What makes the the worlds #1 Customer Experience brands?

#1 CX Brands

As I quite literally travel the world talking, listening and working with individuals and organisations who have an interest in Customer Experience, I am regularly asked who the world’s ‘best’ Customer Experience brands are. ‘Who is good at CX?’ is a pretty typical question. It is a good question to ask and one that I can most certainly answer ‘in my opinion’. However, having been asked the question so many times, rather than me just citing my opinion, I thought I would go a significant step further and ask as many people as possible for their opinions.

In January 2015, I conducted an independent survey of people across the world to find out who their ‘#1’ Customer Experience brands are and most importantly WHAT makes them their #1. In this blog post, I am delighted to officially reveal the findings of the research. Some of the findings may surprise you……some of them will not. What you can be certain of is that the findings are likely to provide validation of the things that are the most common reasons for these brands ‘delighting’ their customers.

Customer Experience is not just for the big, bold brands

The first big surprise for me was that  94 different brands were mentioned as people’s #1 Customer Experience brand in just over 200 responses . It is fascinating and encouraging to see that great Customer Experiences are not exclusively the preserve of those with huge budgets. Many of the companies named by respondents are small, independent businesses who share a similar mindset with brands we’re more familiar with. What is not a surprise though is that the top four favourite brands accounted for 40% of the responses. We’ll find out later why it is that the same brands keeping topping this kind of poll, but first, let me acknowledge the top 10 #1 Customer Experience brands coming out of the research:

Top CX Brands

Other well-known brands such as Emirates, Premier Inn, Argos, Airbnb, USAA and Sky all received endorsement as a #1 Customer Experience brand. In the interest of balance, some of the names mentioned by respondents that you are less likely to have heard of are as follows:

  • Sixthman Music Festival Cruises
  • Jabong.com
  • Dutch Bros
  • Discount Tire
  • Hatem Shahim (a barber’s shop!)
  • Dyreparken i Kristiansand
  • Spear & Jackson
  • Wegmans
  • Firebox.com
  • e-bolt
  • Container store

Different countries and a variety of industries – the sheer number of organisations receiving a mention suggests that there are many doing something right – the question is – what exactly are they doing that warrants a customer such as you citing them as their #1 Customer Experience brand? Before we find out, let us just have a quick look at the commercial performance of the top 10 CX brands coming out of the research.

The right customer experience is commercially rewarding

The sheer mention of  ‘Customer Experience’ and ‘Customer Centricity’, is still often greeted with a rolling of the eyes by those who are more focused on sales targets, operational efficiency and tasks. The irony though is that the former makes the latter much more successful. And it’s no coincidence that each of the top 10 brands has recent performance milestones to be proud of:

  • Amazon Q4 14, net sales increased by 15% over Q4 13
  • Apple 39.9% profit per product (3 months to end Dec 14)
  • First Direct Moneywise “Most Trusted” and Which? Best Banking Brand
  • John Lewis profit before tax up 12% in 2014 vs 2013
  • Disney Earnings per share up 27% in year to Dec 2014
  • Air New Zealand Earnings before taxation up 20% in H1 15 vs H1 14
  • Mercedes Revenue increased 12% from 2013 to 2014
  • Starbucks Revenue rise 13% in Q1 FY15
  • BMW 7% increase in vehicle sales in Jan 15 vs Jan 14
  • Boden Shipping 12,500 parcels each day

Pretty powerful stuff. Is it just a coincidence that the brands you are saying are the best at Customer Experience all seem to be faring pretty well on the commercial front? It appears as though all of the brands that are ‘great’ at Customer Experience share common characteristics – in fact the research identifies 13 common characteristics that are the reasons WHY these brands are #1 in your eyes. Lets us have a look at the ‘lucky’ 13!

