Change is coming – you can bank on it


changeThe only thing certain is change. This is as true for the business of banking as it is in every other aspect of life. Change can be gradual, like evolution, or dramatic, like global systemic collapse. The huge Western banks, some of which grew to be bigger than the national economies in which they operate, must have been certain that the good times would last forever. Who on earth would have been brave enough to predict, just a couple of years ago, that huge and incredibly powerful financial institutions would soon be effectively closed down, broken up or nationalised?

The good times in banking could not last forever. Neither will the current recession. Everything in our world is cyclical.

The Serbian banking community has certainly seen some changes in recent times and there is surely much more change to come. Having somehow survived the unbelievable turmoil of the 1990s and dragged itself out of dramatic collapse and a state-run legacy, Serbia now has a semblance of a modern banking system, with several foreign banks dominating the sector.

The arrival of these operators, with their experience and expertise, should have brought a wide range of badly needed new product offerings and  dramatically improved levels of service. From personal and anecdotal experience, the product development is here and gaining strength. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the level of service.

Why is it that some major international players seem unable – or maybe unwilling – to introduce the real cultural change that’s needed to bring service in Serbian banks up to the same level enjoyed by their customers elsewhere?

The brands may have changed, and smart new branches appeared, but the day-to-day banking experience endured (we can hardly say enjoyed) by customers remains frustrating, time consuming and sometimes downright insulting. A long wait in a slow-moving queue will often end in an exchange with poorly trained, unmotivated staff, whose attitude ranges from bored indifference to blatant disrespect. The overall impression is that we, the customers who are the reason the business exists, are there under sufference. As we say in English, ‘the tail is wagging the dog’.

There are no crystal balls in business. Anyone who claims to know precisely what form change will take in the coming years is deluded. But so is anyone who believes that things will stay the same. There are two things that are surely inevitable. The first is that in future there will be fewer, larger banks in Serbia.  The second is that their customers will demand better service from them.

This latter change will be driven by the new generation; increasingly exposed, through travel and the internet, to the superior levels of service already enjoyed by bank customers in Western European countries and generationally free from the restricted thinking and limited expectations of a communist past, they are the ones who will force change. How? They will simply demand more. And they will vote with their feet in order to get it, the moment a better choice appears.

For the banks, this presents a serious challenge and a huge business opportunity. The contest for the hearts and minds of the new, empowered and savvy generation of banking customers has already started. It is quite remarkable to see how few of the major banks have so far been willing and able to face the challenge and sieze the moment. The current level of complacency is breathtaking.

The change that’s required cannot be achieved through window dressing. Slick commercials and clever new product offers are all well and good, but they mean nothing if the daily customer experience remains dire, even if it takes place in a bright, shiny new branch office.

The banks that will come out on top in the next phase of change will be those who are brave enough to realise that they need to change fundamentally – in their DNA.

It’s simple to say, but extremely difficult to achieve; banks in Serbia have to learn that customers really are king.

Window dressing and lip service will not do it. Every single bank employee, from the CEO to the lowest clerk, must first truly believe that change is vital.

When a customer – any customer –  is in a bank branch, he is more important than anybody working in that branch, because, without his business, ultimately nobody there would have a job. That customer is actually paying the salaries of the staff. Does he not deserve full and enthusiastic respect? I suspect that the level of deference from bank staff to customer that’s needed may be culturally difficult for some Serbian people, but those who cannot or will not re-engineer their attitudes should simply be working somewhere else.

I will personally travel across the city to use one particular branch of my own bank. I will pass many other branches on my way there, but I prefer to walk further. Why? Because this particular branch has pleasant, helpful counter staff. I therefore chose to give them my business, and enthusiastically recommend them to others. This is a poweful fact of business communication.

If you are a senior manager in a bank, just think about this; who among your branch staff has the lowest status and salary, and the least investment spent on their training? I’m willing to bet it is not the backroom staff, business development or marketing people. It is the counter staff. The very ones that your customers meet every day.

One or two banks may understand this reality, and enthusiastically embrace the process of real change now. The others will eventually end up in the museum, gathering dust, like all the other dinosaurs who could not adapt quickly enough to change.

David Dowse is a Senior Partner at Webb Dowse Intelligent Corporate Communications

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