org charts.
CMO.com: What are some of the big-button trends that are happening in the consumer credit-monitoring service space? What have you been keeping an eye on in 2017?
Simmons: I think the big thing for us, in 2017 and beyond, is how can we add greater value? We have great tools and content today. We’re known for where you can come for scores and reports, but what we’re really working on is helping people more proactively prepare for the bigger things in life they’re actually trying to do. Yes, they’re coming to get a report, but why is it they need that? Do you think you have fraud? Yes, you’re coming to get a score, but why are you checking your score? Are you about to apply for an auto loan?
Understanding the bigger context around credit and finances and your identity, your digital identity, your financial identity, are really important to us in terms of continuing to build out the services and value that we offer. From our standpoint, the most important thing is understanding the consumer’s intent and their larger goals in life, and then helping them on that journey.
CMO.com: The role of the CMO is defined differently at each company. What are your main responsibilities and expectations?
Simmons: One of the things that I covered in my interview coming on board here was that I was not coming to take a “marketing job.” I really came here to be a consumer advocate and to do everything that I could to really improve on the consumer experience. We have so many people here who are passionate about the consumer, so there’s a lot of that energy working for us.
Mainly, it’s about working hard across all the functions that we have—all the touch points—to make the consumer experience easier, richer, and better. I spend probably more of my time working with those outside of marketing than inside because this is less about promoting our products and more about building an awesome consumer experience. We are very tightly interwoven with the product team.
CMO.com: You said one of the draws of the job was the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. What have you seen since coming aboard as to how Experian has made such an impact?
Simmons: We just did a panel recently and brought in some of our customers, and there was a point where I think everybody had a tear in their eyes. Just hearing some of the stories around how our products have helped people that have been in a bad way with credit, and they’ve been able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work at it and feel like we’ve been there with them all along—with our products, our tools, our content, and even real human beings on the other end of the phone.
CMO.com: As you mentioned, you see your job as more about building experience rather than specific marketing ideas. What are some programs you’ve come up with in this realm?
Simmons: One of the things that we’ve tried to do from a marketing program standpoint is our credit skills campaign that we launched [last] June; that really took a decided turn for us. The big message that we’re trying to get across there is really simple: that we’re human, that we understand, and that we’re on your side. That isn’t necessarily something that everyone thinks about Experian. Certainly, our happy customers do, but not everybody is in that set of consumers.
CMO.com: Who is Experian’s target audience? Has that changed at all over the past couple of years?
Simmons: We have a few different segments of people that we really target. The reality is we have a very, very broad group of consumers that come to us naturally and organically, because anybody can have a concern with fraud, right? Anybody can have a goal toward getting their next house or car and want to get a better rate than they got last time. So we can have people who have credit challenges, we can have people who are in great shape and want to actually protect their assets, and then we have targets for our different kinds of products and different kinds of communications. We see our customer base as the country, basically, and if you’ve got a credit problem, or even if you don’t, we can help serve you.
CMO.com: There seems to be a misconception that Experian serves a middleman, not a consumer advocate who is here to help. How are you working to change that consciousness?
Simmons: We launched more free services that we’ve made more prominent. So we’ve been doing a lot of broadcast advertisement around that free message, which, in and of itself, has been a big break from the past. Now, the credit skills campaign, in particular, was basically saying credit is a lot more than a score—it’s a skill. And just like any other skill that you’ve become good at in life, you probably, at one point, were not good at it, and no one teaches you about credit. No one tells you how to be good at it. It’s OK if you’re not, and you know we’re here to help you. When we launched that campaign, we really started to see some shifts in what consumers had to say. It tested off the charts, and then we were seeing some good feedback in our brand tracking metrics as well.
CMO.com: How do you use analytics to make choices that will help the company grow?
Simmons: One of the things we’re pretty proud of in our culture is we have an optimization team that’s been around for about eight years. We just sat down last week and were having kind of a brainstorming, a meeting of the minds, with some folks who are known in the growth-hacking industry. We’re testing against these segments, we’re looking at pricing, and we’re going into mobile.
We are just a very fast-moving test-and-learn culture, and our optimization team, which has web developers, technology folks, analytics folks, and designers all in one place, can be testing and throwing things out into the marketplace literally overnight. I mean, typically we have between half a dozen and a dozen different tests running at any given point in time.
CMO.com: Can you provide a good example of the company’s marketing culture in action?
Simmons: Probably the biggest thing that is really important today, and certainly here in our culture, is bringing all of the different functions together. One of the biggest things that we’re really focused on today is not getting all hung up on our organizational structure and the boxes of who reports to whom. For example, we have what we call transformation teams, and we have about 10 different teams that are put together with cross-functional folks. They don’t really report in to any one person. They’re given tasks ... around the transformation that we are on to make things better for consumers. They’re really self-driven, and I think that is very much the future.
CMO.com: What do you consider to be the biggest challenge of your job?
Simmons: We all want to move quickly, and there’s so many things that we want to do. Doing that with the constant requirement of adhering to regulatory oversight is definitely a challenge. There are a lot of regulations that have obviously been put in place with the consumer’s best interest in mind, yet not every single scenario can be foreseen. So there’s always those situations where it’s like, “Hey, we want to do this thing that we know is great for the consumer, but how is that going to fly if it’s a brand new idea and we need to adhere to all of these different rules and guidelines?”
It’s also daunting that the devil is in the details, and when you’re including everybody and everything, that tends to slow things down. Having that right balance between speed and integration is very important, as is keeping regulations in mind as we go.