Monday, 19 July 2010

Would you unbelieve it!

This article is a message to the leaderships of Britain’s banks, many of whom attended last week’s annual conference of the British Bankers Association. Several aspects of this made me wonder “are you having a laugh, or are you serious?”

First not a single speaker could be described as a bank customer or even as representing customers. Lord Turner, Chairman of the FSA, even though I suspect he has a bank account does not really count. Is this an oversight, or do you think you can do without customer input just when society is questioning the whole purpose of the very existence of banks in their present form? So are you serious about serving the customer and through them society as a whole or are you just having a laugh?

Next Stephen Hester, Chief Exec at RBS was expected to say that the publicly owned bank is putting being “socially useful” at the heart of its operations. The reports on his speech however don’t seem to quite reflect this expectation, although he did call for “reform”. However being socially useful appears to be reflected in NatWest’s ad campaign where bank staff dressed as airline cabin crew for some reason (overdrafts to manual) are seen doing nice things for customers and communities. As a NatWest customer myself I was intrigued by a “customer charter” apparently being signed by staff. I have yet to see this charter; though a copy may have been included in the recent mailing I received telling me they will no longer pay interest on my current account. So Mr Hester are you having a laugh or are you serious?

Then Angela Knight Chief Exec of the BBA prior to the conference told the Sunday Telegraph that there was a perception among the public that “everything the banks do is wrong” and that “We feel unbelieved when we tell the truth”. My first thought was how do they feel when they don’t tell the truth? My second was “she’s having a laugh … no I think she is serious!”

Ms Knight has highlighted the really serious problem here without understanding what the problem and its implications really are. This is that most of us simply don’t trust the banks anymore, anything they do or anything they say. Ms Knight’s statement implies that this is somehow “not fair” on the banks and that consequently it is up to the rest of us to change our perceptions. It does not work that way round.

How it actually works was defined by Robert Buzzell & Bradley Gale whose work on the Profit Impact of Market Strategies identified the crucial importance of Relative Perceived Quality by the customer as a key driver of profitability, described in their book the PIMS Principles. One of their key conclusions was that “… quality is whatever the customer says it is, and the quality of a particular product or service is whatever the customer perceives it to be”.

It is the banks that have created these perceptions amongst the rest of us resulting in a potentially damaging loss of our trust and confidence. However it is not up to us to change our perception of the banks. It is down to the banks to change these perceptions, not because “it is their fault” but because, as Buzzell and Gale demonstrated from their research, that’s the only way round they can be changed.

For this to happen banks have to start behaving visibly and radically different. Just tinkering around won’t do it, in fact it will make it worse. Inviting representatives of their customers to tell it like it is at their annual conferences and actually being “socially useful” as opposed to just running ad campaigns about it would be a start.

What is absolutely certain is that until we see visible evidence of radically different attitudes and behaviours, I’m sorry Angela but we are just going to continue to “unbelieve you”. That’s not good for any of us as it will inhibit the banks from playing an effective role with the rest of us in securing the economic recovery of our country. So please take this seriously.

There are many really great people working for our banks who want to give the customer and through them society as whole the very best service and assistance. What they need is a clear and unequivocal direction from their leaderships to do this. Perhaps this quote from Siegmund Warburg founder of SG Warburg merchant bank can provide some direction. “The reputation of a banking firm for integrity, generosity and thorough service is its most important asset, more important than any financial item and has to be taken care of incessantly”.

"You're having a laugh ... seriously" is brought to you by Steve Goodman and Tony Ericson. It is one of our "Excellence Quartet" of blogs promoting the cause of Excellence as the key to prosperity. Each blog uses a recent business/financial topic to highlight different perspectives and conclusions from those obtained using conventional thinking and techniques. You can read the other three blogs at "Exceeding Expectations" ,Business Bloop of the Month Award", "Capitalism or ... Common Sense" .