Amanda Aldridge on retail: Banks need retail skills to fill the service gap

How many times have you moaned about the service you've received in a shop? Yes, you've undoubtedly had some bad experiences, but as people now spend so much time shopping - out of necessity or pleasure - the law of averages suggests there are bound to be some disappointments along the way.

Compared with what you'd probably find in the US, we are some years behind.

But it must be said that those working in retail are a hell of a lot better at customer service than the vast majority of other service industries.

Take banks and building societies. The generally held perception is that the customer service they offer is inferior to many retailers. Since people are more likely to get divorced than change their bank account, the financial services sector has grown complacent. In contrast, it is the easiest thing in the world to switch allegiance from one shop to the one next door after a single episode of poor service.

The financial services sector is certainly in need of a shake-up - and it would appear to be happening. There have been plenty of stories about the rebranding initiatives that will, supposedly, reconnect this or that bank or building society with their long-suffer-ing customers.

One prominent recent example was the renaming of Abbey National as Abbey, complete with retail-style signs in lower-case text and pastel colours.

It remains to be seen what other, more practical, changes may follow.

A variety of customer service initiatives are being undertaken by other banks, as typified by Lloyds TSB, has been repositioning itself as the 'consumer banking champion'. This sounds great, and I'm sure we're all looking forward to putting these changes to the test next time we are charged for going slightly overdrawn.

So how exactly will the banks implement these changes? The answer is by poaching people from the retail sector.

The roll-call of retailers decamping to the banking sector is impressive, and growing all the time. Lloyds TSB recently recruited former Kingfisher finance director Helen Weir as finance director, while Barclays' high-street operation is being overseen by Robin Dickie, a former WH Smith executive. Head of retail banking at HBOS is a 36-year-old high-flier, Andy Hornby, who honed his customer service skills working at the self-proclaimed consu-mer champion, Asda. And, earlier this month, HSBC employed Joe Garner, operations director at Dixons, to further improve service and product development. The bank's key requirement was that the successful candidate had retail skills.

While this influx of retail expertise will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the banks' front ends, it could still take many years for their service levels to match those of retailers.

It will be very interesting to see how HSBC's purchase of Marks & Spencer Money pans out. Some are predicting that, in the hands of a bank, service levels are bound to deteriorate and that the unique selling point of the proposition will be lost. Fortunately for HSBC, history suggests few people will divorce themselves from the bank should these standards fall.

This view of the banking sector might sound cynical, but it does provide an opportunity to give the retail industry a pat on the back for providing customers with a comparatively good level of customer service. The only worry is that some of the people responsible for that service seem to be jumping ship.

- Amanda Aldridge is head of retail at KPMG

30 SECONDS ON ... BANKING SERVICES INNOVATION

- Egg and First Direct have developed account aggregation systems which enable customers to view updated details of all their online accounts (from any provider) on one screen.

- Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) has installed 'Click and Call' phones in 650 of its branches, offering a hotline to direct banking services.

- NatWest has overhauled its branch network, creating reception points and more room for customers to sit and talk to bank staff. Counters have been lowered to create a greater sense of interaction between staff and customers.

- Banks are gradually increasing the sophistication of databases so that when they write to a customer who holds several accounts, credit cards and a mortgage with it, the letter will refer to this. In the past, customers might have received several similarly worded communications from different divisions of the bank.

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