Financial services brands have made significant headway in improving their customer service, according to this year’s Nunwood rankings. The list suggests that the sector has finally embraced the principles of customer experience and that brands are shedding some of the negative consumer perceptions that have dogged banking. However, supermarkets are going the other way, with eight out of 11 falling in the list.
Financial brands have moved up the list en masse since 2013, with the biggest rises from Prudential, which moved 163 places, American Express up 123, Standard Life 109 and Aviva up 81 places. At the top of the list is First Direct, which has moved from third to first in the ranking.
The improvements in satisfaction are no mean feat, given that customer satisfaction scores are on the wane across all business sectors, according to the Institute of Customer Service’s chief executive Jo Causon. A report published earlier this year by the Economist Intelligence Unit for accountancy network BDO also found that 59 per cent of business respondents say financial performance has suffered through poor service.
Banking on service
First Direct customer service director Karen Walker attributes this to alignment between the promises the brand makes externally and the way it is internally organised to achieve those promises: “The kind of message that we push about customers’ satisfaction and the reasons to bank and believe in us are the same. While we are comparable on price to others, it’s not all about value for money, it’s about service.”
Building society Nationwide is up 18 places to 8. That makes it the second-highest ranked financial brand and extends its run from last year, when it rose 26 places. Among its service initiatives is a drive to speak to consumers face-to-face, have member ‘talk back’ events and run a monthly survey that reaches 150,000 customers a year. The feedback is analysed and used to prioritise the areas where the brand could do better.
Jenny Groves, divisional director of customer experience, says: “A few years ago we set up a new division called customer experience and although Nationwide always has had a really strong focus on service, it has given us an extra focus. We are relentless in our pursuit of improvement, that is backed up by product propositions and service propositions.”
Standard Life, which has improved from 176th place to joint 67 – the fourth-biggest rise overall – uses a similar process. It set up customer ‘labs’ six months ago to obtain customer feedback on changes in the business, finding out what would work for them, how they would like to receive information and what tools would help them.
This information is used to improve services. Jo Mayes, head of customer experience, says: “We get a comprehensive and robust picture of customers’ experience when they deal with Standard Life. Fundamental to that is a programme that we have to take action on that feedback and drive improvements in the business.”
Using insight and listening to what consumers like and dislike about the brand can have a significant difference, particularly where brands take negative feedback on board as opposed to sweeping it under the carpet.
David Nicholson, director at Halifax Community Bank, says: “We want to be the best bank for customers, so we work hard to make sure we fix the things that cause our customers to complain in the first place.” He adds: “However, if things don’t work out, we want to make sure we can resolve any concerns quickly and fairly.”
Data issued by the Financial Ombudsman Service on 2 September shows a year-on-year 52 per cent reduction in complaints from Lloyds Banking Group customers, which owns Halifax, with a 27 per cent drop in the past six months. Halifax received 1.2 banking complaints per 1,000 accounts in the first half of this year, and Nationwide 1.1. Both of these scores are low compared to Santander at 3.1, HSBC at 2.7 and Royal Bank of Scotland at 2.6. None of these three brands appears in Nunwood’s top 100.
Tesco’s nightmare continues
While financial brands have made headway this year, supermarkets have failed by concentrating on price over service. Eight have moved down in the top 100, while only three have moved up.
Nunwood’s report shows that grocers that are stuck in the middle ground between high-end and budget propositions are struggling to provide a satisfying shopping experience. In the mid-market, Asda has gone down eight places to 25, while Tesco is down 13 places to 60, continuing a run of torrid news stories for the ailing giant.
Premium retailers Waitrose and M&S Food rank 7th and 10th respectively, while discounter Aldi has moved up five places to fifteenth position and Lidl is up 20 places to 33rd place.
The report shows that price is not a strong enough proposition for customers and that the helpfulness of store staff has a big impact on positive and negative experiences. Aldi and Lidl have taken hold of the position of leaders on cost in consumers’ minds in the sector, while staff at high-end supermarkets are perceived to be friendlier and more engaging than those at Tesco and Asda, according to Nunwood director David Conway.
