Can you remember when you opened your first bank account? I can. In 1991 I opened a Nat West bank account just before I went to University. Why did I open a Nat West account? In my case it was on the advice of my father who knew the account manager of the branch I opened it at. Many of my friends opened accounts with HSBC (Midland Bank at the time – yes I am getting on a bit!). Why did they open an HSBC account? They did so because it had a branch on the campus of our University – Brunel University in West London. They did not open the account with HSBC because it was a better bank than anyone else; it did not treat students any better than any other bank; they did not deliver a better customer experience than anyone else; they did so because in their case it was convenient. In my case it was because my dad knew the manager of the branch in Knighstbridge – which is a considerable distance from Uxbridge (yes it is just a coincidence that they both have ‘bridge’ in their name).

I can safely say that I have absolutely no idea what the name of this bank manager was/is. I am not even sure if I ever met him. In fact, 21 years later, I do not think I have ever met my ‘bank manager’. 21 years later, banks are viewed very differently. In fact today, bank managers are almost seen in the same light as estate agents (although I do like many estate agents – my brother is one!). We are all painfully aware of the way banks are perceived in the fallout of one of the worst economic crises our planet has seen. Today I heard a debate on BBC Radio 5 Live in the UK about the state of our banks and how they need to restore the consumers faith in them. In this blog, I am to give my perspective on that issue – one that I think is far more deep-rooted than the last five years. In my opinion, the problem is that the British consumer just ‘does not care’!

Think back again to when you opened your first bank account. Did you open it for any other reason than convenience or family legacy? In the last 21 years, I genuinely can still count on two hands the number of times I have directly contacted my bank (or vice versa). Some of those times were in my early student days when I just happened to ‘exceed my overdraft’ a few times. The relationship I have with my bank is one of necessity – we all need to have a bank account, but I can honestly, honestly say that I could not actually care less about my bank. My bank does nothing for me – and I suspect I do nothing in particular for them.

In 2011, I had a series of conversations with a high street bank about a CX role. They grilled me on my thoughts about banks. I told them what I have just told you – I am completely apathetic about my bank. I have no EMOTIONAL relationship with my bank. I asked whether or not they could blame me for having that opinion. They openly agreed with me. For anyone to care about anything, there has to be some kind of emotional relationship with that thing. There has to be a reason for me to want to have an interactive relationship that leads me to tell me friends and family all about it. It is possible to achieve – one bank that achieved that emotional relationship many years ago was First Direct.

Part of the HSBC group, First Direct was (in my opinion) the first bank to really connect with customers – they acknowledged that is what they are, and have delivered excellent customer service for a very long time. First Direct is also a bank where there is no direct face to face contact – it started as a telephone banking service, and is now multi-channel. First Direct understood/understands the importance of a FUNCTIONAL, ACCESSIBLE and EMOTIONAL relationship – and still deliver that today. If you ever ask a customer of First Direct what they think – they will always be incredibly positive. I have not met a single person yet who has said anything negative about them. This is quite a remarkable achievement in the current circumstances. These are some quotes from First Direct customers taken from the ‘TrustPilot’ website:

“Have been with First Direct for about 4 years now and have never had any issues at all.  I had only heard good things before joining and this has proved to be the case. The one thing that impresses me most is the helpfulness of the staff.  A UK call centre certainly makes a good impression and seems to understand your needs better.  As far as I can recall, every time I have called them they have resolved whatever needed to be done, in a helpful and courteous manner.”

“Great service from people who take time to care.  Transfer of account from Barclays was seamless and trouble-free. Have been with them for several months now, and wonder why I ever thought I’d need a local branch, this is the future of banking.”

“Easy to deal with anytime of day and great to speak to a human being often with a sense of humour. Can’t fault them. I’ve never had to walk into a bank since being with them for 20 + years.”

“I am constantly frustrated by the service of many companies but I have to say that First Direct Bank are absolutely brilliant. You phone them and a real person answers very quickly and there are no annoying menus to have to go through. The people who answer are very polite, very efficient and generally can deal with you without having to put you through to someone else. Their call centre is in the UK and so they can easily be understood. Their online banking is great also. I have banked with them for about 20 years and for someone like me to say that I have never had any problems with them is quite amazing. I have baked with about 4 banks in my life plus about 10 building societies and First Direct are easily the best by far.”

First Direct care about their customers – and so it seems that their customers care about them. What intrigues me is that knowing how good First Direct customers think they are, why have I never switched my bank account to them? Why do so few of us ever switch our bank accounts despite our banks seeming to care so little for us? Some of my friends have said it is because it is just too much hassle. However, I am sure that it cannot be that difficult in the new modern world. I actually think that many of us just d’o not care enough’ to even be bothered to move. It sounds terrible does it not? Do a straw poll of friends and colleagues – it will be interesting to see what results you get – I bet that the majority of responses are in the ‘apathetic’ camp.

A couple of years ago something interesting happened in the banking industry. Something that backs up my view of us not caring about banks. That something was the creation of the first new high street bank in over 100 hundred years – Metro Bank hit the British high street in the summer of 2010. It promised lots of things as this poster highlights:

Metro Bank recognised that there could be a different way for a bank to do business. I have met Anthony Thomson, Chairman of Metro Bank, on a few occasions – he is so genuinely passionate about doing the right thing for his customers. Metro bank will open a bank account while you wait  and print your bank card in front of you. They open seven days a week. They will even give your dog a treat! There is no doubt that Metro Bank are offering something different to the norm – but are they offering enough to make us apathists care about our bank account? Well I still have not switched, so in my case they still have some way to go.

It is also interesting to see Richard Branson now getting into the industry. With Virgin’s takeover of Northern Rock, I am fascinated to see what one of the most customer focussed brands on the planet can do to get us to care about our bank. Virgin Money says it is going to do the following:

We are aiming to make everyone better off

Like all Virgin companies, Virgin Money was launched to give customers a better deal. We aim to offer you a wide range of great value financial products that are easy to understand and sort out. In today’s busy world our customers tell us it’s why they choose to deal with Virgin rather than anyone else.

One of the new innovative things that Virgin Money has already done is open a number of ‘Virgin Lounges’ – a space not too dissimilar from an executive lounge in an airport, for the exclusive use of Virgin Money customers. The lounges are located on high streets in major cities. You can make use of free wi-fi, tea and coffee, and use the facility to meet and work. A nice idea, and I am sure there will be many more. Will it work? Will it get me caring enough to switch my bank account? I must point out here that Virgin Money do not yet have current account facilities, but they are coming soon, and you can be assured that they will definately give the consumer and all other banks in the UK something to think about.

The great British public do not like banks. That point is clear. Much of their objection is down to the small number of bankers whose actions were the stimulus for the economic meltdown we are still experiencing. However what the crisis has highlighted is how little the banking industry has cared about the people it exists to serve – its customers. Is it right that I have had an ongoing relationship with one bank for 21 years and not ‘give a stuff’? I do not feel like anything to them, other than a number – an account number. One of these days I will switch – and probably to Metro Bank or Virgin Money or First Direct. At least those banks seem to get it. If one of them can get me to care enough about a bank, they will probably get me for the next 21 years and beyond!

What do you think of your bank? Do you care? As always, your view are very welcome.