smith+co on
customer experience
Shaun Smith
  • By Shaun Smith
  • Sep 27 2010

Live the brand or drive the sale?

Natwest - part of the RBS Group which is now largely owned by the UK taxpayer - have committed to a Customer Charter and launched an advertising campaign built around the promise of ‘helpful banking’. HSBC too have been active with the recent launch of two new ads that focus on responsibility and integrity, the implication being that in dealing with HSBC we can be confident that we are working with a bank that upholds the highest standards of ethical behaviour. It seems that the banking sector has finally started focusing on the customer.

Call me cynical but it seems premature to be trumpeting improvements that have not yet been delivered and shouting about integrity at a time when the banks in the UK are experiencing the lowest level of consumer confidence for many years. The perception is that bankers are still paying themselves inflated bonuses, over-charging customers, imposing unfair terms and conditions and continue to deliver generally poor levels of service despite their claims to the contrary.

The moments of truth for banking customers…

Banks of course need to deliver routine banking transactions in a convenient and efficient way and at a price that customers feel is fair. Large unexpected charges for going £10 overdrawn feels like profiteering and a long wait in branch or on the phone can become irritants which, if they continue, may cause customers to leave. However, fixing these things does not drive the trust and confidence that we are talking about.

There are some events in people’s lives where the banking relationship assumes a particularly important significance: opening a bank account, managing finances for the first time as a student away from home, accessing banking services whilst travelling abroad, taking out a mortgage, going overdrawn, making investments, handling a bereavement. These are the moments of truth that shape the level of trust and confidence we each develop in our bank.

Too often, sales trump service

So the question is: does your bank live up to the values and promise of its brand when it really matters; when you as a customer are facing these financial moments of truth? Well the fact is that as a customer you are likely to receive more attention at certain times than others, particularly when it involves additional revenue for the bank. For example, you may well find it is easier to get access to personal service when opening an account or making investments, whereas resolving a service issue or handling bereavement will see you shunted to an off-shore call centre. Why? Because few organisations manage to truly align the sales and service parts of their organisations. Over-promising and under-delivering are still the norm for many brands and sales will usually trump service.

The organisation invests in improving the customer experience, or at least advertising that they have improved it. Sales people are briefed: “here is what we are doing to improve service to make it easier for you to sell”. Meanwhile, sales efforts continue with all the previous practices, be they good or bad, intact. The pressure of meeting quarterly targets and expectations of the market are cited as reasons why the organisation cannot de-stabilise the sales effort.

So what happens is that some of the short term, ‘manipulative’ sales practices continue. For example, not telling customers the full details of the contract they are about to enter into or how and when overdraft charges kick in, because the bank employee doesn’t want to risk losing a sale. The consequence of these failures is that the customer gets a surprise when they read the small print on their contract and when they receive their bank statement. The company has got its sale but trust in the brand is eroded.

Short-term thinking can destroy a brand

Dixons the retail consumer electronics brand has now disappeared from UK high streets. This was in part because the brand had become tired and trust had reached a low-ebb because of hard sell techniques the company employed to shift product warranties to customers whether they wanted them or not. DSG International (the parent company of Dixons, Currys and PC World) decided that there was more to be gained from transferring the Dixons product range across to Currys and PC World rather than continue with a brand that customers had little affection for. So, Dixons may have driven additional revenues in the short-term but the price, over time, was to destroy the brand.

Customer satisfaction generates sales

Let’s finish by looking at a bank that has got it right. Through an integrated strategy that brings together service, sales, marketing, operations, HR processes and technology; First Direct (the online and telephone bank) manages to generate the highest level of customer satisfaction in the UK banking sector and recruits one new customer every 8 seconds through word of mouth referral. Satisfied customers are your best sales people.

So the million dollar question is: are you creating a joined up strategy that rewards service as well as sales, and are your sales people adding to or destroying value for your brand in the way they behave with customers?