What makes first direct so successful: Interview with their new CEO Mark Mullen


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I'm dreaming of a black and white Christmas!
Creative Commons License photo credit: First Direct

It’s been a while since I posted an interview here on the blog.

This one makes up number fifteen in the series of interviews with business leaders in the ‘customer’ space, leading authors, thought leaders and general all round good guys and gals, that I think that you will find interesting and helpful in growing your businesses.

Previously, in What is a Chief Customer Officer, I spoke to Vala Afshar, Chief Customer Officer for Enterasys, is a premier global provider of wired and wireless network infrastructure and security solutions.

Today, I am excited to introduce you to Mark Mullen, the new CEO of first direct, a bank renowned for its customer centric approach to its business and one that has won numerous awards, accolades and admirers over the last 22 years.

I must tip my hat to Martin Hill-Wilson of BrainFoodExtra who made me aware of Mark’s new appointment and suggested that I try and interview Mark as part of this series.

As a result of Martin’s tip, I sent a tweet to the first direct team on Twitter congratulating Mark on his appointment and asking if he would consider being interviewed for my blog. One of the their team, Amanda Brown, who helps manage their twitter account was fantastic and a huge help in getting the interview arranged and scheduled. Thanks Amanda :)

Anyway, I was pleased and excited when Mark agreed to be interviewed. Our conversation covered a number of areas. Here are some of the highlights:

[NOTE: Apologies for the rogue phone that went off about 3 mins in.]

  • Our ability to do and keep doing what we do is all about our culture and first direct’s DNA
  • It’s about the people we hire and the attitude they bring to the business
  • ‘Expect Respect’ sits at the heart of their brand
  • To ensure they acquire the right people for their business, they have an exacting and demanding hiring process and a 2 month acclimatisation process
  • They hire for character, which means looking for people with personality as you can’t train that
  • Over the years, first direct has been able to maintain the same consistent performance gap against its peers. However, Mark is not sure that is a good thing as it shows that the banking industry is not evolving as quickly as perhaps it should
  • Fundamental thing that makes first direct stand out against its peers is as simple (or not) as: ‘Do you believe what I am going to say next?’
  • They take the view that they are there to make their customers better off and wonders how many other organisations are also trying to do that
  • The prosperity of our customers is directly related to our own prosperity
  • We are in the relationship business
  • To serve is not about being servile. It’s a privilege and should be done with pride
  • It’s part of our philosophy
  • We are here by the grace of our customers
  • Becoming more customer centric and more competitive is about 2 things – listening and watching
  • Watching people when they don’t know they are being viewed is a great way to gain insights into how people really do things and why they do things
  • Can also be really useful to cross- validate what customers are saying directly to the business
  • Voice of the customer programmes don’t have enough customer watching
  • Making fundamental changes in directions in organisational culture and philosophy of businesses has an awful lot to do with who you are hiring
  • Still at an early stage of understanding the impact that the internet will have on the way we do business
  • The glacial pace of change in the financial services sector is not a sustainable behaviour in the next 10-20 years
  • first direct’s Lab – is an attempt to leverage the intelligence, the wit, the wisdom and the genius of our customers, critics and admirers….it’s a numbers game….there are invariably more of them than there is of us
  • Macro trends that we are seeing 1. Things are getting smaller 2. Intimacy and 3. Simplicity
  • We’re interested in banking but our customers aren’t. Our customers are interested in making or saving money
  • As a business you have to understand the limits of customer interest in your business

About Mark

Mark Mullen first direct

Mark is a 43 year old Irishman who graduated in History from Dublin University. he has spent his career in financial services in various roles.

He was recently announced as the new CEO at Leeds based, first direct bank, taking over the role on 1 September, 2011.

Mullen is no stranger to the bank and was previously Head of Marketing before moving to Dubai as the Regional Head of Marketing for HSBC Bank Middle East in 2009.

During Mark Mullen’s time at first direct he relaunched the both banking and branding proposition and set the path for the bank’s acclaimed move into social media. This included Talking Point, a site where thoughts and views can be aired, both good and bad. Mullen says: “I’m delighted to be coming back to first direct and taking over the reigns of a business which is in fine shape and creating its next chapter.”

You can visit first direct’s site at www.firstdirect.com and connect with them on Twitter here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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