Tuesday, September 21, 2010

how being too nice put paid to the banks

I used to have a mortgage with Abbey (writes Lawrence). They were brilliant - easy to read statements, I could talk to them on the phone quickly, even visit a branch where someone would be happy to sit me down in an office, give me a coffee and answer any questions. I even took a credit card out with them because they were so efficient and easy to deal with.

Then came the crunch. And a name change from Abbey to the less convincing Santander coincided with a greater change, not just for Abbey but for all the banks and insurance companies.

Prior to the crunch the high street banks had become rather good at talking to people. They were approachable, generally easy to deal with, and were more than happy to sell you anything from investments to insurance.

This nice and easy approach stemmed from changes in the early nineties. I remember working with NatWest (who'd recently changed from from the stiffer National Westminster Bank), as they embarked on a programme to move the perception of the bank away from a corporate institution towards a more customer-friendly business.

The bank tore down the steel bars and thick glass separating cashiers from customers. They were replaced with comfy sofas, open plan areas with discreet screening and plenty of pot plants. Simple, friendly illustrations adorned the covers of its in-branch booklets and window displays. The NatWest logo and its complementary typefaces became rounder and softer to reflect its newfound love of the customer.

And the other banks followed suit. Adverts for banks became the ones you didn't mind watching and plain English was enforced on every piece of written communication to make sure real people could understand.

Marketers who trained in FMCG environments started to infiltrate financial services. Banks became nice places to visit, to the extent that coffee shops were given concessions in branches. And at that point, it had gone too far. Banks forgot what they were about - there to deal with important aspects of people's lives. Essentially they lost their authority and with it their integrity.

So perhaps what started at NatWest all those years ago contributed to the downfall of the high street banks. They had become too easy, too nice and too friendly, handing out cash like they'd hand out a café latte. It become the norm.

But when everything changed, all those lessons in approachability were forgotten overnight, and banks went from "couldn't do more for you" to "we don't want to talk to you".

Which takes me back to my Santander situation. When I recently sold my house and needed a new mortgage my experience with Santander was tortuous. I gave them all the information they asked for but they kept asking for more. No-one with authority would speak to me, no mortgage offer was forthcoming. So I gave up. And when I tried to notify them of even the simplest of administrative tasks - a change of address - another long-winded battle ensued.

So while it's understandable that banks have pulled in the reins, they need to strike a balance between being discerning and being plain unhelpful, lacking in the most basic forms of common sense.

Perhaps all the advertising and design agencies working with banks - or indeed hoping to work with them - could think about how they can help their clients become customer-focussed and approachable again, without losing their integrity.

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