Jonathan Earle: Being in pole position can be a dangerous game; it can breed complacency

Jonathan Earle

There were a number of things I loved when I was in my 20s. Playing football whenever I wanted, Cameron Diaz, Arsenal captain Tony Adams and questionable 90s pop bands such as Ace of Base and 2 Unlimited.

I also fell for First Direct bank. Our relationship was a perfect romance. I was courted when just out of university, enticed to find out more by the fact that my friends spoke so highly of it. I was attracted by the black debit and credit cards, the quirky advertising, the black and white envelopes but mainly because it was so forward in its thinking. Can you imagine? I was desperate to join a bank.

I told my friends about First Direct – how it let me off the odd time I miscalculated my finances and went overdrawn; how it introduced a text messaging service that warned if my balance went below a pre-ordained level but I wouldn’t get charged if I topped it up in time; how its app was just amazing and allowed me to do everything on the move and how lovely its staff were. In short, I was smitten.

I have been a First Direct customer for 16 years as advocate and revenue generator, but I fear our relationship has hit a difficult stage.

First Direct is still ranked number one for customer service and remains the bank with the highest net promoter score but something has changed.

It is getting more and more difficult to bank with it. The effort needed to transact is getting greater. I feel I am being taken for granted. This is typical of an incumbent, in this case First Direct, which seemingly isn’t aware of nimbler and newer rivals closing in.

The risk is the focus on protection and not rocking the boat, rather than constantly innovating and making things easier. When compared to one-tap Apple Pay or PayPal, the layer upon layer of security needed for new entrants to send money to debtors seems like an unnecessary amount of effort.

I have complained to First Direct and got the standard response about how ‘the checks and balances are in place and are there for your own security’.

That is fine, but that’s the bank’s issue, not mine. First Direct’s balanced scorecard may be at its highest in terms of measures of satisfaction and growth but there are possibly some lead indicators that are missing. These may come back and haunt it in the future – customer effort scores in particular.

In a world where barriers to entry are at an all time low and consumers have more choice than ever before, being in pole position can be a dangerous game.

The focus changes from being solely concerned about the 99.9% of amazing customers you already have and them being at the centre of your world to defending and worrying about the 0.1% of bad customers you may get.

The business world is littered with examples of incumbents adding more bureaucracy, innovating less, making the customer experience more difficult, forgetting their key segments and no longer using insight to predict what they will want in the future. The brand may still be telling a good story but the red flags are there.

I will always love Tony Adams but as for my bank, I could be tempted by the flirty attention of a new provider.

However, it’s not too late – try new things and keep asking yourselves ‘would I be happy going through this experience if I was a customer?’. If the answer is ‘not really’, then you risk losing customers to those who are making it so much simpler.

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