CX interviews: How Newcastle Building Society rediscovered the art of getting to know its customers

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In our new series of interviews, Christopher Brooks speaks to some of the customer experience leaders at the forefront of CX design, starting with Newcastle Building Society's head of customer contact, Stuart Fearn.   

Welcome Stuart. Thanks for taking the time to share with us the way in which customer experience is making a difference at Newcastle Building Society.

Q. Stuart, the term ‘Customer Experience’ has become increasingly popular. But a few years ago, the role didn’t exist in many organisations. So, what has been your path to CX?

SF. I’ve worked in every customer facing area during my 20-year building society career: mortgage advice, contact centre, financial advice and product development. The start of my journey was as a qualified financial adviser, talking to people, understanding their needs and providing solutions.

Q. What are your key responsibilities for the customer in your current role?

SF: As Head of Customer Contact I oversee all face to face customer contact across the branch network which includes transactional service and services that support the provision of products such as savings, wills and funeral plans plus supervision of regulated advice provided by our own mortgage and insurance advisors.

Stuart FearnQ. The retail banking and building society set up has been evolving through regulation, digitisation and a new breed of competitive entrants. All of which impact the customer and their choices. What would you say today’s major challenges in retail banking?

SF: There’s no doubt that digital technology has an important, enabling role to play.  We can use it to smooth the way for customers and speed up processes for them. But we don’t believe that the future is solely digital.  

Money is a personal business.  When on the high street people want someone to speak to.  Having local financial provision is an important part of what makes communities work. The branch experience needs to be both contemporary and forward looking.  We’re investing in ensuring that all our 28 branches across the North East provide a modern and bright branch environment. Technology is very present, but not necessarily conspicuous, it’s deliberately designed to blend with our very good people who are at the core of delivering a great customer experience.

Q. Where does customer experience fit into the organisation’s priorities? Many companies focus on just fixing pain points? Is this a logical starting point or does your approach head in a different direction?

SF: We start with the customer.  Our priority is to make it easy for our customers to deal with us and to create positive, memorable moments and connections.  If something threatens that then we certainly prioritise fixing it. But it’s also about empowering our colleagues to own the part they play in making customer experiences memorable and personal.  They know our customers and they know our region and we aim to give them the freedom to respond to what they see customers need.

For example, A Dementia Friends initiative that began as a result of one branch’s connection with customers who had greater needs than others to a local community programme has spread across the Society, prompting a commitment that all 1,000+ colleagues across the organisation will be trained Dementia Friends by the end of the year.  We’re now 80% of the way there. That indicates the impact that colleagues who are customer focused and responsive can ultimately have.

Q. That’s an inspiring initiative that I am sure engages staff in your commitment to serving the community. So, where are you in terms of your overall CX journey?

SF: We’re continually developing and shaping this.  Currently we’re working to understand where current and future technology best fits with what we want to deliver. In fact, our latest branch refurbishments have started with the customer, enabling them to get closer to the team, while also providing greater degrees of comfort and privacy when needed.  We have reviewed introducing video into our customer experience and are still working on this to ensure we get the right solution for our customers. We see it being a great way to engage on items that need a more convenient response when customers contact us from home but can still connect very personally with the advisor.

Our priority is to make it easy for our customers to deal with us and to create positive, memorable moments and connections.

We are currently benefiting from cloud-based telephony which has allowed greater flexibility across the business. We are able to maintain great service by spreading call loads across key individuals, the head office and branch network. This is done in a seamless way with great functionality in the equipment being used.

Q. You are covering a vast number of CX practices. Has it all been plain sailing? What have been the biggest learnings to date?

SF: Probably what we’ve learned most is we need to be more proactive in ensuring that some of our Society customers can keep up with technology.  We can’t assume that although many of the older generation are digitally savvy that they don’t need help or aren’t frightened of the changes happening in the wider banking world.  This is where our approach can really make an impact because we can blend digital with face to face service to encourage more trust in what this can offer. We don’t want customers to cross our threshold and be faced with a wall of technology and no one to talk to. We want them to be greeted by a friendly face and a smile.  We can help them understand how the technology on offer can support our service. We’re mindful that we need to be with them on that journey.

Newcastle Building Society

Q. you’ve made impressive progress to date. What are you hoping to achieve in the future?

SF: We believe in the high street and its role as a focus for community life.  While banks are closing branches and driving customers online, leaving some without local services, you’ll see us investing in technology and appropriately sized and equipped physical locations.  We will continue to be part of towns and cities across the North East and see a growing future opportunity in this commitment if we can deliver a nimble response and be there at their moments of need.

Q. You mention the north east, your heritage sits very much in the space of being on the local high street with service to match the needs of local people, dealt with in person. In 2018, is this still the case or has how customers wish to interact with you changed?

SF: As the financial environment becomes increasingly more complex the role we play in helping people to save, own their own home and plan their finances will continue to be important.  Every one of our branches provides access to a trained financial adviser. Whatever your circumstances and regardless of your wealth, a team of qualified financial advisers provide a friendly face to face service, information and advice.  

