Banking on a personal touch

Recently I’ve come across two very different approaches to making retail banking more personal. I attended an event organised by RBS to garner feedback on their plans for Williams & Glyn when it is hived off from RBS. CEO designate John Maltby outlined his ideas for moving decision making back into branches, via empowered bank managers. The approach certainly met with approval from many in the audience and seeks to address the concern that UK banks have alienated customers by fronting their businesses with people who are powerless to make a decision.

However the bank manager is only part of the solution. Customers also need to have control of their day-to-day banking via superlative digital delivery of everyday products and services. Whilst Williams & Glyn recognises the need for digital customer engagement, they are thin on the details apart from saying they will continue to use the RBS NatWest online banking and apps; which after yet another outage last week of the NatWest mobile app doesn’t fill me with confidence. This feels like a missed opportunity to attract customers who want a different kind of personal banking – digital first with someone local who can take decisions if needed. The problem Williams & Glyn will have to overcome is that a bank built on creaking, legacy banking systems will struggle to be agile and customer centric.

The second approach I’ve seen is Swedish in origin. Handelsbanken is part of Svenska Handelsbanken and has 180 branches around the UK. Their model is based on giving branch management full authority to take decisions on customer accounts including pricing and interest rates. The 180 (and growing) branches keep managers local but control branch overheads by typically locating them outside town centres and not having counter services (genius!). The Handelsbanken view is that their customers rarely need counter services so it’s a waste of money running them. On the odd occasion a customer does need counter based banking services they have the use of NatWest branches. Personal engagement is balanced with high quality online banking and mobile apps (the advantage of being part of a progressive Swedish bank). The Handelsbanken model is based on the devolved Swedish operating model which has kept the bank safe during the last two financial crises. Whilst the Handelsbanken approach isn’t right for everyone, it addresses the gap caused by taking decision making away from branches and the people who know their customers.