Discredit where it’s overdue

A million years ago, when I was an undergraduate in Bristol, I wandered into the city centre with my first grant cheque burning a hole in my pocket. (This was in days where the government didn’t just pay for your studies, they also contributed to frivolities like food and books, or rather – of course – beer).

How did I pick the financial services establishment where I would deposit my sole earnings for this freshman term and – as it turned out – my income for the next 15 years? Attractive rates? A free rail card (nowadays: a free iPod)? Helpful service? A sound reputation? Environmental Policy? Good phone banking (today: internet banking)?

Nope. I went into the first bank I saw.

Without wanting to sound like a country song, the relationship that started that day ended yesterday after many painful disappointments and let downs; yes, the odd moment of happiness; but mostly old-fashioned thoughtlessness and disrespect. Just how did we drift apart? Surely the good times must count for something? Couldn’t we try and talk things through? I had, after all been banking with this brand for almost half of my life.

The truth is that the service has always been terrible. Dirty, slow branches. Overly complex products, reinvented every fifteen minutes. Constant irrelevant direct marketing. Seeing the customer as nothing more than a prospect for new products. It’s not that they’ve got worse. It’s just that every year the rest of the world moves and the terrible experiences we have with personal banking become less and less tolerable. Once, when phoning from New York to unblock my credit card, the call centre person spent 10 minutes trying to sign me up for a more ‘personal’ banking service.

On Wednesday afternoon, this thinly-veiled contempt was given a very real and very weasely face – in the form of a branch manager. After I was advised that I would need to apply for a provisional driving licence in order to perform a funds transfer, I decided the camel’s back was irretrievably broken. ‘How about I just close my account and try another bank?’ I asked. ‘No sir, you’ll have to arrange a meeting to do that, and you’ll need another form of identification’.

When the only reason your customers don’t leave is that they expect equally bad behaviour from your competitors, or because you make it as difficult as possible, then clearly the writing is on the wall. When a little turd of a man is practically spitting this sentiment at you, you really have to wonder what’s going on. And of course at this point, the light-hearted, overly-jovial, innocent-drinks-style branding in the branch served only to pour petrol on the flames.

This is, after all – as Forrester keeps telling us – the year that experience-based differentiation will drive the banking market. But we’re not exactly talking about generating delight. The standard – missed by my ex-bank – seems to be avoiding out-and-out rudeness. How come Starbucks, who sell overpriced coffee, can greet you with a smile and try – if occasionally in vain – to solve your coffee dilemma, and yet the only time this bank will speak to me is if they are trying to charge me for something or to sell me something?

Africa: outwardly mobile


Mobile data and applications have always had a funny adoption curve. Who are the most connected in our society? A few dyed in the wool early adopters may have had 3G cards in their laptops for years now or spent many a wasted train journey like me trying to connect to the internet from their laptops  via their crappy mobile phones over pitifully slow connection speeds.

It is however, the management class who got their first. They probably didn’t even they were doing it, walking around with their flashing, buzzing, chemically addictive blackberries in their pockets.

Just like the laggards who ended up at the top of the sophistication tree almost by accident in the UK, we may soon see rural farmers in South Africa leapfrogging our very own ‘digital sophisticates’ in using their phones to manage their financial affairs.

If the slow uptake of desktop computers was once seen as a barrier to internet adoption in that continent, perhaps the PC will just be overtaken by the massive ubiquity of mobile. After all, it isn’t just the desktop PC that many of these people haven’t had access to,  but any form of banking at all – making these new services potentially economy and life-changing.


Finally in the UK with the price plans that have been needed to make the iPhone work, it seems customers will start to understand the genuine concept of un-metered, always-on mobile access. Companies however must design around the relative merits of levels and types of communication.

Facebook may be a great rich, iPhone (or general mobile) experience, but text messages might be just as good for simple transactions.

The promise of on-phone banking is incredibly attractive, especially if phones themselves could play a role in the needs for two (or even three) factor authentication. Providing environments potentially more secure than traditional home computers.

Perhaps one day we will even have services to rival the market leaders in Africa.

The value of experience

I’ve talked a fair amount already about what it means for brands to differentiate themselves through experience, in particular in the context of, Lewis Carbone’s excellent book Clued In.

Well it couldn’t have been a more important topic at Forrester’s Consumer and Financial Services forum last week in Barcelona. The subject of a number of presentations including the keynote, Forrester has picked this as the deciding factor in the financial services market.

It’s easy to see why. With more and more sources of information and advice (from Goliaths like MoneySavingExpert or MoneySupermarket to your Uncle Bob who used to work at a bank), we now able to slice, dice and level the product market. The ability for providers to create competitive advantage through a cunning product set up and some nice marketing is heading rapidly out of the window.

This situation is not eased by ever more vigilant regulators. And what about when you think you’ve managed to get past the regulators but are treating your customers slightly less than fairly? Witness what happened to HSBC: while attempting a rate hike during the summer holidays they overlooked the power of Facebook and were eventually forced into humiliating defeat at the hands of the ‘Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip Off’ group and its 1000s of members.


The customers really are revolting – and not just the spotty student types.

The answer of course is to stop fighting the customer and to start giving them what they want, but on your terms.

And, what do all human beings want?

It certainly doesn’t take just one form but we can accurately say that all customers do want one thing – they want to feel better about themselves after dealing with your company.

They want to have experiences that make them feel more confident, more fulfilled, cleverer, or just plain happier. And companies that deliver better experiences will be rewarded with happier, more loyal and more profitable customers.

There’s a reason why Krispy Kreme gets to charge more than Dunkin Donuts for exactly the same product and still have customers queuing around the block. There’s a reason why BHS closed down and M&S picked up.

And so, that is the Forrester riff. Success may be about multi-channel, it may be about efficiency, it may be about product, but above all it’s about deep customer insight and using that to create experiences that customers feel positive about, so that they then spread the news about the brand. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every customer has to find every outcome positive. If you’re going to have to turn someone down for a loan, that can be done in better or worse ways, if someone is working out what their pension will earn them, you can’t always make the outcome happy, but you can make the experience empowering, and confidence (if not happiness) instilling.

Like all the best insights, it barely feels worth saying, once you’ve heard it but look at your everyday experiences with your bank or insurance company – on and offline – and tell me how you feel about them – or more importantly yourself – afterwards.