These organisations have common characteristics

I wanted to know what it is that your favourite brands do to make them your #1 at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. I asked for up to three reasons from each respondent and received 575 comments. Following verbatim analysis,  13 categories were identified, each distinct but interlinked. They were, as follows (with the percentage frequency they appeared):

  • Corporate attitude 15.9
  • They’re easy to do business with 14.9
  • They’re helpful when I have a problem 11.4
  • The attitude of their people 9.4
  • Personalisation 8.0
  • The product or service 8.0
  • They’re consistent 7.5
  • The way it makes me feel 6.3
  • The way they treat me 5.1
  • They’re reliable 4.4
  • They do what they promise 4.2
  • They’re quick 2.6
  • The technical knowledge of their people 2.3

We will look in more detail at what we mean by each of these in a moment but to view at any one in isolation would risk limiting what is being achieved by these organisations. This diagram shows how interdependent each area is in aligning with the corporate attitude and ultimately organisational goals and the very purpose for why the business exists:

characteristics of #1 cx brands

So what do the most favourite companies do, exactly?

Focusing on these attributes is what moves companies from fighting a rear-guard action to fix issues of their own making to creating a compelling a sustainable brand for the future. It also means that customers are increasingly exposed to better experiences as they go about their daily lives and that’s important because it keeps nudging the bar of expectations higher. This is why the brands that do these things are ones that people consider to be the very best at delivering consistently good Customer Experiences. Digging deeper into each of the 13 areas we can build a picture of how the companies who get it right control the way they do business.

1. Corporate attitude

It’s another way to describe organisational culture and it underpins everything that happens to or with a customer. More specifically, in the words of those who responded to the research, companies who have the right attitude:

  • put people before profits and non-human automation
  • know they’ll make more money in the long-run with this approach
  • test all experiences thoroughly (to eliminate unintended consequences)
  • listen and demonstrate they understand their customer
  • pay serious attention to detail
  • empower their staff to makes decisions and act straightaway
  • stay true to their values, admit when things go wrong and fix them
  • ensure their staff are fully trained and informed
  • recruit for attitude and alignment to brand values

They also said: “…they treat each customer as we would a guest in our home” and “…they balance customer obsession, operational excellence and financial rigor”.  Almost every other category is a sub-category of this one; it shows how important the right culture is.

2. They’re easy to do business with

It’s obvious to say a company should be easy to do business with and yet that’s not always the case. What respondents meant by “easy” included:

  • there are no barriers in the way for doing what a customer needs to
  • it’s simple to get information, purchase and use the product
  • needs are anticipated and catered for
  • customers don’t need to repeat information
  • they can switch from one channel to another with no impact on progress
  • products can be returned or fixed with minimum effort on the part of the customer
  • they are available when and where customers want; they can be reached without waiting and won’t limit the hours of their support functions to office hours if customers are still using their products and services all day every day
  • they are proactive in taking responsibility, eg finding products at other stores and having them delivered
  • customers have no objection to self-service because it has been well thought through
  • information is presented in a timely, clear and relevant way

3.  Helpful and understanding when I’ve got a question

Being easy to deal with is critical when a customer needs help or simply has a question. On the assumption that good companies do respond (a recent Eptica survey found more than 50% of online inquiries go unanswered), helpful companies are ones who:

  • listen to understand before acting
  • give a customer the feeling that they are trusted and respected
  • will provide an answer and additional, relevant help
  • provide certainty and manage expectations about what will happen next and at each stage
  • empower employees to make decisions
  • resolve issues first time and quickly
  • have employees who are happy to give their names and direct contact numbers
  • preempt problems and solve them before customers are aware
  • fix customers’ mistakes without blame or making them feel awkward
  • follow-up afterwards to check everything was sorted and is still as it should be
  • are not afraid to apologise when they get it wrong

4.  Attitude of the people

Individual employees who are interacting with customers become a proxy for the brand. If they demonstrate the wrong behaviours the damage can be hugely expensive but getting them right does not cost a huge amount of money. Most often a function of the corporate attitude, the most appreciated characteristics are:

  • being courteous and friendly
  • a positive, “I’ll sort it” attitude
  • they are good at listening
  • it’s obvious they care about, and are proud of, the product/service
  • they are professional and not pushy
  • they are helpful and proactive
  • they are genuine and humble
  • they smile
  • hey are engaging and interested in the customer
  • they have personality, not a corporate script
  • they are patient
  • they show respect for their fellow colleagues

