Trading Privacy for Service Excellence

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Raheem Akingbolu examines the implications of recent ads where top Stanbic IBTC executives encourage customers to call their personal phone lines should they receive less than sterling service

The culture of service in Nigeria’s banking sector has had an interesting trajectory in contemporary Nigerian history. Many older Nigerians would remember the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the years of the “tally number”.

There were no ATMs in those days. Internet and telephone banking did not exist either. If you had to make a transaction, your only option was to visit the bank physically.

To make matters worse, the banking hall was often a stark contrast to today’s banking hall. I don’t recollect how many banking halls were actually air-conditioned in those days. And the banking hall seating was often inadequate especially in rush periods such as month-ends. It wasn’t uncommon to find cashiers attending to customers in-between mouthfuls of groundnuts and roast plantain or roast maize, especially at lunch hour.

The most defining feature of the nature of service in that era was the attitude of cashiers and practically every other bank staff. It ranged from the haughty to the sheer arrogant. Cashiers were tin gods at the time. If you were a stubborn customer given to complaining after waiting only 30 minutes on the queue, for instance, chances were that the cashier would have no qualms regularly hiding your files in the course of routine manual processing, in order to teach the “stubborn customer” a lesson.

All of these have since been consigned to distant memory with the emergence of a new generation of banks. Many would probably still remember the wave of advertising in the ‘90s which celebrated the debut of this breath of fresh air in Nigeria’s banking space. How can anyone forget the “wey my tally number?” ad of those days which creatively poked fun at the practice of using “tally numbers” in the older generation banks?

The new generation banks introduced sundry innovations in Nigeria’s banking space, many of which came to define service in the entire banking sector as all banks, old and new, quickly adopted these innovations. One of these was to replace the often poorly educated “cashier” of old with university graduates who had been recruited only after stringent recruitment tests to help enhance the probability of their being above average intelligence.

These university graduates who would undergo comprehensive job training before commencing work were generally more personable and were far more grounded in customer service. They had been trained to recognize that without customers, neither they nor anyone else would have a job to do. Rather than “cashier” different banks have since evolved such new titles as “personal finance officer” for this very important face of the institution.

Over the years, it has been one steady journey to service excellence in the banking sector. Today, even though many banking halls, especially in rural and semi-urban locations, still leave a lot to be desired, today’s banking hall is a far-cry from the shabby halls of old. Indeed, some banks take such good care of their banking halls and other facilities that the ambience could, in a handful of cases, rival that of 5-star hotels.

Of course, thanks to technology, there is a growing multiplicity of ways by which customers may conduct transactions with their banks and with each other. Now, you may choose to conduct business from the convenience of your phone or your computer in the comfort of your home or office. Of course there are thousands of ATMs across the country these days providing yet another means by which customers may transact business remotely. Some banks are even said to have taken a step further with what is now referred to as social media banking where a customer may open a bank account via his social media account.

Despite the proliferation of approaches by which one may conduct banking transactions in a remote manner, face-to-face banking in which a customer comes face-to-face with his banker in the banking hall remains the most popular in Nigeria. And this is hardly unexpected. Even if remote banking could do all that conventional banking can do, there will still be a huge proportion of people who would prefer to bank the conventional way.

Technology shortcomings and failures apart, it is in providing the regular face-to-face banking services that banks often experience their biggest challenges pertaining to customer services and customer care. Does the banking hall suit the calibre of the customers? Does its ambience sufficiently mirror that to which the customer is accustomed? Does the banking hall smell fresh like roses or does a stale putrid smell of sweat, damp walls, dirty currency notes and stinking upholstery pervade the air?

What about the protocol on entering the bank? Are the security men courteous, friendly and helpful? Are they professional in rendering help to customers or do they extend “happy weekend” greetings to prospective customers in the well-known expectation of getting tipped for their “eye service” assistance?

This takes us to the even more critical issue of the core banking service itself: How long does the customer spend on the queue to see the front service officer for instance? How proficient is the front service officer? How knowledgeable is he? How personable is he? Is he wearing a perpetual frown or does he appear happy with his job and happy to be of service to his customers? What about the various bank officers known as account officers, who are supposed to relate with designated customers of the bank? Do customers know who their account officers are? Beyond knowing who their account officers are, in the eyes of the customer are these account officers perceived to be of any value? Are they able to provide relevant counsel and guidance to their customers?

It is perhaps in the light of these and other questions that Stanbic IBTC appears to have taken a leap well ahead of its contemporaries in an attempt to further redefine customer service and customer care. In a recent ad, the Executive Director of Personal and Business Banking (Retail Banking in many other banks) and the Head of Operations jointly signed a statement to customers in which they implore customers to contact them directly if they believe they have not received the right kind of service from the bank. Both gentlemen unveiled their personal phone numbers and email addresses to the bargain.

It’s a huge gamble that speaks to the calibre of customers who ordinarily patronize the bank. Conventional wisdom would indicate that this is a gambit you embark upon only when you are assured that it will not be abused, that you will not receive job applications or marketing proposals on the publicized email addresses for instance.

More importantly, however, it’s a huge vote of confidence on employees of the bank. Only an executive who is supremely sure of the quality of services being rendered by his operatives can boldly make such an assertion as the Stanbic IBTC executives have done in the public space. Clearly, what this translates to is more pride by the employees in the work that they do, knowing that they enjoy the trust and confidence of their executives so much that the executives have proudly boasted to the world, even if indirectly, about the quality of the bank’s offering.

In turn, this translates to greater conviction by the bank’s customers as to the quality of the service they currently receive and a reassurance that should they have any problem whatsoever with this service, they can contact executives who have direct decision-making responsibilities. It is a great way of systematically turning your current customers to your brand ambassadors and getting them to recruit new customers free-of-charge for you.

I dare say it is also a great way of attracting discerning customers to your bank. Prospective customers are likely to be impressed with a bank whose executives show the level of customer-centricity that both Stanbic IBTC executives have displayed.

But while other banking innovations are fairly easy to copy, this is one innovation that is not likely to be copied tomorrow. The reason would appear to be the fact that Stanbic IBTC sits in a rather unique niche in Nigeria’s banking space. It is a Nigerian bank like other Nigerian banks, but it is also an international bank with a vast international reach that extends to Europe, Asia and across Africa. No other bank enjoys this unique dual personality which manifests in the bank’s understanding of the domestic market, its world class disposition to service delivery and very likely, its access to funds given its international connections.

There is no doubt that both executives are going to feel the occasional heat of unnecessary phone calls or needless emails. In a not-very-sophisticated market like ours, this is always going to happen. They should, however, be proud of the sacrifice which they are making in the course of promoting the customer service ethos of Stanbic IBTC Bank and even more importantly, of creating new frontiers for customer service in Nigeria.