What’s the point of the NatWest Customer Charter?

It seems that you can’t switch on the television at the moment without seeing an advert for the NatWest Customer Charter.  The Charter runs to 14 commitments spread across four categories like ” We are committed to making banking easy”. So what’s it all about and why are they doing it?

For me NatWest is opening up yet another front on the seemingly endless battle to rebuild the trust in financial services generally and banks in particular.  Whilst the banking crisis of the past two years hasn’t helped, we’ve been talking about the need to rebuild trust in financial services for a couple of decades now.

Of course on one level we all do trust banks.  Almost all of us have a bank account of some sort and by and large we expect our card to work in the ATM, or in shops, and for our money to be kept safe.  By and large it does and is.  The lack of trust is much subtler than that. It is almost a British thing – the knowledge that when dealing with a financial institution it will let you down – so don’t bother getting your hopes up.  Expect the worst.  Popped into the bank at lunchtime and there was a huge queue – well I didn’t expect anything else.  Slipped overdrawn by a few pence and been stung with a big fee – naturally. Been passed around from one call centre to another when all you want is to reset your online banking password – we’ve all been there.

Interestingly this isn’t about products, although the same applies to them.  Best buy savings accounts where the rate plummets, credit cards which pay off your cheap debt first, guaranteed investments which turn out to be anything but or travel insurance that doesn’t pay out.  No, this is about service, although interesting Mark Hoban, First Secretary to the Treasury announced last week that he was starting a consultation on a new range of simple transparent products.

Service then is where the NatWest Charter comes in.  There’s absolutely nothing in it that you wouldn’t expect from a bank.  In fact you’d think that “We will provide you with friendly, helpful service whenever you deal with us”, to take one commitment for example, is little more than a hygiene factor.  But I think it works on two levels.

Firstly, our expectations are so low: in fact, as I said, we expect the worst. So if we find a friendly, helpful member of staff we’ll actually be pleasantly surprised. So too with the commitment to “serve the majority of customers in less than 5 minutes”.  Again they’ve set the bar pretty low.

Secondly it works well as an internal tool and a stick with which to beat the management team.  Each commitment is measurable and measured and NatWest says it will be publish the results.  This should really help focus everybody within NatWest retail banking on delivering the basics for customers.

What’s great about this is that NatWest appears to have realised that to start to change its reputation it hasn’t just got to change its marketing or PR messages, it has got to change the way it behaves.  Nice to see as well that it has incorporated its community programmes into the Charter.

It’s no coincidence that NatWest has launched this initiative at a time when we are seeing some new competition emerging in banking.  Metro Bank launches in London this week with a handful of branches and a service led proposition.  And we have both Virgin Money and Tesco Bank both talking about creating long term shareholder value through building  strong relationships with customers.

Two notes of caution though.  NatWest needs to be wary of boasting about its service, via either marketing or PR. Service is best demonstrated and experienced and not asserted.

Second, this is going to be a long haul.  NatWest, if you are listening, changing such deeply ingrained views of banking is going to take years.  You’ll need to meet your commitments this year and next, then raise the bar and meet that one too.  I have no doubt though that if you stick with it you’ll be able to achieve a fundamental change in the trust we put in your brand.

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