Banking Fintech

Are customers so important for banks?

Are customers so important for banks? Image: Pexels
Written by Chris Skinner

Why does the subject of ‘customers’ come up so infrequently in discussions with banks? Is it because the customer is happy? Chris Skinner finds out.

I was asked the other day about what’s on the CEO’s agenda: revenue, restructuring, regulations, share price, bonus, wife, mistress … (whoops, sorry, I digress). In fact, the four key areas top of mind with most bank CEOs are:

  • Competition – Not just interbank competition, but also new competitors in the form of challenger banks and fintech firms, as well as remaining competitive when, if you’re an EU bank, your regulators are diminishing the importance of financial services as a sector by making it safer through forced limits such as bonus caps and transactions taxes.
  • Culture – Having built a culture focused on sales at the expense of all, and trading with maximum risk, along with a few other insider dealing and price fixing, banks are all trying to reconfigure their cultures. This is really hard, especially because culture is like a personality. Could you change the way you behave overnight; over a year; ever?
  • Regulations – Much of the competitive and cultural change has been created by forcing banks to rethink their business models through regulatory change such as ring-fencing and shutting down proprietary trading, along with massive fines for breaching money laundering rules, lack of customer knowledge and abuse of customer trust. These are all still matters in hand and will remain a focus through to the end of the decade.
  • Technology and innovation – Banks know they are slow to change, and can see massive change coming thanks to the internet, mobile and blockchain. How to keep up with such massive change when the core systems are embedded in the past is a huge challenge, and a risky one. After all, changing systems is never going to be easy, and plenty of banks have demonstrated failures through such efforts.

For me, these are the ‘big four’, but then I realized, as I talked through them, that nowhere do these challenges mention the customer, apart from not knowing them well enough or abusing their trust by mis-selling products to them. This doesn’t mean banks have no customer focus (I know quite a few banks that have departments dedicated to customer insights), but it just doesn’t resonate at the board-level, decision-making part of the institution. It would if customers were leaving in hoards – see the mice in their million hoards, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads – but they’re not. Customers aren’t shifting in millions, which begs the question: why?

For most of my career, we’ve talked about customer loyalty, and how unhappy customers tell 10 friends, while happy ones tell no one. So how come customers aren’t leaving banks if they have so many unhappy experiences?

IMHO, it’s because customers are generally not having unhappy experiences with banks. Equally, it’s because banking is a hygiene factor such as toilet roll, petrol, washing powder and toothbrushes. Obviously, banking is slightly different to these commodities (I wouldn’t want to use the toilet with my chequebook), but what I mean by this is that customers don’t need to change their bank once they have an account established. As long as that account works OK, why change it? For a slightly better interest rate? For a promise of £100 for a new account opening? That’s not that compelling, is it?

Thinking of it this way – I have an account and it works – switching becomes difficult, and becomes more difficult with time. The longer the bank knows me, the more they can deal with my needs, the easier and more flexible the relationship becomes, unless I’m a bad customer of course, but in that case please leave and don’t come back.

Persuading customers to join you instead

So most consumers, businesses and governments have bank accounts they’ve held for 10 or more years, and they won’t leave the bank unless the bank screws up. Now that’s where it gets interesting as, yes, some people have left Royal Bank of Scotland for their IT glitches, yet few left Barclays over its moral issues related to Libor fixing, even though the media said they would once they got rid of Bob Diamond. After all, all banks were involved in Libor, weren’t they?

Perhaps this gets to the heart of why ‘customer’ comes up so infrequently in discussions with banks or at banking conferences. The customer is happy. They’re not leaving unless the bank screws up. They think of their bank as a hygiene factor like toilet roll, and as long as it’s there and works, who cares about changing, especially as change is a risk.

This then worms to the heart of why challenger banks have such a big challenge: how will they attract customers away from existing banks to join them? Most of the fintech firms are either dealing with underserved customer segments – students, SMEs, unbanked and underbanked – or attacking areas that are weak, such as currency transfers and remittances. Attacking the core deposit base of a bank hasn’t really been seen to be effective yet, but this is what a host of British startup banks are trying to do. Will they succeed? I hope so, but they will only succeed if they can demonstrate something that the existing banks don’t provide, such as a massively differentiated digital experience with a human interface, and that’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds.

I look forward to seeing my Atom, Mondo, Tandem, Starling Bank accounts this year.

 A line from Life on Mars by David Bowie, for those who didn’t know.

– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. You can read the original article here. Image: Pexels

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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