“Pioneering Amazing Experiences” – Customer Experience lessons from first direct’s head, Joe Gordon


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customer-service-1186635__340According to Forrester, 70% of customer experience (CX) professionals say that their company’s goal is to be a CX leader in their industry or across all industries but have established that only 1% actually succeed in delivering an excellent experience. Maybe those in Customer Experience should take a leaf out of first direct’s book.

first direct has long been held up as a shining light in Customer Service and Customer Experience. The bank was conceived nearly 30 years ago and was an industry disruptor from the very start –truly putting the customer at the heart of what it did. In 1989, very few had built businesses around customer needs; fortunately, things have changed considerably since then.

first direct’s leadership in the customer space, is reinforced by many accolades, awards and rankings, placing them firmly at the top of the customer ‘tree’ in the UK. According to KPMG Nunwood, they have a nps score of 73 which is 30 points ahead of any other UK bank and they are number 1 in the UK CX Excellence rankings (top of all sectors, not just banking which is not typically known for customer joy or happiness). Satmetrix puts the UK banking sector average nps at under 25.

We were fortunate enough to ask Joe Gordon, the head of first direct, a few questions on how they lead in a customer led, digital centric market.

Here are a few of the key out-takes.

Customer Experience leaders have the right organisational structure that facilitates a customer centric culture. Too often we see that disciplines within a business are not structured and they don’t leverage skills and capabilities, with the customer in mind.

The very first thing that Joe told us was that: “for first direct everything is structured around the customer… “We’re set up to be customer focused; it’s in our dna”. It is something that is easy to say, but first direct have consistently been centred around the customer since Day 1.

Putting one person in charge of customer experience, won’t lead to customer experience excellence.

“All our people take responsibility for delivering amazing customer service and making the experience amazing through every channel. It’s not top down or bottom up banking, it’s driven by everyone at first direct, so how we come together to share and shape ideas is key.” You really get a sense that employees across the organisation at any level, in any department, are empowered and engaged to do what’s best for the customer and that they aren’t inhibited by the organisational silos that we see in many businesses. Good or great Customer Experience is rooted in every single area or department of a business. Commitment to customer needs is shared throughout.

first direct listens to customers and operationalises this feedback.
“Banking – if done right – should be a customer service industry, so we need to challenge ourselves to make sure the changes we make have the customer at its heart. It’s easy to say you focus on customer service but it’s much harder to actually deliver. We take customer feedback through all our channels. We make it as easy as possible for them (customers) to share feedback which can either be used to make a change straight away of escalated for us to look at in more detail. We also do a lot of work though fdesign – our ‘sandbox’ where we invite customers to try our new innovations to see how they work and how we might improve them before we launch. “

Customer experience improvement is a discipline which needs to engage all stakeholders – especially customers throughout the process. At first direct this has been adopted and engrained over time.

Joe continued: “Leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud, and APIs is something everyone in banking is looking at, but while we pioneer innovations such as VoiceID, at first direct we work closely with customers to ensure there’s a genuine need and value add behind our innovations. Technology for technology’s sake is a gimmick; there needs to be substance behind it.” Technology should be an enabler, that is rooted in the customer experience, not the solution.

first direct doesn’t benchmark itself within the financial services or banking industry. It does focus on the small things, the incremental improvements which can add up to make big improvements. But they focus on exceeding customer expectations and how they can do things differently, in a way that could be unexpected to the customer. “… to give customers an experience which is better than everyone else you need to do the things they didn’t know were possible naturally, and keep pioneering amazing experiences. We don’t think it matters what sector you are in, you need to strive to go beyond what customers expect from you.”

Customer experience optimisation is an on-going process. As customer needs change, technology advances, keeping ahead will become even more critical.

“We’re looking to create an environment of continuous improvement and this means making sure we put the authority where the information is. It means as an organisation we’re always open to new ideas and new ways of doing things… The UK’s banking market is evolving all the time. Everyone has their own strategy to get ahead and this usually revolves around utilising new technologies to provide a better customer experience.”

Joe went on: “Customer feedback is constant and can come from every part of the bank. Our people are encouraged to share suggestions for improvements and enhancements, and it’s an essential part of team meetings. We never forget our people are our customers so when we’re developing changes it makes sense that we also take feedback from them. We’re proud of how highly our customers rate us for customer service and this runs through everything we do as a business…. At the end of the day you have to deliver what you claim to be able to deliver, first time, every time.”

Customers need their experiences to be seamless and without friction as they move from touch point to touch point, channel to channel. Organisations need to automate the painful customer interactions or moments of friction wherever they can with technology or digital solutions but improve and retain the quality of human interactions and the human touch. It isn’t an either-or scenario.

“Keeping people’s money safe is one of the primary reason for banks to exist, and tech has a major role to play in rebuilding trust in banking. Many more of our customers use our digital channels to bank with us than use telephone banking, but whichever channel people choose to engage with us, we need to deliver the same high level of customer service. We need to constantly try and stay ahead of the curve and make sure whichever channel people use they’re getting the same great look and feel…. new advances in personalisation and biometric security are being adopted as fast as they’re being developed, but the human element is still a key cornerstone. Banks neglect this at their peril.”

What about the future – for a brand that is no longer a challenger?
As the US Businessman Michael LeBoeuf is quoted as saying:

“A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.”

I’m not sure ‘satisfied’ is enough but the point is well made.

As Joe told us: “We’ve been pioneering amazing service for almost 28 years now. The challenge is to make sure we’re meeting the changing needs of our customers today and tomorrow. Since launch, the channels people use to bank with us have changed and we need to make sure we’re constantly developing safe and secure systems which fit in with people’s lives. To stay relevant, we need to make sure we keep customer service at our heart and then work constantly on developing customer journeys with as little friction as possible. People are always looking to the future and so are we.”

first direct have recognised that what set them apart for many years – their superior customer service, is not enough to stay ahead. first direct are constantly seeking to improve the basics and at the same time invest in innovation centred on the customer. Customer work, at first direct, is never done.

Make customers part of your business culture, deliver consistently what your customers value most and empower the entire business to deliver exceptional connected experiences.

Smiling companies, Happy Customers.

Amanda Davis

Amanda writes and shares Thought Leadership, drawing on her 15 years of coaching, guiding, mentoring and consulting for clients in various sectors and sizes around the world. She helps establish organisations understand how to connect to customers; find ways to align their expectations with the culture & capability of the organisation. She has a particular focus on customer experience transformation in the digital age, ensuring that technology development starts and finishes with the customer. Amanda has been a regular featured columnist and advisor for Customer Think since 2018.


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