Friday 24 March 2006

This is not an ad for Barclays…

Let’s make this clear up front. This is not a free advertisement for Barclays Bank. We’re not advertising for or against any bank.

However, I’m going to use Barclays as an example of something that I think is good.

The growing awareness that, whether they like it or not, commercial organisations increasingly have to think about how they treat their customers.

The Watchdog team were invited last week to the launch of the new Barclays Vehicle Finance Scheme. This is basically a new mechanism for borrowing money to buy cars. I’ll leave it up to Barclays themselves to sell this facility to you. They, after all, are the ones paid to do this. They are the ones who will make money from selling it to you.

Apart from being tempted to spend astonishing amounts of money on the new cars on display in the GICC car park (several of which cost more than the price of a house!) we were then invited to listen to Thuli Johnson, the Barclays Botswana Managing Director introduce the facility.

A strange thing then happened.

He didn’t mention any details about the scheme at all. Not a single word did he say about how much it will cost, what the terms are, what sort of car you can buy with it. Nothing at all.

Instead he spoke about how this new thing will improve customer service.

He spoke about how customers will get faster decisions, a simpler process and generally better service.

It really was very refreshing to see that a major company like Barclays mention customer service first.

Now clearly the Barclays Public Relations machinery was operating in the background. Barclays is a huge international organisation that is very good at what they call “spinning”. Telling a story in a way that will most impress the customers. Making us feel good about the things they sell. Selling it to us.

Presumably though Barclays here have realised that there is a growing understanding that customer service actually matters and that customers are beginning to demand higher and higher levels of service from everyone, everywhere they go.

To an extent I’m not actually concerned whether Barclays mean it or not, whether it’s all spin, whether it’s just them manipulating us. I suspect they do care because they realise it will increase their market share, the return on their investment and will make them more money but that’s not the issue.

The issue is that it’s clearly something that they have realised that they need to do in order to gather customers. To get new customers who are not currently buying a car, but also to tempt customer away from other banks towards Barclays.

This is the most important issue. Competition. Barclays, being smart, are going to try and tempt customers away from other banks, from their competitors. There’s absolutely nothing bad about this. This is how a market economy works. The way the customer benefits is quite simple. We go to Barclays and get a good deal on a new car purchase. Even better though is that you can be sure that within months all the other banks will come up with their own new car purchase schemes to tempt customer away from Barclays and back towards them. If they already have one they’ll relaunch it and make it seem new. The way they do this is with better customer service, better rates, cheaper car purchases. We as customers can start shopping around, playing bank against bank, encouraging them to offer us a better deal than the others. There are few things as powerful when you’re buying a car on a finance scheme as being able to say “Well, Barclays offered me x% interest. Can you beat that?”

Go do it. Shop around. It might take you a few hours of chatting to banks but it could save you a couple of percentage points on your car loan. Sounds just a little but it could save you thousands. That’s a year’s worth of petrol! Just make sure that you tell them you’re shopping around. Tell every one what the others have offered you and see if they can beat it. If they can’t beat it or aren’t interested then just turn your back and leave.

Competition is the essence of good customer service. If you don’t believe me take a look at those areas where there is no competition, where there are monopolies. How does the quality of their customer service compare? Look at the water, power and satellite TV monopolies we have. Aren’t they amongst the worst at customer service? Aren’t they the ones that seem like they don’t care?

Well, why should they? Why should they care? Where else are we going to get our water or power from? It’s not like we can run a pipe across the border and get it there, is it?

That’s why we think organisations should employ internal competitors. Employ someone insde your monopolistic enterprise whose only job is to say things like “If we had a competitior they could do that 10% cheaper than we are” and “If we had competition we’d have lost that deal”.

If they cared they would, but they don’t, and why should they?

So, to Barclays we say this. Good for you. Good for you for taking the lead and offering us better customer service. Even better for you for starting what we hope is an avalanche of car financing schemes that give us choice, better deals and cheaper motoring.

But this isn’t an advert for Barclays, OK?

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