- How do you see the state of the UK banking market at the moment?
The UK’s banking market is in a state of flux, competing for both existing and the next generation of customers. Everyone has their own strategy to get ahead and this mostly lies in utilising new technologies to provide a better customer experience. The new advances in personalisation and biometric security are being adopted as fast as they’re being developed, but the human element is still a key cornerstone – which banks neglect at their peril.
Leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, and APIs is something everyone in banking is looking at, but while we’ve pioneer innovations such as VoiceID at first direct, we’re conscious of working closely with customers to ensure there’s a genuine need and value add behind our innovations.
- What are some of the major challenges your team is facing at the moment?
We face challenges every day but I look on challenges as opportunities. We’re looking to create an environment of continuous improvement and this means making sure we put the information where the authority is. It means we’re always open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Banking – if done right – should be a customer service industry, so we need to challenge ourselves to make sure the changes we make have the customer at its heart. It’s easy to say you focus on customer service, but it’s much harder to actually deliver this.
- Do challenger banks present an opportunity, or are they flooding the market with too much competition?
Competition is good in any market. It drives new developments and means good is never good enough. While the so-called challenger banks don’t have the legacy systems of some of the older, larger institutions, which brings some advantages, the bigger banks have more customers and often deeper pockets. At first direct we enjoy the best of both worlds. We’re relatively young and able to remain agile, investigating and launching new innovations at pace, and with HSBC as our parent company we have the support of one of the world’s largest financial institutions.
- What role can technology play in bridging the 'trust gap' and ensuring consumers get on board with modern, online banking?
Tech has a major role to play in rebuilding trust in banking. Keeping people’s money safe is one of the primary reason for banks to exist. Many more of our customers use our digital channels to bank with us than use telephone banking, but whichever channel people choose to engage with us, we need to constantly try and stay ahead of the curve and make sure the levels of security and the quality of our service is exceptional. Customers vote with their feet. If they have a bad experience they will lose faith and they might leave. We always need to give them a reason to stay with us. We do that by trying to exceed their expectations of what dealing with a bank can be like. It’s personal, and it’s secure.
- What are your technological priorities looking to the future?
first direct customers can already use a voice recognition system to log in to their accounts, or a fingerprint system on the app. I really like fingerprint and voice ID, because it speaks to technology solving problems. I’m looking for how we can continue to use technology to solve problems, whether this is AI working in the background to help our people helping our customers or new ways to access your money on the go.
The big thing coming down the line for all banks is open banking. This will allow third-party providers – with our consent – to access our banking details, and recommend where we should go for the cheapest loan, the best mortgage or the highest savings rates. It could turn the banking industry upside down, but it’s a challenge we relish and it’s a massive opportunity for us.
In a world where the biggest taxi firm doesn't own any cars, where the biggest accommodation provider doesn't have any real estate, and where the biggest news website doesn't own any content - we want to play a part in shaping what banking will look like in that world.
- How long do you think it will be until online and phone-only banking becomes the norm?
first direct was the first online and telephone only bank and we launched 28 years ago this year. While others have tried to emulate this it’s proved a difficult model to get right. More and more people are engaging with their bank only by phone or online, but there are plenty of people who need or want to use the branch network. As a business we’re growing strongly, and all we can do is make sure our offering is as good as it can be and the service people receive from us is exceptional, however they choose to engage.
Joe Gordon is head of first direct