“From the consumer perspective, they expect both [value and service]. You go to Waitrose and you get excellent staff, a good range and increasingly competitive pricing. At Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda, the perception is that they have lost ground both in the marketplace and from a customer experience perspective.”
Conway believes there is potential for brands to express themselves more through their service staff in their marketing.
“The organisations at the top seem to have learned how to make their people reflect the brand when they connect with consumers in a way that others have not,” he says.
In the same mould as Aldi and Lidl, the ranking this year shows small challenger brands generally performing well in comparison to larger rivals. Online electrical appliances retailer AO.com is a new entry to the top 10, ranking 6th. While Skipton Building Society has risen 23 places to 13.
The biggest jump of any brand in the ranking is by Saga’s travel division, which shot up 195 places to 28. It has been working on making its mission statement – ‘An unforgettable holiday starts with you’ – a reality, starting with frontline sales teams.
Niccola Mignacca, director of travel sales, says: “We looked at everything, such as how we get feedback and insight from our team and customers, how we train and support our frontline teams to be the best they can be and how we were align our objectives to the delivery of that mission.”
She advises other brands to implement reward and recognition schemes to ensure staff support the delivery of the brand values and mission.
It is also important to have the right team in place. QVC, which ranks 3, moving down from second place in 2013, believes in recruiting people based on attitudes and behaviours rather than competence and experience.
The brand invests in training and development and ensures that metrics and objectives are in place to drive the behaviours it wants to deliver.
Director of customer services James Keegan says: “There is a lot of investment in our people through coaching and development, theoretical and practical training and then investment in our leaders and coaches so that it is sustained over a long period of time.”
He adds: “It can be too easy to do things quickly but that speed of change isn’t sustained, so we ensure the leadership group is engaged with the direction we are heading in.”
The right channel
Improving the customer experience in digital channels is an issue even the highest-ranked brands still need to work on. First Direct offers internet banking and a mobile app but admits it needs to work on social media.
Walker at First Direct says: “We haven’t got the social customer service right yet but it is next on our agenda to be where our customers choose to contact us.”
At present, if a customer posts on social media, the brand has to move that conversation onto secure email or telephone, as it could endanger their privacy to acknowledge that an individual is a customer of the bank on a public platform.
AO.com is more relaxed. Its Facebook community is an extension of the culture of the company and is a way for all staff to connect with customers.
“Internally, our phrase is treat every customer as if they were your gran. If you would do it for your gran, do it for the customer”
John Roberts, AO.com
It has over 1.5 million likes, significantly more than the number one ranking First Direct, which has around 30,000, and twice as much as second-ranked John Lewis.
Chief executive John Roberts says: “We allow all our people in the call centre and business to make a comment [on social networks]. We don’t have rules and guidelines other than be respectful when you are representing the business.”
Aviva, ranked 87, has been on a “digital charge” to improve customer service and describes it as a step change in what the brand delivers.
“Digital on the go is expected now and I think we are delivering on that,” says Stephen Mitchell, head of digital customer experience.
Earlier this year it launched the My Aviva customer portal, bringing together a customer’s multiple insurance policies in one place with one login for all products. In May, it rolled out the My Aviva app and has had 30,000 downloads since launch.
Mitchell adds: “It makes us innovative in our industry and helps us demonstrate that we are able to give people what they need in the places they need them.”
Aviva also has a digital response unit for social media channels to get back to consumers in a timely way. Mitchell believes it adds personality for staff to respond as individuals rather than through a corporate identity.
One difficulty for brands is that in spite of the increasing number of ways that customers can get in contact, they expect a knowledgeable and personalised response to queries.
Skipton has rolled out its ‘delivering excellent service’ programme to all frontline staff at call centres and branches. The brand aims to understand customers collectively but also the customer they have on the phone or in store, tailoring the service for that individual.