5. Personalisation

We are all individuals and like to be treated as such. Having “big data” was seen as the answer but as these companies demonstrate, it’s not only more important to have the right data and do the right things with it, but it’s also linked again to corporate attitude. Those who get the personalisation right:

  • understand, anticipate and are proactive
  • keep customers informed with relevant information
  • shows they listen and act, not just collect feedback
  • create a relaxed environment because a customer’s needs fits neatly into what they are offering
  • create a feeling of respect, that they care and have “taken the time to know me, to make things easier for me”
  • make it feel like dealing with a person where there’s a connection, not just a transaction
  • allow their customers to control the degree of personalisation in terms of frequency and content
  • remain flexible and adaptive to the circumstances, not scripted

6. The product or service itself

Making it easy, personal and rewarding will be wasted effort if the core product or service doesn’t live up to expectation. At the end of the day, your business has to have something of value to the customer to sell! When it comes to products and services, the #1 Customer Experience brands are those who:

  • the right mix of choice, relevance, quality and innovation
  • well designed, so it is easy to get it to do what it’s supposed to
  • quality is complemented by relevant innovation, not technical innovation for the sake of it
  • obsessive about the detail
  • paying as much attention to secondary products, such as food on airlines
  • good at turning necessary evils into compelling attributes – Air New Zealand’s legendary on-board safety briefings, for example
  • adept at keeping up with, ahead of and shaping basic expectations

7. Consistency

As customers we like certainty and predictability. It means that the decisions we make carry less risk because we can confidently trust the outcomes. It also demonstrates stability of, and a shared understanding of, strategy. For our respondents, consistency is about experiences that:

  • look and feel the same
  • can continue easily wherever, whenever and however
  • match or build on the positive expectations created last time
  • have continuity in not only what happens but how it happens; tone of voice, quality, different locations, store or franchise, people and processes, performance
  • provide the same reliable answers to the same questions
  • integrate with other services

8. The way it makes me feel

Emotions are a function of how good the other two cornerstones of Customer Experience – function and accessibility – are. How they were made to feel, whether intentional or not, is what people remember. Being the personal consequence of most if not all the issues covered here, it is what drives our behaviour about whether or not we will do the same next time and tell others to do the same. If people think they are part of something special, connected to a company that lives by like-minded values, they will FEEL special. And as human beings, we appreciate that. Survey espondents cited a number of great examples:

  • “get on an Air New Zealand flight anywhere in the world it already feels like you’re home”
  • “the packaging increases the anticipation when opening a new product” (Apple)
  • “interactions with employees don’t feel like processes out of an operating manual”
  • “there is (the perception of) a genuine relationship; it’s not just about them selling every time they are in touch”
  • “they make me feel as if I’m their only customer” (Land Rover)

9. The way they treat me

At the root of how we feel and therefore behave is often down to how we are treated. Good and great companies have experiences that:

  • demonstrate respect
  • show an empathy with customer needs
  • don’t do things like asking a customer to repeat information if handed from one colleague to another
  • keep customers posted on feedback they’ve given
  • recognise their customers both by staff individually in-store and organisationally
  • have a consistency of treatment even when not spending money in-store
  • create relevant retail environments so that customers feel they are treated as if they are somewhere special
  • develop meaningful loyalty programmes that acknowledge past purchases and reward future ones
  • are not patronising in tone

10. They’re reliable

Not surprisingly, reliability is cited as a key attribute. Although we simply expect things to work as they did last time or as it was promised, we probably won’t get too excited if that is the case. However, the consequences of it not happening will result in additional time, effort, inconvenience and sometimes cost to the customer; not what a brand would want to be blamed for. There are some markets where the mere hint of a lack of reliability in its truest sense has serious consequences for a brand. More generally, reliable customer experiences are ones that

  • give confidence and a level of trust that what we ask for when we buy is what we get; there are no nasty surprises
  • understand that they are key to repeat purchases and advocacy. No-one will put their own reputation on the line to recommended any brand product or service that is unreliable

