Customers play a critical role in their success, but most mergers and acquisitions still fail to include the all-important customer-based perspective.

Norway’s largest bank DNB’s controversial plans to acquire Sbanken proves that companies should never forget to ask themselves: “What is in it for the customers?”

Everything did not go smooth when DNB first announced their desire to buy the smaller bank, known for their stellar customer satisfaction record. Thousands of angry Sbanken customers let their frustration be heard on social media. Rival banks suddenly gained new business, after customers from both banks decided to jump ship.

So where did DNB and Sbanken go wrong?

Customers are not business assets

Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are a common way for firms to increase their market share, strengthen their position by getting access to new technology or talent, or enter new geographical markets. At the same time, they are also disruptive events that cause customers to reassess their relationship with the newly merged entity.

When acquisitions are made, the hope is that customers will come along too. However, this should not be taken for granted. After all, more than half of M&As fail.

Why?

Because managers often focus on operations and finance at the expense of focusing on their customers. Given the prevalence of M&As and a growing familiarity with the merger process among consumers, it is essential to understand how firms should manage customers during the M&A process.

Four ways to keep customers happy

No matter what reason lies behind it, an M&A boils down to keeping current customers happy and/or acquiring new ones. How customers react to acquisitions depends on their prior attitudes toward each of the firms involved, the extent to which they see the firms as fitting, and personal attribution.

Here are four things DNB, and any managers out there, need to keep in mind when approaching customers who are uncomfortable with the disruptive nature of M&As:

  • Communication, communication, communication

Make sure you communicate to customers on both sides – very quickly – to reduce uncertainty and lower customer defection. Let them know what is happening, how fast things will change, and what the M&A means for them.

Highlight the potential improvements the M&A will result in and pledge your continued commitment to the customers. When customers perceive that your acquisition is made with the customer in mind, their trust in the merged entity will increase, and their uncertainty about the merger will decrease.

Customers also feel that M&As restrict their freedom of choice. Communication lets them regain control by making them feel part of the process.

  • Prioritize loyal customers

Customers with a higher level of loyalty will be more strongly affected by an M&A announcement. They have a more deeply rooted sense of ownership and identification with the firm.

These customers require particular interest and priority during the integration process. Consider having dedicated employees or operations aimed at helping these customers transition to the new ownership.

  • Use your salespeople

Consumers often develop perception of a firm through their interaction with salespeople. If one company has a poorer image than the other, a merger can dilute salespeople’s organizational identification, changing the way your customers perceive your firm and employees, which subsequently impairs selling performance.

Managers can avoid this by emphasizing the perceived necessity of the M&A and building camaraderie by socially including salespeople in the M&A process.

  • Corporate branding is a touchy subject

The choice of new corporate branding is a major strategic decision influencing your customers’ behavior. Do you eliminate one firms’ brand in favor of another (assimilation)? Continue to operate using each brand separately (business-as-usual)? Or create a new brand using elements from both firms (fusion)?

Managers need to be especially careful when implementing assimilation branding since this might communicate the dominance of one entity over the other, erasing the past history and relationship with its customers. No matter what you do, post-M&A corporate branding should always be handled sensitively and proactively.

References:

Bommaraju, Raghu, Michael Ahearne, Zachary R. Hall, Seshadri Tirunillai, and Son K. Lam (2018), “The Impact of Mergers and Acquisitions on the Sales Force,” Journal of Marketing Research, 55 (2), 254-264.

Dinner, Isaac M., Jonathan Knowles, Natalie Mizik, and Eugene Pavlov (2019), "Branding a Merger: Implications for Merger Valuation and Future Performance," Available at SSRN 1756368.

Homburg, Christian, and Matthias Bucerius (2005), “A Marketing Perspective on Mergers and Acquisitions: How Marketing Integration Affects Postmerger Performance,” Journal of Marketing, 69 (1), 95-113.

Thorbjornsen, Helge and Micael Dahlen (2011), “Customer Reactions to Acquirer-Dominant Mergers and Acquisitions,” International Journal of Research in Marketing 28 (4), 332-341.

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