Will Barclays’ customers really ‘have a nice day’?

barclays65914468_s.JPGAlthough Barclays has picked pioneering American banker Deanna Oppenheimer to transform customer services at its 2,000-strong branch network, many observers are sceptical that she will bring about anything other than cosmetic changes.

Oppenheimer, who joins as UK banking chief operating officer in October, is known for her radical refits of branches at Seattle-based bank Washington Mutual, where she introduced concierges, children’s play areas, bookstores and shops selling “Action Teller” dolls.

Industry commentators see the move as the bank’s latest bid to transform its poor customer service reputation, but question whether Oppenheimer can truly “reinvent” the bank’s customer services. Barclays has said she will also work to “streamline front and back-office processes” but refuses to rule out job cuts.

Andrew Hyatt, director of business development at MRM Partners, agrees the industry needs a “big shake-up”, but says he’s wary of Barclays’ assertion that it will transform its service. He says: “We’ve been here before with Abbey, which promised to ‘turn banking on its head’, a pledge it later dropped because it couldn’t commit to it.”

Tricks up Oppenheimer’s sleeve could include free wi-fi access to customers, tie-ups with retailers to use wasted floor space, and slot machines that automatically count coins and electronically add the amount to a person’s account, he suggests.

Barclays’ transformation has already begun, says Paul Cooper of the Institute of Customer Services. “Just a few years ago, Barclays used to come bottom in every customer survey ever done,” he says. “Now [the bank] is trying to get things right.”

Since his appointment as UK banking chief executive two years ago, Roger Davis has been selling a consumer-friendly message, and brought in former ITV marketer Jim Hytner as group marketing director last year.

But marketing and customer service have not always worked together at the UK’s second-largest bank: in 2000 Barclays used Hollywood stars to front a campaign flaunting the advantages of being with a big bank in a big world. The campaign coincided with the closure of 171 branches, which unleashed a media backlash.

Under Hytner, it is joining rivals such as NatWest, with its “Not like other banks” strategy, Lloyds TSB (“You first”) and Nationwide in selling a more human side to its brand, though one Barclays ad was last week banned by the ASA (MW last week).

Merlin Stone, professor of marketing at Bristol Business School, warns that banks must ensure they are providing a good service before selling the message that customers come first. He thinks that by bringing in Oppenheimer from the commercially aggressive US Barclays should benefit, though the appointment alone is no quick-fix. “American banks are better at understanding customers,” he says, adding that Oppenheimer must focus on introducing little ideas rather than going for a radical overhaul that may not work. He points to Abbey’s now-defunct introduction of Costa Coffee concessions.

Paul Gordon, managing director of financial services agency cchm:ping, concurs, stating that the Costa experiment was brave but ill-fated because customers went to a bank out of necessity and not for leisure. “Every bank dreams of being the Tesco of the sector, though many are struggling to make the experience more pleasant and retail-like,” says Gordon. “America is a nation of great retailers and there’s a lot that Oppenheimer can bring to the table,” he adds.

Whatever she does she will need to remember the golden rule: you can’t market your way out of bad customer service.

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