Helen Edwards on Branding: Back to basics

Santander's drive to recruit new customers belies the fact that it falls short in serving existing ones.

You walk into a cafe. 'Coffee please.' 'For here, or take away?' 'Take away.' 'Small, medium or large?' 'Err ... medium.' 'Black or white?' 'White, please.' 'Skimmed, semi-skimmed, full-fat, cream or soya?' 'Semi-skimmed, please.' 'Sugar or sweetener?' 'Sweetener.'

'Sorry, we're out of coffee today. Next customer!'

Well, it's not a cafe you would ever walk into again, but, then, no cafe-owner - or even the humblest assistant - would ever be so daft as to treat you like that. They would apologise for the temporary lack of coffee the moment you asked for it and, if they had any sense, go on to extol the virtues of their delicious hot chocolate or their exotic range of teas. It's basics.

Big bank Santander, on the other hand, despite its wealth of customer data, its huge budgets and its swagger, doesn't seem to have that grasp of the basics. It's in the money business, not the refreshments business, but the principles are the same.

Near where I work, the Santander ATM is apt to run out of cash - but when it happens, it doesn't let you know that up front.

So you put in your card and the machine whirs for a while and tells you it's checking your details. Then it asks you for your PIN. Then it asks you how much money you want to withdraw. Then it wishes to know whether or not you would like a receipt for your transaction. Then more whirring...

Then it tells you that the cash service is not available. Next customer!

In Santander's defence, it took on the woeful outfit that was Abbey, with its notoriously poor systems and lamentable customer service.

No doubt upgrading 4500 cash machines so that they adhere to the rules of common politeness is a slow and expensive undertaking, but Santander could at least insist that its staff monitor the machines and put a notice on them when the money runs out.

It would be annoying to see the note on a Friday night when you're short of readies, but nowhere near as infuriating as it is to receive the same bad news after completing the system's battery of questions.

My Santander story illustrates the number-one principle of marketing communications, the one newcomers should learn on their very first day in the discipline and digest and recite and relearn at regular intervals.

Communication starts with the product. If that is flawed, even in some small way, all the snazzy marketing models, big communications budgets, insight mining and brand-key tweaking in the world will count for nothing.

Right now, Santander is squandering some £35m on ads trying to persuade people to switch to its accounts, while its existing customers are banging their fists on its ATMs in impotent fury.

The most important communications tool that marketers can use is also one of the most simple: the zone of intimacy.

Get out a pad. Draw a customer in the middle. Around them, draw a circle. Inside that circle, note every conceivable way in which the customer could choose to interact with the product or service - all the touchpoints that are voluntary, sensory and direct.

Work with a cross-disciplinary team to devise it, so that you don't forget those little details - like, say, the call-holding message. Then, audit every item inside that circle. Until you are happy that every single one of them is up to scratch, do not spend a penny on media communications.

It could save brands such as Santander a great deal of money; and hapless consumers like me a great deal of time and aggravation.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.

30 SECONDS ON ... SANTANDER'S CUSTOMER SERVICE

- Santander has been integrating the Abbey, Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester brands since January - a tough task. Almost one year on, though, it should be doing better.

- In a customer-service report published by Which? in July, First Direct came top with a rating of 74%. The average for the financial-services category was a pretty dismal 52%, but Santander ranked lowest with just 39%.

- Moving savers' money to help them benefit from better interest rates appears to be a particular area of weakness for the bank. The Which? report claimed that Santander can take more than two months to complete the switch.

- In a poll by 'consumer revenge' website MoneySavingExpert.com in August, 62% of the 3388 Santander customers sampled rated their experience as poor, making it the worst bank for service at the time. The effect had perhaps been amplified by the fact that it had some of the best deals in the market on current accounts, savings and credit cards.

- MoneySavingExpert.com cited a litany of customer-service complaints, including direct debits being sent late, Alliance & Leicester account-holders losing access to their cash as they switched, and slow release of savings cash following account maturity.

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