Leveraging Advertising for Customer Services

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Raheem Akingbolu examines the implications of in-branch ads that displays pictures and contact details of a financial institution’s executives and encouraging customers to contact them should service not meet their expectations

Service is still a very contentious issue in today’s Nigeria. The concept of good customer service which many societies take for granted tends to be the exception rather than the rule in this part of the world. Take the DISCOs for instance, which rather than provide consumers with an accurate bill of energy consumed would unabashedly give you a bill for the energy which it imagines you have consumed (estimated bill) and thereafter give you a deadline to make this payment.

Fail to pay this fraudulent draconian bill and your office or residence could be summarily disconnected from the national electricity grid, without any apologies. Even the bigger department stores which are fairly recent creations and ought to be more attuned to service especially given their experience in developed countries hardly fare better. A common sight in many big department stores especially during peak hours is long queues even with few functioning tills. At such peak periods, one would expect that the management of such department stores, knowing the intensity of customer traffic, would beef up manpower at dormant tills and help ensure more manpower is available to manage surging customer traffic. But this seldom happens. So customers will typically find long queues of customers being attended to often by relatively few cashiers, while a good number of tills remain dormant.

What about the telecom companies that will deduct airtime from customer’s phone at will and pester the customer with unsolicited text messages and marketing gimmicks?

Perhaps worst of all, what about the public health institutions where the medical personnel often seem oblivious of the meaning of the word, “service”? Health institutions where rendition of service to patients is typically impersonal and crude, with hardly any option for the patient to complain and seek redress for perceived ill treatment?

Nigeria’s banks were for many years a part of what was apparently a culture of “we are doing you a favour” that appears to guide the approach of many service providers in Nigeria to service delivery. Many Nigerians who are old enough may recall the ordeal that conducting transactions in Nigeria’s banks was, in the old days, until the emergence of what is now generally known as the “new generation banks in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The incursion of the second generation of banks into Nigeria’s banking system essentially “revolutionised” service in the banking system, to use that often exaggerated word. In the front line, well trained university graduates replaced the “cashiers” of old, who typically had not been trained up to university level. Instead of “cashiers”, this new breed of officers was referred to by better sounding designations like “Executive Assistant”, or “Front Service Officer” or even “Customer Relations Officer”. Because these tertiary level educated executives had been carefully selected and painstakingly trained, they of course, rendered far better service than their predecessors who soon became extinct.

In addition, what used to be the banking hall of old went through a total make-over. Today, there are some banks, especially in Nigeria’s commercial nerve center of Lagos, whose internal ambience could compete favorably with that of a 5-star hotel. Efforts have also been made to drastically reduce the customer waiting time. Again it may sound like ancient history, but there was a day when a bank customer would receive a tally number and sit to wait indefinitely to be called up by the cashier. Now, in some banks, one may simply walk in to the customer service officer; conduct his or her transaction and leave. In other cases, the customer may have to stay in a queue which in most cases, is manageable, and which banks have striven to manage even further by advising customers withdrawing relatively smaller sums of money to use ATMs stationed outside.

The ATM by the way is yet another key innovation by banks that appears unsung by Nigerians. But clearly this is an infrastructure into which banks have invested considerably and which ensures that millions of Nigerians are provided access to cash on a 24-hour basis. This is an innovation for which the banking sector deserves commendation.

As is common in the service industry, but particularly in the banking sector, these innovations typically begin with one or two banks and are quickly adopted by other banks once they see the value therein.

This brings the banking public to another innovation that is being spearheaded by Stanbic IBTC Bank. It is the service guarantee which the bank makes openly to its customers. About two years ago, in an article entitled, “Trading privacy for service excellence”, this reporter examined this approach by the bank. The bank at the time published full page ads in many newspapers where it advised customers to contact the Executive Director for Personal and Business Banking (Retail Banking) or the Operations Director, if at any time; they felt they had not received the right level of service at the bank. Of course, both the personal phone numbers and email addresses of both executives were displayed conspicuously in both ads.

In the report, effort was made to admire the bank’s approach at the time. It takes only a bank that has immense confidence in its operations nationally, to make such an open proposal. It was reasoned then that this was a big vote of confidence by the bank not only on its employees and operations but also on its customers. One must be supremely confident of the caliber of the customer base to make such an open proposal. Experience in many organisations is that rather than utilize such phone calls and email addresses for which they were created, they soon become avenues for spam phone calls and emails including job applications and all manner of proposals.

While the bank’s confidence and pioneering initiative are to be commended, for its boldness in running those ads openly, the ads appear to have quietly disappeared. Could this be as a result of some of the issues we highlighted at the time it made its debut, such as spam mails for instance?

We notice, however, perhaps as an extension or modification of the initial campaign above, the bank has now taken to advertising the names, pictures and phone numbers of senior executives within a branch who should be contacted if a customer gets service that is below the quality he expects of the bank. In these ads, the bank clearly guarantees to its customers that: “You must get more than what you expect, today.”

As in the initial ads in which the executives publicly implore customers to contact them should they receive less than sterling service, these in-branch ads implicitly showcase the confidence which the bank has in its services and its people. The ads also serve an unspoken purpose: They help to keep the bank on its toes. When an institution has made such a promise openly, it must actively strive to ensure that all of the back-end and front-end processes that should guarantee excellent customer service are well taken care of.

Such an openly made guarantee will also help to ensure that issues including products and services are well thought-through before they are introduced to the banking public. It also helps to ensure that there is no slip with regard to how the bank continues to engage its customers, as its customer-facing people must strive to ensure that on a continuous basis, they provide a service that delights their customers.

This is yet another formidable service innovation for which the bank should be commended. It will be interesting to see if this innovation will be copied by other banks and grow to become commonplace in Nigeria’s banking sector. If it does, the banking sector would have proven itself as perhaps the most important pace-setter in the customer service space in Nigeria.

Stanbic IBTC Bank’s service guarantee approach, reinforces the fact that the human element remains very critical in the banking sector. Even though it continues to grow its technological channels for customer transactions such as online banking and use of the USSD, the use of ATMs as highlighted above, among others, it recognises that there remains a majority of customers who desire face-to-face contact with banking hall executives. It is to this vital category of customers for instance that these banking hall assurances are targeted: “We promise to surpass your expectations today.”

The bank occupies a unique position in Nigeria’s banking space. It is at once a Nigerian bank like other Nigerian banks but at the same time is also an international bank by virtue of its affiliation with Standard Bank and by extension its global reach and access to international capital.

The question on the lips of analysts like this writer is therefore: is this service innovation a local initiative or could it have been copied from any of the bank’s operations elsewhere?
Whatever the case, however, the service guarantee is a big plus not only for bank customers but indeed for customer service in general, in Nigeria as it helps to further broaden the frontiers of service delivery, helping to keep service providers on their toes. It also helps to explicitly give customers the reassurance that they are pivotal to the institution’s very existence and the institution’s abhorrence of poor service in general.
No doubt, market watchers will continue to monitor this service guarantee disposition of Stanbic IBTC Bank and trust that it will continue on this path of being a torch bearer for excellent service delivery in Nigeria.