‘It’s in the DNA’: First Direct’s CEO on why it doesn’t have a customer experience team

First Direct’s CEO Chris Pitt says he wants to invest in the bank’s infrastructure before spending big on marketing to grow its low awareness score.

Chris Pitt is an example of a marketer who has made it to the dizzy heights of CEO. The former head of marketing took on the top job at First Direct in 2020 after four years at its parent company, HSBC. The first thing he did? Ring the 34-year-old business’s first-ever CEO.

Embedded in the company’s DNA is its commitment to customer service, emphasised Pitt. As he explained, the financial services sector is typified by consumers “just wanting it to work” despite its “complicated nature”. Therefore, putting the customer first is key at First Direct.

Pitt recalled a moment when he was asked about First Direct’s ‘customer experience team’ at an event, and laughed: “We don’t have a customer experience team.”

Instead, the business has embedded customer experience across every division and has won multiple plaudits for its customer service from the likes of KPMG and Times Money Mentor over the years.

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“It’s in the DNA of First Direct to deliver these things properly,” he said. This is communicated in the business’s internal messaging, he said – it’s not based on how many accounts have been sold, but the customer stories.

2022 was First Direct’s “highest ever” year of growth, but there’s still a long way for the brand to go, said Pitt. “So, we’ve grown, and we deliver great customer service, [but] no one knows we exist,” he added.

The business has a brand awareness score of 4 out of 100, which is on the lower end of the spectrum. It is “absolutely the plan” for First Direct to be knocking on its parent company’s door and asking for more investment to build awareness and consideration, said Pitt, who added that it is “important to be spending money, talking to the customers we’ve got, which is always the first port of call”.

Over many years we’ve under-invested in marketing.

Chris Pitt, First Direct

Pitt said Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing – where he was speaking – reminded him of his own marketing background, but that “unfortunately marketing has been driven out” of his mind by the demands that come with being a CEO.

It’s also been somewhat off the agenda at First Direct, he added. “Over many years, we’ve under-invested in marketing,” he said. A big driver for the business then, instead, is people finding it via services like Money Saving Expert.

As many marketers will recognise, asking for investment – and justifying it – is no mean feat. Pitt acknowledged this, explaining how even if given “a couple of million quid” he wouldn’t be able to move the business much further without more significant investment.

“To be honest, there are internal things we want to do with our infrastructure to make sure that when we do [invest] we can scale and deliver as well as we always have done,” he said.