11. They do what they promise

Again, this is a character trait we appreciate in friends, family and colleagues and it’s no different when dealing with a business. It can be seen as a subset of “the way they treat me” but it is also critical at a strategic level too; the brand is what people say it does and so that has to be consistent with what it’s promising, just as its employees need to keep their own promises to customers too. There’s a real financial benefit here too where unnecessary and costly rework can be avoided. How many enquiries coming into the business are because “You said you’d get someone to call back”, “You said you’d send me a copy of that statement” or “Where’s my fridge, I’ve had to take the whole day off work and there’s still no sign of it”. Customer experiences that do what they promise:

  • live up to the expectations they set
  • have employees that do what they say they will do
  • do it all consistently
  • fix it quick if they fail
  • are good at managing expectations

12. Quick

As customers, time (alongside money) is a commodity we trade with. A company who appreciates the finite and precious nature of it will create a distinct advantage. In today’s everything-everywhere-now life it’s not surprising that speed is an issue. Expectations are rising all the time where customers interacting with other brands see what can be done. Quick customer experiences are ones that:

  • move at the right speed for customers
  • show respect by having have good reaction times once a customer has initiated part one of a two-way activity
  • manage expectations, so if it’s not “quick” as defined by customers there are also, no disappointing surprises
  • are not just focused on speed of delivery but are quick to answer the phone, flexibility to find ways around rules and respond to questions

13. People knowledge

Having people who are technically competent with their product knowledge is another character of top brands. Companies that possess employees like this have an invaluable asset who are:

  • able to translate the concerns and questions
  • able to articulate complex issues in simple language
  • are not patronising
  • are proud that their knowledge can help someone else

So what?

There is no shortage of good and great experiences to learn from and they bring favourable commercial results to the companies that do have them. They don’t have to be high-tech out-of-this-world experiences; simply knowing what the basic expectations are should not be that hard and delivering them well time after time should just be the norm. This independent research also shows that it’s a combination of characteristics that matter, not one in isolation. That said, experiences, customers and balance sheets are always given an essential boost where having the ‘right attitude’ is the common thread running right through the organisation.

 Thank You!

A huge thank you to all those who participated in this research – without you giving up your valuable time and insight, I would not be able to share such valuable output.

An even bigger thank you to my friend and colleague, Jerry Angrave. Not only has Jerry co-authored this post, he also conducted the detailed analysis of the research results. A brilliant CX mind, he is also one of the most genuine Customer Experience practitioners I have ever met. You can read more of Jerry’s work at empathyce.com – I strongly encourage you to do so!

‘Customer excellence is here: it’s just not very evenly distributed yet’. The Nunwood 2014 UK Customer Experience Excellence Report

0 Nunwood 2014 6 pillars of Excellence simple

‘Customer Excellence is here: it’s just not evenly distributed yet’. A fantastic quote that I wish I could claim was mine! Whilst it is not, I can recognise a particularly relevant and accurate quote when I see one. The quote is in fact the very first line of the executive summary of this years Nunwood UK Customer Experience Excellence Report – a report that should be essential reading for any customer experience professional in the UK.

The reason why I think the quote is so apt is because I personally agree very much with its sentiment. In 2014, it is very difficult to find an organisation who does not believe that the customer experience or being customer centric is NOT of value. It is far easier to find companies who might say it, but demonstrate something completely different! At a time when even Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, has publicly linked improving the customer experience with improving financial performance, we are possibly living in the most customer centric society ever (that may be a subject for a future blog post!).

Ryanair do not feature in the top 100 of Nunwood’s report into the Customer Experience Excellence of 250 companies operating in the UK – maybe Mr O’Leary will make entering the top 100 an objective for 2015! The report is a fascinating assessment of the customer centric nature of brand names that we interact with on a daily basis. Focussed around 6 pillars that Nunwood use to assess ‘excellence’, the brand names that are considered to be ‘customer champions’ will probably not surprise you. I am often asked who the most customer centric brands in the UK are – the 2014 top 10 are a very good reflection:

0 nunwood top 10

It is difficult to disagree with this bunch – although I am sure some will try!! As I have already stated, Nunwood produce the listing using their 6 pillars of Customer Experience Excellence. What is important to remember here is that their study does not just produce a league table – it more critically gives you an insight into exactly why these brands are at the top of the list. So let us look at what makes an ‘Excellent Customer Experience’ in a little more detail:

1. Personalisation

Described by Nunwood as – using individualised attention to drive an emotional connection. This is so important and a pillar that has become necessary as we, the consumer, are demanding more emotionally engaging experiences every day. It is absolutely true to say that emotionally engaged customers will interact with you more often – the Nunwood top 10 are demonstrating excellence in achieving this.

