What happens when your customers no longer fit your strategy?

I thought long and hard about how to write this post. It’s draft number #several! I wanted to talk about the four fundamental elements you need to consider when building a great customer experience……in fact when doing ANYTHING that has an impact on customers. But my most recent experience, some would say, is a pretty negative one in terms of customer experience and it relates to when my organisation decided that there were some customers (with one particular product) that no longer fitted into the strategy, and some services that could be done more cost effectively. It had a huge impact on people.

I’ve reflected at length, and I believe that the fundamental elements I swear by still count in this situation, even though I’m talking about a time when rather than trying to make things brilliant for customers, we were changing things and making the experience as good as it COULD be, under the circumstances. See what you think.

Key take outs:

When I was a Head of Customer Experience at Yorkshire Building Society (YBS), it was a big part of my job to implement the distribution strategy. At that time (2016-2018) this involved big changes that impacted customers, and the people who worked for the organisation. In this post I’m going to focus on customers. There will be a future post about how we set out to make these changes as good as they could be for colleagues.

Some brave and bold decisions were made in the YBS Board room as a result of the organisation deciding to focus on its core business: Providing mortgages and savings accounts for customers with only one high street brand. Making this focus operational meant:

  • The complete removal of the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society (N&P) brand from the high street
  • Numerous branch closures (both N&P and YBS)
  • The closure of the current account banking business – closing down over 100,000 active bank accounts where the majority of the customers were happy (something that no other bank or building society in the UK had ever done before)

In total, over 500,000 customers and 500 colleagues affected. Once announced, this was not popular. No one liked the fact we were doing this (and that included the decision makers). It was a shame. N&P had its geographical roots in East Anglia and at over 150 years old, it meant something to a lot of people. From my own personal perspective, I’d grown up with N&P, one of my first jobs, and here I was nearly 30 years later, shutting it down.

But the numbers were not adding up. YBS didn’t need 45 branches in East Anglia. The current account business lost money and was not part of the YBS strategic direction. To keep things as they were would not have meant progress, however unpopular the decisions.

So, fundamental element number one came right into play. Decide which customers you want, and DON’T want, and HOLD YOUR NERVE despite it being unpopular. In this case, holding our nerve meant standing firm despite opposition from customers. It meant detailed liaison with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and industry bodies such as the British Bankers Association (BBA) to get them comfortable with what we were doing, and to enlist their help. It meant many meetings with local MPs and Councillors who wanted to understand the impact on their constituents and residents. It meant my team had to be strong and hold the line, whilst doing everything in their power to make this particular customer experience as good as it could be. You also have to plan, and accept, that you will lose customers. Be realistic.

Secondly, we had to really understand the reaction. We wanted to plan for the worst. We had to know what we would do when customers expressed their dissatisfaction. Customer facing teams had to be primed with the right information that would help people. We were getting plenty of feedback through what customers were telling us in our branches and on the telephones. We supplemented this by involving customers in an online forum that allowed them to tell us what they thought, so we could understand. We also met groups of customers face to face, to understand what they wanted to happen and in particular, what they thought would make the experience as good as it could be. We gave customers a lot of notice – more than required “by law”. In the case of branch closures, we showed people the closest alternatives and the online options.

The most difficult thing, was that for many customers, our building society branches were more than just a means of managing their money. They were part of the community. Small towns where a lot of people knew each other and in some cases people relied on our colleagues for a regular visit/chat/cup of tea which could not easily be replaced. It was more of a social service than a financial service. We did our best to acknowledge this and installed physical “Thank You” boards in the branches that were closing. This gave our colleagues the opportunity to say thank you to their customers by posting messages or photos, and vice versa. These boards were welcomed and many people contributed. We also made sure each branch had autonomy in deciding how to mark their closure, with many of them rolling out the tea and cakes for customers to mark the end of their particular era.

Element number 3, keeping it simple, was tricky. We were dealing with customers whose relationship with us in many cases stretched back years. They had multiple relationships with us, so segmenting the communications was extremely complicated, but essential, to ensure the right people got the right messages. In the case of closing current accounts, it wasn’t always THAT easy for people to switch to another bank or building society and of course that generated dissatisfaction. We needed to move hundreds of thousands of customer records from one platform to another, without anything other than planned breaks in service (at a time when one well known high street bank had made a complete mess of a large customer migration and locked people out of their bank accounts). This was complicated stuff. I was lucky to have an amazing team who every day, worked on making the complex thing we were doing, simple for customers……..

Which leads nicely to number 4. Owning the problem. We did a lot of things to make sure we didn’t shy away from our responsibilities to our customers. Here are some of the specific things we did, to step up to the challenge:

  • Created a team of people dedicated to helping customers change their banking arrangements. These were experts who proactively contacted customers to see what they could do to help, if those customers had not acted of their own accord.
  • We ensured we identified specific strategies for particular groups of customers with special circumstances and who were potentially vulnerable. It was extremely important for us to understand, how we would help customers in certain situations, to ensure they cam to no harm.
  • We didn’t rush things. This was an 18 month programme. We took time to make sure things were right.
  • We put ourselves firmly in customers shoes and scrutinised customer communications from the perspective of how they would make customers feel.

So for 2017 and a lot of 2018, we dealt with many customer experiences using the four elements to guide us. We closed around 50 branches, closed over 100,000 current accounts and moved over 500,000 customers to a new platform (without a hitch!). Under the circumstances it went very well. Of course many people were unhappy with our decisions in the first place, but I believe we delivered the job as best we could, and I think that was a great result.

Feel free to comment or ask a question below and I will get straight back to you – as ever, thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

March 1, 2019 7:30 am


  • Brenda Etchells says:

    Thanks Mike for sharing this experience with us – what a balancing act to do the right thing for the organisation and the right thing for the customer.

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