With the Independent Commission on UK Banking recently issuing its long awaited report on the state of our current banking landscape, the opportunities contained within it to improve retail banking customer service have been seemingly ‘lost in the noise’ – with our government apparently wanting to deflect attention by kicking it into the long grass.
But there is no escaping headline issues that emerged from the final report of Sir John Vickers and colleagues, namely how do we cope with banks that are too big to fail and how do we stop the risk of speculative investment banking toxifying retail accounts?
Retail UK banking, in contrast to investment banking, should be a simple business in which the bank takes our savings, marks them up and lends them to others, or vice versa. But this simple process has become an unwieldy beast with almost everyone you talk to having a retail bank atrocity story.
A recently conducted study of 1,000 nationally representative retail bank customers, with almost 70% believing that banks don’t care very much about what the public think of them, over 75% rating the public image and reputation of the banks’ retail operations as mediocre to dreadful, and an eye-watering 86% thinking that the image and reputation of the banks will not improve or will actually decline over the next six months.
Two influences, linked but not identical, seem to be at work. The first factor is the momentum towards online banking and the spotlight that puts on the slow and ponderous ‘old way’ of doing things. Ask yourself which is preferable – accessing a bank account from the train, your own home or an office, or trudging round to the bank in the rain and joining a queue? Older customers feel less habituated to the online world but the young customers ‘voting with their feet’ adds considerable impetus to this inevitable online momentum.
Thirty years ago a very senior UK bank official remarked in an unguarded moment that High Street banking was hopelessly and irredeemably uneconomic – and nothing that’s happened in the intervening years has made that judgment less telling.
The cost of maintaining a local branch network has become a dead weight hung from the necks of banks. If bearing this burden produced contented customers there might be something to be said for it, but it simply fails to do so. Branch managers have largely been deprived of the power to make decisions on loans, thereby further reducing the reasons to bother visiting the branch. When did you last do so? First Direct has responded to this economic reality with the intelligent stratagem of not having any branches. Yet how have other banks responded?
The second factor is the way retail bank brands are built, maintained and developed. Various studies show that marketing slogans, for example, have very low recognition amongst the public and the only one that had any genuine customer awareness was HSBC’s ‘the World’s Local Bank.’ This slogan was launched in March 2002, …