2. Expectations

Described by Nunwood as – managing, meeting and exceeding customer expectations. Not difficult to understand – it does what it says on the tin. To be at the top of the Nunwood list, you need to be consistently good at delivering both the basics and the ‘sprinkling of fairy dust’, as I and my colleagues like to describe it!

3. Time and Effort

Described by Nunwood as – minimising customer effort and creating frictionless processes. Now that would be nice! If you read my blog post last week, you will understand just how important this is in delivering ‘excellent’ customer experiences – maybe it is not a surprise that the companies involved in my experience are not in the Nunwood top 100.

4. Integrity

Described by Nunwood as – being trustworthy and engendering trust. Integrity is a word that few would associate with many industries in 2014 – it has been eroded so significantly since 2008. However it should be noted that the brand that has come top of the pile in 2014 (and was also third in 2013) is one that comes from the industry that many of us still trust the least. The fact that First Direct have maintained their integrity whilst the industry around them have failed to do so in such dramatic fashion, is absolute testament to their unrelenting focus on the customer.

5. Resolution

Described by Nunwood as – turning a poor experience into a great one. Recovery of poor experiences is well known to have a potentially galvanising effect on loyalty. The ability to respond to an issue is a vital skill for any business. However, I would argue that it is still better to have to recover as an exception!! Interestingly, my experience last week saw one of the organisations involved responding in ‘best in class’ fashion – I was very impressed. Yet despite this, my opinion of their brand has not changed. Do not get me wrong – the ability to resolve is vital – but getting things right in the first place should take precedence.

6. Empathy

Described by Nunwood as – achieving an understanding of the customer’s circumstances to drive deep rapport. Getting the emotional component of the experience right is still the thing I see most commonly missing from the organisations I interact with. Understanding and empathising with customers is a critical competency that drives the most customer centric of organisations.

To get into Nunwood’s top 10, your business needs to demonstrate excellence in all 6 of these pillars. Some might be good in one or two – yet competency in all 6 is what makes you a Nunwood Customer Champion.

Wherever your business sits today, it is wonderful to see how the excellence pillars are becoming more commonly embedded in businesses all over the UK. The report makes it clear that there is a demonstrable shift in the upward direction in 2014 – this is echoed by reports from other agencies in the US. As customers we are receiving improving customer experiences – some businesses are better than others. Some are improving faster than others. What is important is that the improvements we are seeing are maintained and even more importantly sustained.

If you want to read the report in detail, or find out more about it, please have a look at Nunwood’s Customer Experience Excellence Centre.




‘Simplicity is divinity’ – is this what is behind the success of First Direct?

I have always been a little mystified by First Direct. Firstly, it is a bank. What is there to get excited about when it comes to banks? I am one of many who unfortunately has become very apathetic towards banks – I just do not care about them. This may surprise many people – but sadly it is true. My apathy means that I cannot even be bothered to leave the bank I have been with since I went to university. I cannot be bothered to leave a bank that has invested absolutely NOTHING in me as a customer in all that time. So why am I not moved do something when I meet friends and colleagues who tell me wonderful things about their own bank – First Direct. Honestly – I find it more difficult to find someone who DOES NOT like First Direct than I do someone who DOES!! It is my apathy towards banking that stops me from moving – maybe once I have finished writing this blog post I will be inspired to do so!! So what is it that makes First Direct so special?