Our speciality and uniqueness really are observed when meeting us in one of our branches and receiving a very personal face to face service.

Our branch environments are designed with customer needs in mind and provide flexible spaces – from soft chairs and conversational areas, to glass walled rooms for more private conversations. Privacy is an ever-developing need and a space to sit, relax and take time with any financial planning is critical. Something simple such as a good cup of coffee is often a pre-requisite.

Q. Being predominately a regional provider, albeit with a national reach through online, does that bring its own advantages or challenges regarding the customer experience provided?

SF: All customers receive the same levels of service which is great, whether regional or not. However, our speciality and uniqueness really are observed when meeting us in one of our branches and receiving a very personal face to face service. We are proud that we are capable of providing great service whatever the method customers choose to make contact with us. The recent changes to telephone technology is one way we have improved things, adding live chat to our website is another.

Q: You provide a wide range of products and services to many customer types. Are the expectations from all customers the same or do you have to vary their experience by product?

SF: We have variety of customer types. Some are focused purely on the transaction, some enjoy a chat as part of this process.  Others come in for more in depth conversations around more complex financial advice needs. These are often longer meetings. Then there are our community champion customers who might seek help with grant funding or volunteer support for their initiative.  But what all our customer have in common is the length of time the relationship with the Society is maintained, often across generations.

Q. The CMA are ensuring all financial services providers publish their ‘recommendation’ scores. Is this how you measure CX success, or have you found tracking its value to customers in a different way more appropriate?

SF: We currently use satisfaction scores gained from quarterly surveys although we are on the verge of introducing a new, third party customer engagement platform that will empower our customer experience, feedback and delivery. We see this really shaping our experience, giving the customer an even larger voice in how we run our business, how we improve and the products and services we offer.

Newcastle Building Society

Q: We touched on it earlier, but how important is digital in the modern banking experience? Do you have any examples of your own progress you can share?

SF: We can’t ignore the advantages of digital innovation, for many it is simply the expectation.  Newcastle Strategic Solutions – a subsidiary of our Society - provides online savings management expertise to financial providers, including a number of challenger banks, across the UK.  Its award-winning service and technology have been developed from the Society’s core skills. We have the expertise to create a really helpful experience for our customers that marries all the advantages of digital, backed by the person to person, human connection that makes for great experiences.

Q. That sounds like a great combination. Stepping outside your workplace, in your personal dealings with companies, which brands do you respect and recognise for providing a great customer experience?

SF: The FS brand that is getting attention for all the right reasons at the moment is Starling. It supports those who purely want an online experience and one through an app. It has done this without making you jump through hoops or change your loyalty by closing down existing relationships.

Beyond FS, I also highly rate PACT that provides quality coffee through its app/website at a time and place to suit. The application enables huge flexibility around the purchase but also rewards loyalty by way of free product for passing the experience on to others.

Q. Customer experience is still finding its feet in the boardroom. But what do you think the future trends in CX will be?

SF: We know great outcomes come from great experiences.  It’s not just about the price, or the product, it’s about the right outcome for the customer.  The more we understand our customers’ current and future needs, the better this will get. As a Society we’re proud of our heritage and our growing role as a champion for our region.  How organisations behave as they deliver their products and services will become ever more important. CX is definitely a high priority for the Board of Newcastle Building Society and I think the fact I am the Head of Customer Contact and work directly for the Customer Director, Stuart Miller who holds a seat on the Main Board, really demonstrates the importance we place on it.

Q: That direct line in to the board priorities ensures the customer has their voice. Finally, if any readers are looking to embark on a customer experience strategy, what advice would you give them to increase their chances of success?

SF: Understand your customers’ experiences and their issues.  Develop or make a change that will make a positive difference to them.  Know what good looks like before you start. It won’t always be the right answer but see where you failed and fix it fast. Innovate and never forget there’s no substitute for meeting and spending time with your customers.

About Christopher Brooks

Christopher Brooks

I am a customer strategist with agency, client and consultancy experience working with companies across Europe mainly in financial services but as varied as utilities to hospitality. Lexden, the company I lead, has been dedicated to the 'customer first, profits follow' vision I have always subscribed to. We aim to drive more from the marketing budget. 

In everything I do I look to the outcome as the goal rather than the challenge to overcome or fix. With this in mind we help brands attract and retain happier customers. Ability to distill insight to a single customer level and optimise across the entire organisation. 

Skills include: Customer Value Proposition design and delivery | Customer Experience Programmes design and delivery | Customer Insight and Optimisation | Customer profiling and segmentation | Marketing Effectiveness Planning | Marketing agency pitch and planning firepower | Drive Customer Acquisition and Retention strategies | Marketing function establishment and restructures | Interim Customer Value Propositions, Experience and Marketing Director | Translating under utilised customer insight into commercially viable marketing assets | Customer experience mentoring | Brand and Communication Campaign planning | Applied across full marketing mix including digital channels

Also the creator of @VexVox and @Fondfox - a new breed of customer activism - providing companies with competitive intelligence regarding customer experience issues to exploit.

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