Think of yourself as a customer

MBNA was the only bank I’ve come across, that could wallpaper the wall outside the CEO’s office, with letters of appreciation from their customers – some even asked for marketing materials to give to their friends! Now that’s a NPS Promoter…! How did they do it? By building a business engrained in the philosophy ‘think of yourself as a customer’.
I’ve been in a reflective mood this week, looking at what I do, how and why I do it. I often tell people that the golden thread running through my eclectic career is a passion for customer-centricity.

But what is customer-centricity, and is it still relevant today?

I first came across the idea of customer-centricity when I joined an unknown American bank that was starting up in Chester in 1993. So unknown, that when I went for the first interview they couldn’t even tell me the name of the bank – today we’d call it stealth mode!
What they did tell me was that the bank – later revealed as MBNA – was renowned for its great customer experience, and that they believed this could be a big differentiator in the UK market.
How right they were!

The business impact of customer-centricity

At that time the UK had two credit cards – Access and Barclaycard. Both were expensive, hard to get and not compelling to own. They were designed by the banks, to benefit the banks.
Along came MBNA with a mantra to ‘think of yourself as a customer’. The product, service offer, communications and processes were all designed ‘outside-in’ – from the customer’s perspective. From a standing start (when I joined there were 24 employees and no customers) MBNA became the largest gold card issuer in the UK within 18 months.
More than that, MBNA quickly transformed business models and customer expectations across the credit card market. A market that many said would never change.
Nearly 30 years on, MBNA’s ‘think of yourself as a customer’ remains my benchmark for customer-centricity. That’s because achieving it requires a firm-wide commitment to think and act ‘outside-in’. Not just to see things from the customer’s perspective but then to consistently deliver on those needs and expectations.

What is customer-centricity?

Customer-centricity means that when hard decisions need to be made, the needs of the customer trump egos, internal politics, and convenience. It’s a higher purpose, not just a business decision.
At a more human level, it’s about respecting customers enough to understand their perspective. It’s about being kind, thoughtful and generous. Human qualities many of us are reflecting on at this time.

Delivering experiences that people rave about

Let’s look at MBNA’s view of customer service. Now customer service is not something you expect from a credit card. Many times, a prospective customer would tell me “that sounds nice, but I don’t need good customer service, it’s just a credit card” or “they’re a bank, all banks are the same”.
But customers told a very different story. Outside the CEOs office, walls were covered in letters hand-written by customers praising the bank. Yes, people went out of their way to write a letter to say thank you to a bank! They told stories of how they are now telling all of their friends and family members to get an MBNA card. They would even request mail packs, so they could hand them to people. This is the very definition of a Promoter on the NPS scale. They’re not just happy with the service, they are actively promoting it to their friends and family.

What made the customer experience so different?

At a time when banking could only be done when a branch was open, MBNA set-up a 24-hour call centre, and put the number was on the back of the card. In the early days customers would call at 3am “just to see if you’re really there”!
At a time when replacement credit cards took weeks, MBNA promised to get it there in a couple of days, anywhere in the world. So if you lost your card on holiday, they’d get you a replacement delivered while you were on holiday. Expensive? Yes. But the experience generated so much word of mouth referrals the benefits vastly outweighed the cost.
At a time when banks were hard to get hold of, MBNA had a ‘two ring pick-up’ policy – for every phone in every building. People would dive across desks to answer phones, because a customer (and suppliers, colleagues and partners were all customers too) shouldn’t be kept waiting. Experience mattered.
The same happened in the call centre and credit teams. If the call queue or decision time got too long, people were summoned from other parts of the bank to help reduce it. Nothing was more important than customer experience.
To deliver this speed and quality of service, everyone from a manager to the CEO had to spend 4 hours of every month working directly with customers. Not 4 hours a year, 4 hours a month. It was measured.

Is the philosophy of ‘think of yourself as a customer’ for you?

You may think this was a huge waste of time for busy executives. But the logic was simple. How can you be customer-centric, if you’re not regularly talking to customers? How can you think of yourself as a customer, if you’re not hearing about the lives and needs of different customers?
Being customer-centric is hard. It’s a strategic decision and long-term commitment. But one that I believe is even more relevant today.
We now live in the ‘experience economy’. Consumers, and hence B2B buyers, expect speed, flexibility, choice and personalised service. Stories of great and poor experience travel quickly. Being renowned for great customer experience can still be a big differentiator. More than that, it could transform your whole industry.

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