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Home > Opinion > Jeff Prestridge

Nationwide’s shining customer service example

If all companies took customer service as seriously as some shining examples, maybe we would trust the industry more than we do

By Jeff Prestridge | Published Apr 11, 2012 | Your Industry | comments

Customer service is the Achilles heel of many financial services companies. Good products, splendid new products, but shame about the underlying service.

In recent years, Santander, inhibited by the financial crisis induced integration of both the Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley businesses, has led the way in delivering woeful customer service standards that would not look out of place in the back streets of a third world country.

Seldom now does a week go by without Financial Mail’s consumer champion Tony Hetherington reporting on yet another incident of crass service at Santander. It makes you shake with rage and occasionally weep with frustration that this leading bank is able to get away with apparent sub-standard service without any form of recrimination, retribution, or massive fine from the FSA.

Certainly, if an IFA delivered such woeful service they would be hounded out of the profession by the regulator. One rule for the big, another for the small I suppose. And so much for treating customers fairly.

But is woeful customer service a price we should have to put up with in financial services? Is it the price we pay for competitive financial products? Is it the price we pay for a banking industry that, thank the Lord, has survived the 2008 financial crisis largely intact, bar a few enforced takeovers and a slug of state support for Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland?

I do not think so. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Graham Beale, chief executive of Nationwide, the country’s biggest building society with 15m members, 16,000 employees and 700 branches including regional brands Cheshire, Derbyshire and Dunfermline.

Mr Beale has been in charge of Nationwide for the past five years and is one of the longest serving bosses of the country’s leading banks and building societies (only Peter Sands at Standard Chartered has outlasted him). It has been somewhat of a baptism of fire for the chartered accountant but he has survived with his reputation and that of his company enhanced.

Of course, the mutual has had its issues during Mr Beale’s watch – namely failing to deal with a deluge of Isa business in 2007, closing branches in some of London’s more socially challenged areas and reining back on its wonderful deal for people using their Nationwide plastic overseas.

But it has tried to learn from its mistakes. Under Mr Beale’s watch there has been a real commitment to improving the customer experience. As he told me: “You can’t sell Nationwide to customers just because it is a mutual. You’ve got to give them the service they require. A lot of people refer to us as a bank and we look like one but we are attempting to adopt a consumer champion approach with everything we do. I’m not putting ourselves on a pedestal to be knocked off but we want to do things right by the majority of our customers.”

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