Why do banks want to be our friend?

Russell Parsons

The marketing of financial services used to be all about acquiring customers at the first opportunity – be it child savers, students or first jobbers – before ignoring them and relying on the received wisdom that customers would rather jump off a cliff than endure the endless form-filling and authentication checks necessary to change providers.

However, the arrival of trusted non-bank brands from other sectors (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Virgin and M&S) and nimble challengers such as First Direct and Egg through the 80s and 90s forced the established players to think seriously about retention for the first time.

Savings rates were bolstered, opening hours were extended and staff were introduced to an up-to-then alien concept of customer service. Alongside such leaps of faith came a break from the normal product-based campaigns to activity that sought to build relationships and brands.

It was the winter of economic discontent two years back, however, that was the real game changer. Confidence and trust, never that high, slumped as the extent of profligacy, greed and disregard for morality displayed by the banks in boom times was laid bare for the world to see.

In the attempt to clean up the mess, Government robbed banks of one of the major tools in their armoury: high interest rates, which were cut to stabilise the economy.

Since, financial services firms have been falling over themselves to be our friend, to hold our hands through the uncertain economic environment they helped usher in.

Lloyds is there “for the journey”, Zurich exists “because change happenz”, while NatWest and Nationwide are currently trying to outdo each other with bulleted promises of service delivery.

The latest to enter the fray: Standard Life, which last week promised to help customers determine the “way forward” when planning their financial futures.

A new strapline, logo and a raft of products and services – including an online personal pension and YouTube tutorial on the nuances of employer pension plans – have been introduced in a bid to become more customer-focused.

The company has also committed to a root and branch review of all marketing communications.

It is wrong to completely dismiss Standard Life and pals’ quest to be a friend of the customer. For so long, those operating within the sector were devoid of customer centricity so it is refreshing to see firms so eager to please.

But is also borne from a lack of ability to compete on returns. Record-low interest rates have shackled banks’ ability to shout loudest to potential customers about income from investment.

And despite rock-bottom interest rates playing into the hands of mortgage providers, there is also a reluctance to chase custom in a market that is contracting through a collective fear among banks of overstretching again.

Against this backdrop, expect more tactile communication. It is the “way forward”.

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