ING Direct’s FOR SALE sign needs to include: “…featuring an awesome Customer Experience”

Who will the “big fish” be?

“Some news to get while on Vacation!!” That was the reply I got from Jaime Stein, ING Direct Canada’s Manager of Social Media, when I sent him a direct message on Twitter last Thursday. Word had gotten out in the media about the Bank’s impending sale, and I was curious if Jaime had some inside information. “Nothing.” He asked me what I knew. “No idea”, I said. Jaime and I had kept in touch over Twitter since connecting at ING Direct’s first “Meet and Tweet” in Toronto [PIC] back in January 2010. (Jaime was Manager of Digital Media at the Canadian Football League back then). He’d only been in his new role at ING Direct for 5 months when he got word that his company was being sold.

If you haven’t already heard, ING Groep NV, the Dutch parent, is planning to sell off the Canadian Direct Banking unit in order to restructure and pay down a good portion of its remaining debt to the government from the 2008 financial bailout. The Canadian Financial Services market is abuzz with speculation.  Who will the buyer end up being?  National Bank?  Scotiabank?  Manulife Financial?  PC Financial?  You can be sure that a slew of Barbarians are just chomping at the Gate.

When you read through the various opinion articles, from both Canada and abroad, and the analyst predictions, the stories are about return on assets, book value, the impact on the banking sector, market share opportunity, predicted purchase price.  Nowhere is there any mention of the human side – the uniqueness of the ING Direct Canada brand, the transparency of Peter Aceto, the CEO, their involvement in building and supporting community, the unique culture created by the 1,100 employees, the Café experience, the high proportion of millennial customers.

Why is it that the human side is so often ignored in these stories of corporate acquisition?

Why is it that the human side is so often ignored in these stories of corporate acquisition? Aren’t stories of human interest, culture and people what make for engaging articles? Isn’t it the stories of great leadership and approaches to creating social good, that engage peoples’ interest?

ING Direct Teams ING Direct Olympic Event - Vancouver British Columbia Photos courtesy of WWF-Canada/Linda Lee and Kris Krüg, respectively, on Flickr

When I look at ING Direct, I see an organization that has employees committed to the brand, I see a CEO that has taken risks in such a regulated market and puts himself out openly and regularly on Social Media, I see a company that has taken very simple financial products and has bundled wonderful experiences around them, I see a Social Brand that has put its values proudly on display for all to see.  To think that ING Direct’s value proposition is about its direct online approach to delivering their product – they can offer lower fees and higher rates of return than the Big 5 because they don’t have the overhead of physical space – would be naive.  What’s really differentiated them in the marketplace is how they execute, how they build brand advocacy from within, how they’ve created an open organization, their leverage of Social Media as a tool of engagement and collaboration, and how they’ve developed trust with their clients.  ING Direct has built a brand that offers its customers unique experiences they don’t get with other financial institutions. The commoditized world in which we live would do well to learn from these guys.

What’s really differentiated them in the marketplace is how they execute, how they build brand advocacy from within, how they’ve created an open organization, their leverage of Social Media as a tool of engagement, and how they’ve developed trust with their clients.

When we think back to TD Bank’s acquisition of Canada Trust in 2000, it learned that it could differentiate itself on the retail side, through a focus on customer service, and doing it well would lead to increased profitability.  When they subsequently bought Commerce Bank in the US seven years later, TD learned how to offer unique branch experiences, and what that also meant for the bottom line.  TD Financial understood that banking services are highly commoditized; that the only way to offer something competitive in the market is to create unique experiences for their customers, and continually work to innovate and keep those experiences fresh and exciting.  And as a result, TD leads the market in customer loyalty.  It’s in an enviable position to hold.

Fast forward to this week. The Canadian Banking Sector is primed for a bit of a shake-up right now, with ING Direct’s “FOR SALE” sign out on the front lawn.  The almost $40 billion in assets or the return on assets are not all that’s at stake here.  (Consider that CIBC, the fifth largest of the Big 5 had assets of over $350 billion at the end of last year, and RBC, at number one, had assets of over $750 billion). I see the real opportunity as being among ING Direct’s almost 2 million loyal customers and its 1,100 engaged employees. ING Direct has a groundswell of advocates. And you know what they say about the value of brand advocates. The prospectus for this sale needs to highlight “awesome Customer Experience” as a key asset. It needs to highlight the human factors; the strong culture; the strength of brand advocates both within the company and among its clients.

The prospectus for this sale needs to highlight “awesome Customer Experience” as a key asset.

As we speculate about potential buyers, it’s possible that TD Financial may end up picking up ING Direct. Anything’s possible. Remember, it has to work both ways. If that happens, you can be sure they’ll win the JD Power award for highest in Customer Satisfaction for an 8th year in a row.  If one of the other big banks succeeds, they’ll have a better chance of dethroning TD, if they are prepared to learn from the ING culture and can think outside the hard asset box. If one of the smaller guys buys them, this could get exciting.  Word is, we’ll find out by the Fall.  Let’s hope for the best, for the sake of the employees and the customers of ING Direct.


  1. Peter Aceto says:

    Mark, I love your post and really appreciate it. Regardless of the outcome of our shareholder’s strategic review we cant forget about the people involved. All that is written is about a transaction. trading a thing for another thing. so cold. In reality we have many passionate employees who have created an incredible experience for nearly 2 million Canadians and saved them billions along the way. Thank you for looking much deeper and for your kind words. We hope that the result of ING Group’s strategic review will allow us to speed up our good work for Canadians. Peter.

    • Mark Orlan says:

      Peter, thanks so much for sharing your comments and your kind words. I’ve had the good fortune of interacting with some of your people, experiencing your Toronto Café, and reading the Orange Code. So I appreciate how you’ve truly added value to an otherwise boring set of financial products. Surely there’s tremendous value in the unique experiences that ING Direct’s people have created for Canadians. It floors me that none of the articles I’ve read about the sale so far, have picked up on what makes ING Direct a great brand.
      Good luck as you move the negotiations forward. One can only hope that whichever financial institution ends up doing the deal with you, will learn from your successes and leverage the strength of your people to build a stronger brand for themselves. If they simply look at the deal as a cold asset transaction, your customers will catch on, your employees will leave, and everyone will lose in the end.


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