Paul Hague looks back at his personal experiences – both good and bad – with the banking sector to highlight the importance of building and maintaining relationships with your customers, whatever the industry you operate in.
As a penniless student in Durham, I needed a bank. I had no conceptions or experience of banking and my choice was made entirely on convenience. Walking down the Bailey in the centre of the town, I was attracted by the swinging sign of a grasshopper. The bank was called Martins.
Half an hour later as I left the bank, clutching my initiation pack and a cheque book, I felt that I was somebody and going somewhere. Martin’s didn’t remain independent for long, however; it was shortly swallowed up by Barclay’s, with whom I did business for over 20 years.
In the first few years of this relationship they fulfilled all that I needed from a bank in both my business and private banking capacity. And then, things began to change.
The bank manager who I had got to know was abandoned as the bank rationalised and began its drive to greater efficiency and profitability. It wasn’t long before I was just a number.
One day this number received a letter through the post saying that a stamp collection that I had in their safe deposit would now be subject to a charge. This was not especially unreasonable but, in the context of the amount of business I was doing with the bank, I thought it merited a phone call to tell me this rather than a snotty letter. And it followed on from a constant series of initiatives to reduce services or find opportunities to charge for them. At the time, my business and personal wealth should have been sufficient for the bank to have some slight concerns about losing me.
Since my patience had by this point snapped, I dialled the bank, was answered by an automatic answering machine, and was ultimately directed by a series of numbers to someone I could speak to. If, at this time, I had been offered an apology or indeed if any interest had been shown in retaining me as a customer, I am sure I would have still been doing business with Barclays. But it was clear that they were indifferent; I really was just a number.
After much tedious changing of standing orders, I moved to NatWest Bank. It wasn’t long after joining that bank that I received a phone call that invited me to move to a private banking facility within their banking group. There I was introduced to real people who knew my name and who gave me their business cards, inviting me to contact them if ever I needed their financial services. And I have to say that they haven’t let me down.
As I look back over this experience I cannot believe the stupidity of Barclay’s to give up the loyalty I had shown them over the years. As a lifetime customer, my business was worth millions and yet to them I was still just a number.
I am reminded of this story following a recent survey that B2B International carried out into banking services among SMEs. Less than a third of SMEs believed that Barclays fulfilled the role of being an important business partner. This compared with the Royal Bank of Scotland (which headed the league table), where over three quarters of respondents thought that it fulfilled the status of being an important business partner.
Banks get kidded into believing that they have loyal customers because they have a relatively low churn. It is not because they are satisfying their customers, rather it is due to the considerable difficulty a customer faces when switching banks. Customers are effectively hostages.
So what is it that creates a relationship with a bank or indeed with any other supplier? Relationships are nearly always between people rather than inanimate objects. Getting rid of the bank manager and having a constant stream of different people supplying services destroys any opportunity to create a relationship. People value someone to talk to; someone who will actually listen and who will genuinely want to help.
The second point to make is that relationships are built up over time. A relationship that has satisfactorily endured a number of years is capable of withstanding problems – and problems are inevitable in any business service.
As we watch the financial services sector move into meltdown, we know that the greed of bankers has played a big part. But in the High Street, and particularly with business customers, it has been the banks’ lack of understanding and unwillingness to listen that has been the cause of their demise.
The moral that I draw from this blog today is that understanding customers and building relationships are the two most important elements of the marketing task. This is not difficult; it is not rocket science. In fact it is blindingly obvious and yet it is so often ignored.