Financial entities haven't enjoyed a lot of good publicity in recent years. Bailouts and news of bank closures are, in fact, still very vivid in people's minds, leaving them with very little faith in financial organizations.
To make matters worse, financial organizations often have a reputation of being money-gobbling giants who don't care about their customers' wellbeing as long as they're making money.
But one bank intends to make a difference. First Direct, a subsidiary of HSBC, adamantly focuses on delivering the best customer service by understanding its clients, preempting their needs, and delivering the best experience that makes customers' lives easier. And customers have responded well. As Tracy Garrad, the bank's head, notes, last year readers of Which?, a product-testing and consumer campaigning charity, recently voted the organization top for customer service in financial products.
A lot of the bank's success is due to its persistent focus on its customers. As Garrad notes in this interview, everything the organization does revolves around its customers.
1to1 Media: Being customer centric is essential in today's uber-competitive world. What makes First Direct a customer-centric entity?
Tracy Garrad: When we were conceived we started with the word 'customer' on a blank piece of paper, so everything we do has the customer in mind. We launched in 1989 and 24 years later we still strive to ensure the customer is well looked after. Where we can we don't follow scripts. Our people on the phones are trained to have a conversation with the caller and if there is an issue, take ownership and resolve it themselves. Our customers are at the heart of everything we do. We always remember that our customers have made a choice to bank with us and we don't take that for granted.
1to1: Customer expectations are constantly changing, led by new technologies and innovations. Can you share some changes that you have seen in your customers over the years and how First Direct has adapted?
TG: The smartphone is here to stay. We started as the first telephone bank and became one of the first Internet banks, so we had to make sure we were at the forefront of the developing mobile technology. We were the first bank to develop a transactional banking app and we've seen usage continue to grow. The channel mix is shifting, and it's important we continue to shift with our customers, while continuing to provide exceptional service over the phone when the customer needs it.
1to1: You market yourself as the "unexpected bank." Why do you do that and what makes you unexpected?
TG: We wanted to illustrate that we're not like other banks; we outperform the other high street banks on a number of fronts. In recent years the public has fallen out of favor with the banking sector, coming to expect, and learning to live with poor service, financial wrangling, and unclear, stuffy communication. We're the 'unexpected bank' because we offer consistently amazing service, transparent banking, and clear and interesting communication.
1to1: You were recently named one of the coolest brands in the U.K. To what do you attribute your success and can you share some examples that make First Direct cool?
TG: When you look at other brands that have made the 'cool' list like John Lewis, Aston Martin, and Apple, you start seeing common threads such as quality, excellent customer service, innovation, and thoughtful design. I think First Direct embodies these characteristics, which may come as quite a surprise to those who never thought a bank could be 'cool.'
Quality forms part of design and customer service, and we frequently win awards for our products. The readers of Which? voted us top for customer service in financial products with an overall score of 75 percent. When it comes to innovation, we were the first telephone bank, one of the first Internet banks, and the first bank to have a transactional mobile app. Siegel+Gale named us the third most simple brand after Amazon and Asda, underlining our thoughtful design.
1to1: Financial institutions are often regarded warily, especially following the economic downturn. How do you make sure your actions underline that you're a trustworthy organization?
TG: Our mantra is to ensure we're open, honest, and transparent. Nothing highlights that more than a marketing campaign we did that pulled together online sentiment surrounding First Direct (positive, neutral, or negative) and displayed it all on one page, updated in real time. We shared this with the public to illustrate that whilst the majority of what was being said was positive, we were open and honest enough to admit there were some negatives. We know it's not about getting it right every time, it's about putting it right quickly when it does go wrong. A key factor in our customer engagement measurements is "trusted," and our scores consistently show that our honest approach resonates with our customers strongly.
1to1: How are you leveraging social channels to communicate with customers and prospects and keep the brand alive?
TG: We're active users of Facebook and Twitter, and we've really thought about what each audience is looking for. We have a dedicated social media manager and a team that responds to digital queries and Tweets from our customers. On Twitter we have two streams-one dedicated to sharing our stories and the other to help solving customer problems. We tend to get queries about customers' accounts and general queries about products and services. On Facebook we engage with our followers, share interesting content, and comment on the things that matter to us and them.
1to1: Today's customers are mobile. Can you share First Direct's mobile strategy and how this is helping you improve your customer experience?
TG: We're keeping details on this one close to our chest at the moment, but rest assured we understand that more and more customers will access their banking on the go, so we have to provide the means to help them do this easily.
1to1: Can you share how you leverage data to better understand your customers and make sure you're catering to their needs?
TG: We use all sorts of data to better understand our customers from post-sales surveys to analysis of how they contact and choose to interact with us. I believe it's essential for any business to use market intelligence to find out what's going on; without it you're in danger of giving customers what you think they want rather than what they actually need.
1to1: What will First Direct's customers of 2020 look like and how are you preparing for them?
TG: Our customers of the future will be about 30 years old, independent-minded, and technologically savvy. They will see their bank as a way to facilitate their lives and make the task of banking easier. We believe they'll interact with us on a more personal level, coming to us for insightful and relevant information about their finances.
They'll be busy, so they will need to access their information quickly and on the go with the minimum of fuss, but they'll still need the security of a friendly voice at the end of the phone if something goes wrong.
It's not terribly dissimilar to our customers today. Because, while technology advances, people still want the same things: the time to do what they enjoy, the knowledge that their money is secure, easy access to their finances, and human interaction. This is what we provide now and will continue to provide in the future.