Banking on the high street

Adrian Thomas, head of retail at integrated agency Billington Cartmell, looks at the changing face of high street banking and how financial institutions can learn from retailers.

Adrian Thomas
Adrian Thomas

Any bets on what will turn out to be the marketing buzz words of the year? My money is on ‘experience’, preceded either with ‘360’ or ‘customer’.

More interestingly – where are the high street banks putting their money? They spent the boom years commoditising their marketplace with little reinvestment in the real, in-branch customer experience.

Okay, we’ve seen a coat of white paint applied to ‘bright and airy’ ‘flagship stores’, an obligatory “Welcome to [insert town here]” halo sign hovering over the welcome desk or welcome touch screen. But have these refurbs really helped create the “physical manifestation of a bank’s proposition” or environments that “create deeper consumer relationships” (as Deloitte research in 2007 suggested branches could and should be doing)? Hardly.

The functional needs of a bank customer remain the same as ever: hold cash securely; facilitate transactions; give access to credit; offer periodic advice. It is the environment that has altered, changing the banking business model and seeing a decline in public perception and trust.

Consumers want a return to old values, the security of heritage and relationship banking based on personal service. Sadly, however, heritage alone – the heritage enjoyed by the big banks – no longer guarantees that level of customer service. What customers need is a tangible demonstration when they most need it, at those Moments Of Truth as they carry out their banking functions. The majority of these moments will have one consistent touch point: The staff.

Traditional high street retailers learned this long ago. John Lewis (did anyone miss John Lewis’s stellar performance in the Christmas sales figures?) is on record as crediting its competitive edge to a top-flight team in-store.

And good, well-trained staff are even more critical for high street banks. A marketing document for Metro Bank, a new retail bank seeking funding, claims there are “potentially 3m dissatisfied bank customers in the UK. These customers regard the high street banks as providing unsatisfactorily low levels of customer service and have expressed a desire to switch banks.”

If a brand is going to live and compete in the high street retail space, shouldn’t it behave like a high street retailer and operate similar opening hours? This is one trick that Metro Bank and Virgin Money will not miss. Both intend to allow access at times when consumers are actually on the high street, even if that is at 6pm or on a Sunday. Tesco, too, is poised to open in-store branches this year offering a full suite of financial products including current accounts and mortgages.

So where does this leave the existing players and their staff?

The official arrival of Santander onto high streetslast week, pushing out the established Abbey and Bradford & Bingley brands, saw a smooth transition of fascias and a tidying of branches.

Presumably, despite some recent alignment of product propositions, the largely price-led approach of Abbey, still seen in Alliance & Leicester which is due to be brought under the banner later this year, gave a very different customer experience to that embodied in the more traditional building society feel of the Bradford & Bingley brand.

Will the customer experience in B&B’s new-look Santander branches be consistent? Will these new Santander staff feel like people that customers who originally chose B&B can trust? Can those staff, bowler hats binned and dressed in Santander uniforms, happily convey reassurance to their customers with the threat of unemployment staring them in the face, or at least hiding around the corner on the same high street?

Clearly the influence of the marketing department can only extend so far with property, HR and internal comms looking out for their own but, as many retail marketers have recognised, such elements are core to the overall customer experience and can therefore deliver or destroy the brand experience.

I hope Santander used the brand roll-out as a real opportunity to engage with the staff across their estate and deliver a compelling experience in branch. I’d have let you know but, when I was out on the high street after work and at the weekend, branches were closed.

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