Search for an ideal society

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FROM tomorrow, the million customers of Birmingham Midshires Building Society will find that their cheques are cleared in four days instead of 10. It is, says a spokesman, just one sign of the society's continuing determination to improve customer service.

Since 1990, it has carried out a continuous customer satisfaction survey, designed to test how the society measures up against its five key values - Friendly, Informed, Responsive, Service-oriented and Trustworthy - which together form the mnemonic "First".

At the last count, more than 63 per cent of customers were highly satisfied, with the overall rating 97.1 per cent. In contrast, according to NOP, the overall approval rating is 88 per cent for other building societies and 70 per cent for banks.

But, as the original amount of time taken to clear Birmingham Midshires cheques demonstrates, this is a sector with room for improvement. The best banks and building societies - as well as insurance companies - understand that they must act like retailers. In other words, they should treat their customers as real people rather than account numbers.

Nevertheless, the public still feels that the high street banks in particular are inclined to treat customers as a necessary evil; witness the continual debates over charges and the general reluctance to extend opening hours even when many shops are moving towards a situation where they are hardly ever closed.

This feeling was summed up by the Consumers' Association late last year, when it claimed in its Which? guide that the cost of borrowing from banks could run into the equivalent of an annual rate of millions of per cent.

The guide quoted the example of the Co-operative Bank - which has recently sought to emphasise its ethical stance - charging a customer £59 after she went into the red by £71.05 without permission for 14 days, the equivalent, it reckoned, of an APR of more than 100 million per cent.

The recent return to large profits by the clearers means there is "less excuse than ever for sky-high charges," adds the organisation. Customers finding themselves in this sort of position should switch accounts - and this generally means moving to building societies.

However, Glen Peters, the head of marketing and customer management at the Price Waterhouse management consultants, believes that even the majority of building societies have little to be complacent about.

The author of a recently published book, Benchmarking Customer Service, he runs a "benchmarking club" to encourage organisations in a variety of sectors to share their experiences, in an attempt to improve attention to this increasingly important issue.

With a few exceptions, they are still consistently behind retailers, he says.

One area in which they regularly perform poorly is the "consistency of the offer". That is, the service can vary considerably from branch to branch, whereas in many retail chains the standard of service available is indistinguishable from one town to the next.

Of course, one of the key factors behind the perceived poor service in banks has been the sharp reduction in counter staff caused by the battle to regain profitability after the 1980s.

Some of the clearers admit that the axeing went too far, and they are rehiring experienced staff to bolster the junior counter staff, who cannot be truly "empowered" because they do not know enough to function as the sole point of contact with the customer.

But there are a few myths around. Midland Bank, which is participating in the PW benchmarking club, had thought that a key irritation for customers was the length of the queues for tellers.

In fact, research discovered that customers were more worried about seeing lots of people behind the cashiers shuffling papers when there are customers to be served.

Similarly, signs explaining that the bank will not open at the usual time because of staff training that will "enable us to improve our service to you" are unlikely to be taken the right way.

But at least that shows they are trying.