I have a relationship manager at the bank where I have my business account. I wonder what relationship he’s managing.

Is that unfair? Here’s a bank trying to do better. The problem with their monthly courtesy call is that it is content-free. They offer me nothing. No information, no news, nothing that could be useful to me. In truth it’s unlikely they’ll chance upon something I want to hear anyway. It feels like something they’re measuring for their own purposes: “We call all our business customers at least six times a year and check all is well.” The presumption here is that I will value the calls, or perhaps it’s a tool to alert them to potential defectors.

The last time he called to check all was well, he failed to mention that it was also the last day of my introductory period of free banking. I only found that out when the charges came through. Somewhere in that organisation there is a lovely powerpoint deck showing the customer journey, and how they manage the transition at the end of the free banking period. Whether he bottled it, or whether making the call was really enough to tick the box and meet the target, somehow I don’t think that’s what was envisaged.

People calling from financial institutions are on a hiding to nothing anyway. Twenty years of receiving their outbound calls tells me that they probably have a target for some new “product” they’re trying to sell and I must be on my guard, reveal nothing and end the call for my own protection. I’m sure I’m not the only one who treats their calls like a training exercise in withstanding interrogation. I can’t respond to it in isolation from all my previous experience with banking. When someone calling himself a relationship manager calls I’m baffled and defensive in equal measure. It takes a long time to change entrenched views, especially when they’re emotional as much as rational. Honest and transparent communication would be a good start.

Perhaps they could take a lead from the insurance industry. After all the recent flooding there’ll be a lot of loss adjusters out and about. Now there’s a job title to focus the mind. The closest I’ve ever been to a loss adjuster is when I read William Boyd’s novel, Armadillo, but there seems to be a widely-held view that the loss to the insurance company figures as much as the loss to the householder, and any adjustment tends to be in one direction only. Consequently, you hear stories of people’s surprise and delight when a loss adjuster turns up and is helpful to them.

Driving expectations right down certainly creates the opportunity to exceed customer expectations, but it’s not a strategy I’d recommend (though it seems to be working for Ryanair). Clarity about your purpose, on the other hand, is helpful to everyone, and works at the individual level as well as for the whole enterprise. If the loss adjuster is clearly acting primarily to minimise the claim, they may as well come right out and say it – more or less as their job title does. By contrast, HSBC’s relationship manager doesn’t improve their “relationship” with me (if such a thing exists) by having a cuddly job title. Maybe it was even a factor in why he didn’t want to mention the nasty topic of bank charges – in case it spoiled the relationship, at least in that moment. More transparency to him about what’s expected might enable more transparency from him. In valued relationships each side gains something, and we don’t mind that the other side gains too. In good relationships people don’t have to conceal things from one another. So there should be no problem with the bank charges. If matey at the bank feels he daren’t mention it, something is wrong. Does he feel that they don’t represent fair value for me as the customer, or that I will give him a hard time if he flags it? Perhaps next time he should try asking me how I feel about it. I’d respect him for that. Listening is part of building a relationship too, so it wouldn’t do any harm on that front. Frankly I’d choose bank charges that come with efficient service in preference to the tedious phone calls. But they don’t know that because they’ve never asked. Rather than use labels and job titles to try to make things feel nicer, a bit of old-fashioned discovery about what delivers value could be liberating all round.


More comment on the financial services industry

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Banks and customers – a lesson in obliquity

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Comment | January 2014