Helen Edwards on Branding: How banks keep you in line

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

Despite awful service, inertia stops people moving their accounts. Is a change imminent however?

Here's something to think about next time you're in the queue at the bank. What is the strongest force in consumer behaviour? You'll have plenty of time to ponder, with the dozen or so people in front of you, and just the single teller at the grille. The rest have all gone to lunch, even though the bank managers know from long experience that this is the busiest time of the day.

As you shuffle forward an inch, you silently vow to switch banks - but you won't, because the strongest force in consumer behaviour is precisely what will keep you where you are. It is inertia; the dead-weight pull that dampens decisiveness, and masquerades, to anyone foolish enough to interpret it this way, as customer loyalty.

UK bank bosses must sit back in wonderment at the power of this mysterious force. The big four give the impression of trying to do everything they can to lose their tiresome retail customers, so that they can concentrate on the profitable business of invest-ment banking.

Yet they can't shake them off. It's like the plot of the classic Mel Brooks film, The Producers, where the theatre needs a sure-fire flop to avoid an audit, and mounts a musical production of the tackiest script it can find, only to see the crowds flock in.

In the banks' recent scripts are some absolute shockers. They are accused of maintaining 'secret' accounts for high-profit savers only. They have fought their customers and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in the Supreme Court to retain the right to charge £20 for sending a letter.

Most recently they have been hauled over the coals for mis-selling PPI. Small wonder that net promoter scores for two of our biggest banks are negative, which means that people are more likely to damn their bank than recommend it.

Yet these same customers stay put. According to a 2008 OFT study, the mean average time that people stay with the same bank in the UK is more than 10 years, with churn rates among the lowest in Europe. Meanwhile, management consultancy Bain & Company, in a recent briefing report, described British retail bank consumers as 'disgruntled hostages'.

How bad do the banks have to get before people finally overcome the force of inertia and seek out better service elsewhere?

One person interested in the answer is Vernon Hill, who is seeking to revolutionise British high-street banking with his Metro Bank formula, blasting through category norms as he did with his hugely successful Commerce Bank in the US.

Hill's approach is to create attractive retail environments where the product happens to be banking. Premises are called 'stores', and are open seven days a week. Accounts can be created in 15 minutes, bank cards and PINs are provided straight away and loans are approved on the spot. To reduce queues, the stores have coin-counting machines, so traders don't hold up everyone behind them with their heaps of small change.

Just six Metro Bank stores are operational so far, so Hill won't have made a dent on the likes of Lloyds and HSBC just yet - but the ambition is for 200 by 2020. With a little help from technological advances that could make account-switching a simpler process, and a bit more self-inflicted damage by the big four, who knows, maybe Metro Bank will be the one that jolts us out of our stubborn passivity.

- 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 ... ALTERNATIVE RETAIL BANKS

- Metro Bank is not the only alternative offer for 'disgruntled hostages' seeking a more customer-oriented banking experience.

- First Direct Founded in 1989 and owned by HSBC, First Direct is known for customer service and claims one in four of its account holders joined after a personal recommendation. However, after 22 years it has only just over 1m customers.

- The Co-operative Bank Established for more than 100 years, The Co-operative Bank has suffered from the 'not enough branches' barrier to growth.

Consumer acceptance of internet and telephone banking should have caused its customer base to soar, yet it now claims a little more than 4m customer accounts - out of a market of more than 70m.

- Nationwide 'Proud to be different', Nationwide has taken the fight to the big banks since deregulation allowed building societies to compete with them in 1986. In some ways, though, Nationwide now looks dangerously similar to them, with its recent branch closures coming under scrutiny.

- Virgin Money Aims to give customers a better deal - but does not have a current account in its product line-up. News that it was showing interest in 600 branches being sold by Lloyds suggests that might change.

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