In praise of a brand that takes the long view

I have always loved First Direct. The original challenger bank has been on the scene since 1989. I remember being intrigued by the advertising – one image showed a pair of wellington boots next to a radiator and promised a new, branchless approach to banking. I first made the switch in the early ‘90s when I was posted overseas for work, rendering the idea of being able to telephone my bank whenever I wanted extremely compelling.

For me, the attraction has always been about how painless they make it for me to manage my banking. It has always been easy to get through on the phones, and their contact centre staff are so friendly and helpful that I never thought I would switch to digital banking; but then they made that super easy too, and now I hardly ever need to phone them. They have never used IVR telephony, and they did not force me to switch to a cheaper channel when they developed their digital capability; they just made it so attractive that I chose to switch myself. They may not offer the best rates for saving, but for day-to-day banking needs I think they are unbeatable. Despite financial incentives from other providers to switch my current account over, I have remained a loyal customer for over 25 years and have no hesitation in recommending them to others.

I know I am not alone. Their commitment to customer experience has not gone unnoticed, and they are frequently positioned at, or near, the top in survey-based rankings such as the Institute of Customer Service’s UK Customer Satisfaction Index and KPMG’s Customer Experience Excellence Report.

So, when I spotted that First Direct’s Customer Director, Alison Jaap, was speaking at the Customer Engagement Summit, I made sure to tune in to hear how the bank has responded in the face of the global pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic the bank has seen the following shifts in customer behaviour:

  • An increase in digital uptake, particularly from customers who were not previously digitally engaged and who need additional support and guidance.
  • A heightened anxiety and vigilance on financial matters, leading to increased customer calls.
  • An increase in social isolation amongst vulnerable customers, for whom the bank became their ‘go to’ place for social contact.
Their response to these challenges underlines why First Direct remains such a customer favourite.

  • They remained open 24/7 at a time when many of their competitors were reducing contact centre hours. To achieve this, they took the bold decision to turn away new business and prioritise the maintenance of service standards to existing customers.
  • Realising that they needed to stay attuned to rapid changes in customer behaviour, they increased the frequency of analysis of customer data, as well as reverting to human interrogation of customer calls; and they started experimenting more with changes, accepting that they would not get everything right first time.
  • They supported their frontline staff with training on financial and domestic abuse, as well as refreshing training on supporting suicide callers.
  • They encouraged agents to spend as much time as possible with customer who need help.

In an article I wrote earlier a few months ago I spoke about the need for brands to behave with compassion and integrity at this time, as well as really tuning into customer needs. The way First Direct has responded during the pandemic is exemplary in this regard. I am confident their actions will serve to strengthen their reputation and earn them greater customer trust and loyalty. At a time when many companies have used the pandemic as an excuse to reduce service levels, I feel we should celebrate an organisation that has stayed focused determinedly on the long view.