Commercial director Ian Cornelius says: “We don’t have targets for average handle time, staff can take the time they need. In branch, if someone wants to sit down for an hour, they can. It’s about personalisation from a targeting perspective but also in the interaction.”
It is an ambition that puts pressure on brands’ customer relationship management strategies and processes. In order to enable Standard Life staff to take a more personalised approach, the brand has developed personas to bring to life who its customers are.
Stephen Ingledew, managing director of customers and marketing, says: “We know the basic facts and figures about how old they are, how much money they are saving, what their views towards investments are, but we also know preferences, behaviours, worries and concerns to give an emotional aspect to understanding customers.”
At AO.com, being personal means staff members are encouraged to treat customers like family. Roberts at AO.com says: “We empower our people to be able to deal with customers as individuals and we leave our guys free to decide what is the right thing for a customer. We don’t give them any financial restrictions at all.
“Internally, our phrase is treat every customer as if they were your gran. If you would do it for your gran, do it for the customer.”
The brand also believes the phrase ‘a customer is always right’ does not work in customer service as it means staff are always wrong.
Roberts adds: “We don’t care about right or wrong, all we care about is that the customer ends up happy no matter what has happened.”
It is clear from Nunwood’s ranking that to move up or down is not the result of one big grand gesture or failure, but rather of gradual improvements or mistakes.
Mignacca at Saga advises: “Never be complacent, constantly challenge yourself and your team, and think about what more you can do differently or better.” However, she adds: “Don’t give up if the results are not seen straight away. Cultural and behavioural change can take time but the results are worth it.”
Q&A: Karen Walker, Customer service director, First Direct
Marketing Week (MW): First Direct is number 1 in this year’s top 100, but is it difficult to provide good service?
Karen Walker (KW): When we talk to employees about barriers they face, they always refer to challenges that prevent them from serving the customer. We don’t rest on our laurels, coming third last year means we are always going to strive for number one.
MW: How has the proliferation of channels changed the way consumers can connect with the brand?
KW: We were the first telephone-based bank, which has been followed by internet banking and now mobile with our On The Go app. The social customer service is next on our agenda.
MW: How has the rise of personalisation within marketing affected the customer-facing elements of the business?
KW: We don’t segment or treat customers any differently; they are all treated as an individual. Our back-office functions give us the capability to understand what customers like and the profile of that customer. We will use that to inform the conversations that we would have. For example, if we see it’s someone’s birthday, we will sing to him or her down the phone.
MW: How are customers’ experiences reflected in your marketing messages?
KW: Internally and externally the brand is aligned. The message that we push about customers’ satisfaction and the reasons to bank and believe in us are the same. While we are comparable on price to others, it’s not all about value for money, it’s about service.
Biggest riser and faller
Saga UP 195 places
The biggest rise in the ranking this year is from Saga’s travel brand, up 195 places to 28. The brand attributes this to a two-year review process of how it uses customer feedback, supports and trains frontline staff, and aligns its service with its mission statement, ‘an unforgettable holiday starts with you’.
Butlins DOWN 85 places
Butlins has experienced the biggest fall, down 85 places to 99. It was in 14th place in 2013 but 165th in 2012, which Nunwood believes could be a return to its natural position. The research shows that this drop is also due to customer perceptions of value, in particular small, unexpected charges for events and attractions, as well as queues at Butlins and less visibility of its red-coat staff.
The Nunwood customer excellence report is in its fifth year. The research uses an online panel of 7,500 UK consumers, covering over 250 UK brands. The fieldwork was conducted between 13 and 20 August 2014. Respondents must have interacted with a company within the past six months in order to provide a rating. Questions allow respondents to compare companies they interact with across the areas of personalisation, expectations, resolution, integrity, empathy, and time and effort. The results are used to create the ranking based on how these elements influence a consumer’s likelihood to recommend a company and continue buying or using its products and services.