Let’s start with a few First Direct Facts (since its launch in 1989) – I have taken these directly from their website:

  • first direct has 1.16 million customers
  • 950,000 of them use Internet Banking
  • 420,000 customers use SMS message banking. first direct sends around 3.5 million text messages to customers every month
  • first direct employs 3,200 people in 2,700 FTE roles at two sites, in Leeds and Hamilton (near Glasgow)
  • 44% of first direct‘s sales are via e-channels
  • more than 1 in 4 of first direct‘s customers join because of personal recommendation
  • over 89% of customer contact with first direct is electronic
  • first direct handles around 135,000 telephone calls every week
  • first direct takes over 54,000 calls (40%) outside working hours each week (Monday to Friday 08:00 – 18:00)
  • first direct takes over 1,700 calls a day from abroad
  • first direct has been in profit every year since 1995

Compared to their competitors, First Direct have generated a phenomenal level of satisfaction and loyalty with their customer base. In 2011, right in the midst of the financial crisis (caused by banks), First Direct were quoted by Satmetrix as having an NPS (Net Promoter Score) Score of 61% – second only to Apple in the UK !!

Source: Satmetrix industry benchmark reports
Source: Satmetrix industry benchmark reports

This result is no fluke. The UKCSI – an independent customer satisfaction survey produced by The leadership Factor on behalf of the Institute of Customer Service also puts First Direct right at the top of the rankings. The latest results put First Direct third in the overall table behind ASOS and John Lewis. They scored the same as Waitrose and Amazon (http://www.instituteofcustomerservice.com/10560/UK-CustomerSatisfactionIndexUKCSI.html).

At a time when customer perception of the banking industry in the UK was (and still is) at an all time low, nothing has changed as far as the customers of First Direct are concerned. Searching for verbatim comments online, the positive comments from First Direct are amazing – here are a selection:

“I left my high street bank (sponsor of the premier league) when I took a half day off work to go in to the branch and they were closed for staff training. Unbelievable!! This was a long time ago and I went home that night and set up a new account with 1stD at 23:00. Since that time I have had one or two small gripes but the overwhelming experience has been an exemplar of top quality customer service. Some of their products are not brilliantly competitive but so don’t buy them. They don’t spend ages trying to sell me things and calling them is almost always a pleasurable experience. Well done them.”

“They are brilliant – got thoroughly hacked off with HSBC and moved our account to First Direct (on recommendation of a colleague) and they made it as easy as possible for us to do so.”

“First Direct are absolutely fab. I have been with them for around 20 years. It’s so nice to talk to someone friendly on the other end of the phone. They have always helped me if my account has gone overdrawn/got into problems. I have never been kept hanging on or moved from pillar to post. The person who answers the phone generally deals with the problem. Also if you move your account to First Direct you get £100 paid into your account – not a bad incentive!”

“I think First Direct are great. You always get a real person on the phone. And you can say something like “can you move £100 from my joint account to my personal account” and they get what you mean, without having to quote loads of account numbers.”

Yes it is possible to find negative sentiment towards First Direct – no organisation is perfect. However, the overriding feeling is very positive. So just what is it that makes First Direct so special? How have they managed to sustain such positive customer perception when all of their competitors (including their parent bank) have seen customers turn against them? Last week, along with over a hundred other customer experience professionals, I think I found out why.

This is Mark Mullen. Mark is the CEO of First Direct. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the biggest customer experience conferences in Europe – European Customer Experience World (produced by the Focus Group). Mark was the keynote speaker on the first day. If you have not heard him speak, he is pretty cool. Mark delivered his speech without the aid of slides or notes. He had the audience entranced. Mark spoke of many things – from the importance of good customer data, to the significance of the humble telephone for First Direct when it was launched to the current day.

Mark touched on the very reason why First Direct was created, and why it continues to thrive today. He quoted another legendary business leader, Sir Richard Branson’ to highlight the very essence of First Direct:

‘In order to be indispensable, one must first be unique’

When First Direct was launched, it was the only bank of its kind. It was unique. Today, that differentiator is still alive and kicking. Mark said that he is often told that First Direct has lost its ‘innovation mojo’ as so little has changed in its proposition over the years. ‘Why re-invent the light bulb?’ is his response. If you have something that works, and continues to work for your customers, why change it. This is when Mark came up with another very memorable quote:

‘Simplicity is divinity’

There was an audible murmur of agreement in the conference room. Mark believes that it is First Directs commitment to ‘keeping it simple’ that has ensured it remains as successful today as it was at launch. Why try to do things differently when your customers are very happy with the things you do? The challenge for First Direct is to keep doing the things they do as well as possible, continuously improving – if customer satisfaction is at 94% this year, Mark wants them to move it to 94.1% next year. First Direct have not attempted to get greedy – they just want to stay true to their proposition. Keeping things simple and being consistent at doing it certainly makes a lot of sense. It is difficult to do justice to the quality of Mark’s speech. He is the kind of CEO a lot of people would love to work for. Mark recognises the importance of his people, and together, they are committed to keep doing what customers want.

