CMO profile: What NAB's marketing and CX chief is doing to build customer culture

Suzana Ristevski shares how the financial services institution is rebuilding customer credentials post Royal Commission

Suzana Ristevski
Suzana Ristevski


It’s easy to get growth when the macro-economic environment and consumer sentiment is strong. But it’s the tougher climates like the one banks are facing now that are the most rewarding and prove the mettle and magic of marketing, says NAB’s Suzana Ristevski.

“As I like to say, any turkey can fly in the wind,” the executive GM of marketing and experience officer tells CMO. “All the things that make our careers are the things that are a little hard. In fact, in every area of our personal lives, the areas you grow the most are those where it’s that little bit harder and you have to face into challenges.”

It’s a comment that sums up the mindset of the experience marketing leader as she looks to help steer NAB out of the lows of the Australian Royal Commission into the banking service, and ensure customer is front and centre in everything the organisation does.

Ristevski was appointed chief marketing and experience officer 12 months ago, a newly created role overseeing a function incorporating marketing, analytics, insights, brand and sponsorship. Prior to this, Ristevski was GM of business bank marketing and customer strategy, one of three big hires made by former CMO, Andrew Knott.

Ristevski’s elevation to marketing and CX also came as NAB appointed its first chief customer experience officer, Rachel Slade, its former EGM of deposits and transaction services.

“CX, marketing, digital, personal growth – it’s fascinating all the discussions about the identity crisis we’re having as chief marketing officers,” Ristevski says in response to what her modern role entails. “In a way, I’m disappointed we’re still having these conversations. It doesn’t matter where things sit – one of our jobs is to be integrators on behalf of the customer.”

However, she agrees having CX can help align a team to “think customer”. “The structure supports the strategy and forces us to talk together and make sure we are aligned on the insights we’re pushing forward to the organisation to help prioritise the experiences, how we move forward on aligned value propositions and how we harmonise the brand,” she continues.

“Arguably though, you could chuck digital in the conversation too – we have the same conversations whether they’re sitting in marketing or anywhere else in the organisation.”

It’s for this reason Ristevski is ultimately trying to help NAB land at a place where no one and everyone ‘owns’ the customer. For the last year, she’s tried to rid her team of the notion it ‘owns’ customer.

“Instead, how do you create synthesised thinking around what the customer is expecting, and set up your strategic blueprint so you can hand it over to the whole organisation and say here are the principles and things we’re thinking about when it comes to our customers? These include principles and things we’ve not necessarily done before,” she says.  

One principle is to “give the customer the benefit of the doubt”. Nice sentiment, but Ristevski says it’s changing the way NAB thinks about and treats its customers.

“Previously, for example, if a customer had called and said they’d had fraudulent activity on their credit card, we would have gone through a whole process before refunding. But those core stated principles reset our thinking, which is awesome. Now, we pay upfront and then go work out what to do,” she explains.

Post-Royal commission, such customer-led thinking is critical. Ever the optimist, Ristevski believes the commission has been “awesome” for the financial services industry.

“The Royal Commission is the best thing that’s happened to us – it has forced the bank to think about how we do things,” she comments. “No one was purposefully trying to destroy value. But it’s a big corporate structure with lots of processes and legacy systems. Now we’re forced to have a look at it and there are no excuses – we have to be accountable, we have to think about customer principles.” 

Customer-led efforts

Ask any Australia company and you’re likely to be told they’ve always intended to be customer-centric. NAB is no different.

“Yes, structure supports strategy, but what’s changed for us as an organisation is it’s culture supporting customer centricity,” Ristevksi says.  “Culturally, people know they need to be talking to each other around what the customer wants and expects. And they know marketing is a place to come to in order to get agnostic customer insights.”  

Ristevski is excited by the many ways her team can now deliver live, real-time data-led insights through different tools. But she says it’s important to keep these purist.

“There are 33,000 people in the organisation that know banking and are able to provide a point of view on our strategic capabilities, what we should do, follow our gut and all the rest of it,” she says. “I say to my team, it’s our job to be completely agnostic. I don’t care about NAB when I’m delivering insights.

“I see our organisation firstly not thinking about where we want to play, but what customers want. Off that, we can then have a conversation around strategic capabilities.”  

Supporting this is significant technological change. NAB has been very public around its move to the cloud in order to become faster, simpler and more agile for customers. Ristevski notes the bank has also been transparent around the cost of running a business against managing customer expectations.

But while all of this is important, it’s the culture truly driving change, she says.  

Getting culture right

So how has Ristevski dealt with the change aspect required get NAB’s culture aligned to customer? While she acknowledges change needs to be navigated through a whole value chain, part of the transformation has been turning the mindset of teams towards constructive approaches to change that enable action.

“It’s firstly making sure the team are of the right mindset to be dealing with that change. We think it requires resiliency first up, but it’s actually a change of mindset that’s most important,” Ristevski says. “The second piece is being really, really clear on what we want to achieve. Marketing for years has faced this change: We have to tell people what they need to hear, not what we want to tell them. There’s a real art in that. We’re not solving marketing challenges either; we’re solving business challenges.

“Being really succinct on what it is the team is going to achieve takes a lot of time and effort. But then alignment during change becomes really important too.”  

Helping her cause is a commitment to diversity of thinking, Ristevski continues. Yet it’s also clear growing diversity within a modern marketing function itself has to be addressed if teams are to operate effectively.

“In marketing, we’ve had the standard brand, communications, and generalist marketers; now we’re introducing data scientists, analytics, and technology. You have to build for that too,” she says.  

To do that, Ristevski has spent a lot of time training her team to build trust and belief in credibility.

“Across my leadership team, there are people who are experts at brand that don’t know what’s going on in the Adobe martech stack, and vice versa. But they need to trust each other,” she says. “We’re working across a value chain and transitioning into future-state technology, so we have all these things changing. We have to trust credibility is there. So we spend time on that. We need the team to feel firstly that even if you don’t understand the expertise, you trust people are capable.

“But it’s also about behaviour. In an environment where there is so much change, transformation and movement, those softer skills around collaborating, winning together and pushing hard into context and giving up things, are key.”  

As proof of success, Ristevski notes her team in the last year allocated some of its marketing dollars to data remediation, traditionally a technology and operations (T&O) expense line.

“We saw it’s more efficient to do some of that stuff and T&O didn’t have the money. So we allocated budget to speed up the process, which helps our marketing effectiveness overall,” she explains. “That’s exactly what I want my team to be doing. I want the team to be enterprise-focused and for everyone to know when they come to us, we’ll do the right thing by the customer and enterprise. We are not our own silo doing our own thing.”  

A more operational change helping facilitate customer centricity is moving to agile ways of working. It was through this process, for instance, Ristevski’s team not only found a number of complaints were coming from system-generated letters unchanged for many years, but decided to fix it.

“They’ll get lots of kudos in their performance this year as they’ve identified something that has been making customers unhappy, and pushed through an environment where we can shift resources and fix those letters, thereby reducing complaints. It’s a wonderful story,” she says.

“Having transparency of backlogs, great insights and cultural alignment around doing the right thing by the customer makes it a whole lot easier to have conversations across teams, make the right calls and win together.”

What the Royal commission has done is not only accelerate the appetite for these kinds of customer-led changes, but “unleashed the organisation to get stuff done”, Ristevski says.

“As long as you can prove 2-3 things that show it’s the right thing to do by the customer, we’re not as bound by copious business cases; you get on and do it,” she adds.  

Up next: NAB's brand evolution, personalisation strategy and ongoing priorities

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