Ahead of the curve – the future of customer communication

8 July 2014

The world of social media has become a vital channel for banks to converse with consumers. But, as Karen Walker of First Direct tells Future Banking, it is only part of the mix when it comes to good customer service.

Being able to have a conversation, anywhere and at any time, is something that is now taken for granted. We need only pick up our smartphone and, before we know it, a world of opportunity is open to us. We can comment on a friend's big news, like someone's thoughts, tweet our satisfaction or simply call a loved one.

For banks, having a dialogue with their customer base has never been so important. The events of the past few years have served to break down the trust that had been, in many ways, the cornerstone of the financial institutions' place in society. Gone are the days of meetings with the bank manager, seeing them in the same way we might our family doctor. Today, sadly, the reality is very different. There is a huge disconnect between banks and the general public with issues of trust, ethical banking and bank bonuses simply serving to widen the void and fuel the "us and them" mentality that has been so apparent in the past few years.

Today's tech-savvy, communication-heavy world offers brand-owners opportunities to engage with an audience and speak directly to their customers in a way they haven't done before, thanks mainly to the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

"We're really keen on being a social business, and customers expect to be able to have conversations about banking over social media; clearly it's a public platform," says First Direct's director of service Karen Walker.

But, with social media, comes myriad problems. Firstly, the environment is heavily regulated. There are obvious issues of data protection, data security and privacy that need to be addressed; so it raises the question, where are the opportunities for banks in the social-media world?

"Today’s tech-savvy, communication-heavy world offers brand-owners opportunities to engage with an audience and speak directly to their customers in a way they haven’t done before."

"For us, we need to work out what our social business looks like, what the principles are that we're working to and how we'd be able to help customers in a regulated environment when they've got queries or questions," continues Walker. "We would like to use Twitter a lot more for services. We have a Twitter help function, so we do engage with customers in terms of the service, and being able to help them with the queries they've got. But, I think we underuse it at the moment."

Walker goes on to say the bank also uses Facebook to "engage customers in conversation", but it could be used for a lot more.

Finding a winning formula

This desire to use multichannels, including social media, may not necessarily be a winning formula. A US study by Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group earlier this year revealed some interesting findings. It's important to stress that the study was conducted in the US, but no doubt it's reasonable to suggest there are some very likely parallels. Of the 1,002 people surveyed, almost nine out of ten (87%) labelled banks' use of social media as unhelpful, boring and even annoying. Again, it's important to highlight another point - only 70 of the entire respondents actually followed their or any other bank on any social-media platform. But, this perhaps tells a bigger story - the large majority of those branding banks' posts unhelpful have likely never even seen them, suggesting there's still much work to be done by financial institutions.

But, social media is just part of the mix to ensuring customers feel valued, and that they can reach out to their banks at a time of need, or simple curiosity. Having metaphorically thrown open its doors on 1 October 1989, First Direct carved out a whole new piece of the banking pie, becoming the first telephone bank in the UK. Over the next 15 or so years, it continued to innovate - introducing SMS banking in 1999 and rolling out its full internet service the following year after successful trials in 1997.

"We started, when we were thinking about setting up First Direct, by putting the word 'customer' at the centre of a piece of paper and everything we did revolved around that word, and certainly around our customers," says Walker, who firmly believes the way to provide account holders with a great experience is to give them choice. She says the bank is an omnichannel provider, offering an array of access points, but never diluting the service. "Whatever we do in terms of improving the customer experience, we look at
all the channels we've got within our remit to be able to evolve them.

"It has got to be 'channel agnostic', so it might be a simple transaction that's worthwhile doing over mobile banking; it might be that it's a more complex call; or it might be a mortgage call and they know that they need to speak to somebody about that. So, the experience shouldn't change. It should be at the heart of everything we're doing. It doesn't matter what channel you use, the customer always needs to come first."

Platform performance

The bank makes sure it advances all of its offerings and doesn't just focus on a few. Mobile banking, internet banking and telephone banking are all changing, all of the time and it's important for businesses to ensure they stay ahead of the curve, rather than be followers of it. This, says Walker, is an area the bank is focused on for the future.

"I've talked a lot about 'channel of choice' for our customers, so we've had to move with the times to make sure customers can get hold of us in a way they want to. Our customers are very early adopters of technology, so it's key for us to keep up with what's going on in the marketplace. After all, First Direct was the first bank to have a transactional banking app.

"Social media is just part of the mix to ensuring customers feel valued and that they can reach out to their banks at a time of need, or simple curiosity."

It may have lost its way a little in the battle for tech supremacy, but it's certainly not lost its way on customer service. First Direct has been the recipient of numerous awards, the latest came earlier this year when MoneySavingExpert.com ranked the bank top in customer service provision, again. More than nine in ten of its customers said the service they received was "great" compared with just 37% of newly formed-TSB customers. Perhaps teething problems, but none the less a dismal performance compared with the standard set by First Direct.

"Some organisations focus a lot on the numbers. The only number we're concerned with is the amount of time it takes us to get to a customer; how long it takes to pick up the phone; and then how long it takes us to give them what they need. Obviously some queries are more complex, but our aim is to make sure the customer experience is a fantastic one," Walker says.

So, it's a diverse and innovative mix supported by good service that's needed to ensure customers are catered for, right? But, a word of warning, if more were needed, about the role social media might play in an organisation's reach to its customers. Because of the nature of the business, and strict regulations governing the finance industry, social media is never going to be a channel by which customers will be able to "do business". So, it will only ever be a source of news and advice - perhaps with an element of fun. It's
an opportunity for a bank to build on and manage its brand identity.

However, Carlisle & Gallagher's research found that about a third of respondents would use social-media channels to make a complaint. And that complaint would be there for the world, or at least your followers, to see. This is where the issue lies. There's nothing wrong with a complaint, as long as it was a fair one. But, on those occasions they're unreasonable, the bank on the end of it might wish they were afforded the privacy their customers are.

Karen Walker is the director of service at First Direct. She is the best contact for a comment on the bank’s customer service and call centre management, which handles around 140,000 telephone calls every week, takes over 1,700 calls a day from abroad.