It is almost ironic that the secret to First Directs success appears to be so…..simple. Obviously the execution and leadership required to deliver it is another matter, but at a time when so many big businesses are struggling, re-focussing on the core business and getting it right consistently, would be a very sensible strategy.

Have I convinced myself to switch to First Direct? Not quite…….but many people are making me realise that there is a better way to do banking – so I am getting closer.

Do you bank with First Direct? Have you switched from another bank? What do you think about them – your views would be very gratefully received.

No one likes us….they don’t care!! What do we really think about our bank?

Can you remember when you opened your first bank account? I can. In 1991 I opened a Nat West bank account just before I went to University. Why did I open a Nat West account? In my case it was on the advice of my father who knew the account manager of the branch I opened it at. Many of my friends opened accounts with HSBC (Midland Bank at the time – yes I am getting on a bit!). Why did they open an HSBC account? They did so because it had a branch on the campus of our University – Brunel University in West London. They did not open the account with HSBC because it was a better bank than anyone else; it did not treat students any better than any other bank; they did not deliver a better customer experience than anyone else; they did so because in their case it was convenient. In my case it was because my dad knew the manager of the branch in Knighstbridge – which is a considerable distance from Uxbridge (yes it is just a coincidence that they both have ‘bridge’ in their name).

I can safely say that I have absolutely no idea what the name of this bank manager was/is. I am not even sure if I ever met him. In fact, 21 years later, I do not think I have ever met my ‘bank manager’. 21 years later, banks are viewed very differently. In fact today, bank managers are almost seen in the same light as estate agents (although I do like many estate agents – my brother is one!). We are all painfully aware of the way banks are perceived in the fallout of one of the worst economic crises our planet has seen. Today I heard a debate on BBC Radio 5 Live in the UK about the state of our banks and how they need to restore the consumers faith in them. In this blog, I am to give my perspective on that issue – one that I think is far more deep-rooted than the last five years. In my opinion, the problem is that the British consumer just ‘does not care’!

Think back again to when you opened your first bank account. Did you open it for any other reason than convenience or family legacy? In the last 21 years, I genuinely can still count on two hands the number of times I have directly contacted my bank (or vice versa). Some of those times were in my early student days when I just happened to ‘exceed my overdraft’ a few times. The relationship I have with my bank is one of necessity – we all need to have a bank account, but I can honestly, honestly say that I could not actually care less about my bank. My bank does nothing for me – and I suspect I do nothing in particular for them.

In 2011, I had a series of conversations with a high street bank about a CX role. They grilled me on my thoughts about banks. I told them what I have just told you – I am completely apathetic about my bank. I have no EMOTIONAL relationship with my bank. I asked whether or not they could blame me for having that opinion. They openly agreed with me. For anyone to care about anything, there has to be some kind of emotional relationship with that thing. There has to be a reason for me to want to have an interactive relationship that leads me to tell me friends and family all about it. It is possible to achieve – one bank that achieved that emotional relationship many years ago was First Direct.

Part of the HSBC group, First Direct was (in my opinion) the first bank to really connect with customers – they acknowledged that is what they are, and have delivered excellent customer service for a very long time. First Direct is also a bank where there is no direct face to face contact – it started as a telephone banking service, and is now multi-channel. First Direct understood/understands the importance of a FUNCTIONAL, ACCESSIBLE and EMOTIONAL relationship – and still deliver that today. If you ever ask a customer of First Direct what they think – they will always be incredibly positive. I have not met a single person yet who has said anything negative about them. This is quite a remarkable achievement in the current circumstances. These are some quotes from First Direct customers taken from the ‘TrustPilot’ website:

“Have been with First Direct for about 4 years now and have never had any issues at all.  I had only heard good things before joining and this has proved to be the case. The one thing that impresses me most is the helpfulness of the staff.  A UK call centre certainly makes a good impression and seems to understand your needs better.  As far as I can recall, every time I have called them they have resolved whatever needed to be done, in a helpful and courteous manner.”

