In recent years, various consumer surveys of attitudes towards banks and financial service brands have revealed that the FS sector is among the least trusted of all industries. What’s more, this perception has barely changed since the financial crisis of 2008.
At St Luke’s, we wanted to dig deeper. In May 2016, we recruited an anonymous selection of financial service workers to an online discussion about the brands they work for, what they stand for, and how this affects the customers they deal with every day. Brands represented were leading banks and insurance providers.
Their diagnosis is that financial brands had indeed lost touch with the fundamentals of looking after their customers, however they also believed that last few years have seen an industry-wide correction. Every one of our panel talked about how their brand now places the customer at the heart of what they do:
“There have been various adverts for my company all aimed at letting the customer know they come first”
“Putting the customers first and working together but the main focus is always the customer”
“The bank believes in fair and helpful banking. It wants to build a trust and personal rapport with customers”
Clearly every financial brand has heard the same thing in focus groups, and gleaned the same message from their net promoter score: focus on the customer. As a result, each company has undertaken a programme of transformation.
From our research, these programmes have fallen into three main categories:
Brands that have translated the high level vision of customer centricity into tangible direction for employees. Staff understand the intention, but more importantly, they understand what they’re supposed to do with it. They know the kind of conversations they should be having and the behaviours they need to adopt.
“Key training elements were: Have ‘un-bank like’ conversations. Ask would you treat a family member like this? Is this going to cause knock-on effects for customers?”
Brands that have confused employees with generic or airy-fairy marketing language.
“Inspire, Deliver, Empower, Aspire…As an employee I am expected to try and keep these four things at the forefront of my mind when dealing with customers. I don't think it's a good fit for my day to day role.”
Brands that have set an ambition to put customers first but not aligned their business and systems behind this.
“Sometimes it's the systems that we have and the processes that we need to go through that can end up with us not being able to completely satisfy the customer.”
Wherever the different companies are on the journey towards looking after their customers better, the view from our panel was that they were making progress towards putting the customer at the heart of their business.
However, financial service brands that are focusing solely on the customer aren’t leading the way. They’re catching up.
It says a great deal about the industry that so many brand positionings are built on doing what in many other markets would be considered a hygiene factor. Of course, our panel felt good customer service is absolutely critical. But can it give a financial services brand a competitive advantage?
We asked what it was about the companies they worked for set them apart. What would make them recommend the brand ahead of a competitor? What would mean that if the brand ceased to exist, it would be missed? The answers revealed a disappointing (if not entirely surprising) lack of pride in the companies they worked for:
“Other banks more or less offer the same or if not better services.”
“No, I don't think in the long term it'd be missed.”
“All the same companies seem to be very customer focused at the moment. I don’t think we are any better or worse than other companies as they all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet at the moment.”
While there was a degree of pride in the size of the companies, almost universally, our panel felt that their customers would be looked after equally well elsewhere.
One exception was notable: one employee, who felt that her employer offered something more distinctive than good customer service, namely an international perspective “that helps businesses to prosper and economies to thrive”. As a result, while everyone else felt that their brand wouldn’t be missed, this person felt her employer’s brand stood for something unique.
This matters. Pride in a brand, among customers, is a ‘nice-to-have’. But among employees, it is essential. If the people talking to customers every day believe their brand is doing something important, different, and better than the competition, it will come across. If they believe their employer is much of a much-ness with the rest of the industry, that customers will sense this too. A tight focus on customers delivers of benefits, but it won’t change this.
In the financial services market there is only one agenda, and with very few exceptions, everyone is chasing it. Bridging the disconnect between ordinary people and the companies who look after their money needs to happen.
But if a brand wants to set the agenda, it isn’t enough.
Dan Hulse is chief strategy officer at St. Luke’s