“Great service from people who take time to care.  Transfer of account from Barclays was seamless and trouble-free. Have been with them for several months now, and wonder why I ever thought I’d need a local branch, this is the future of banking.”

“Easy to deal with anytime of day and great to speak to a human being often with a sense of humour. Can’t fault them. I’ve never had to walk into a bank since being with them for 20 + years.”

“I am constantly frustrated by the service of many companies but I have to say that First Direct Bank are absolutely brilliant. You phone them and a real person answers very quickly and there are no annoying menus to have to go through. The people who answer are very polite, very efficient and generally can deal with you without having to put you through to someone else. Their call centre is in the UK and so they can easily be understood. Their online banking is great also. I have banked with them for about 20 years and for someone like me to say that I have never had any problems with them is quite amazing. I have baked with about 4 banks in my life plus about 10 building societies and First Direct are easily the best by far.”

First Direct care about their customers – and so it seems that their customers care about them. What intrigues me is that knowing how good First Direct customers think they are, why have I never switched my bank account to them? Why do so few of us ever switch our bank accounts despite our banks seeming to care so little for us? Some of my friends have said it is because it is just too much hassle. However, I am sure that it cannot be that difficult in the new modern world. I actually think that many of us just d’o not care enough’ to even be bothered to move. It sounds terrible does it not? Do a straw poll of friends and colleagues – it will be interesting to see what results you get – I bet that the majority of responses are in the ‘apathetic’ camp.

A couple of years ago something interesting happened in the banking industry. Something that backs up my view of us not caring about banks. That something was the creation of the first new high street bank in over 100 hundred years – Metro Bank hit the British high street in the summer of 2010. It promised lots of things as this poster highlights:

Metro Bank recognised that there could be a different way for a bank to do business. I have met Anthony Thomson, Chairman of Metro Bank, on a few occasions – he is so genuinely passionate about doing the right thing for his customers. Metro bank will open a bank account while you wait  and print your bank card in front of you. They open seven days a week. They will even give your dog a treat! There is no doubt that Metro Bank are offering something different to the norm – but are they offering enough to make us apathists care about our bank account? Well I still have not switched, so in my case they still have some way to go.

It is also interesting to see Richard Branson now getting into the industry. With Virgin’s takeover of Northern Rock, I am fascinated to see what one of the most customer focussed brands on the planet can do to get us to care about our bank. Virgin Money says it is going to do the following:

We are aiming to make everyone better off

Like all Virgin companies, Virgin Money was launched to give customers a better deal. We aim to offer you a wide range of great value financial products that are easy to understand and sort out. In today’s busy world our customers tell us it’s why they choose to deal with Virgin rather than anyone else.

One of the new innovative things that Virgin Money has already done is open a number of ‘Virgin Lounges’ – a space not too dissimilar from an executive lounge in an airport, for the exclusive use of Virgin Money customers. The lounges are located on high streets in major cities. You can make use of free wi-fi, tea and coffee, and use the facility to meet and work. A nice idea, and I am sure there will be many more. Will it work? Will it get me caring enough to switch my bank account? I must point out here that Virgin Money do not yet have current account facilities, but they are coming soon, and you can be assured that they will definately give the consumer and all other banks in the UK something to think about.

The great British public do not like banks. That point is clear. Much of their objection is down to the small number of bankers whose actions were the stimulus for the economic meltdown we are still experiencing. However what the crisis has highlighted is how little the banking industry has cared about the people it exists to serve – its customers. Is it right that I have had an ongoing relationship with one bank for 21 years and not ‘give a stuff’? I do not feel like anything to them, other than a number – an account number. One of these days I will switch – and probably to Metro Bank or Virgin Money or First Direct. At least those banks seem to get it. If one of them can get me to care enough about a bank, they will probably get me for the next 21 years and beyond!

What do you think of your bank? Do you care? As always, your view are very welcome.