“Hire The Smile And Train For Skill” – How First Direct Earned The Title Of ‘Best Company In The UK’

Customer service is important to any business or organisation, and one company that knows this all too well is the UK’s most recommended banking service, First Direct. As winners of ‘Best Company in the UK ‘ for customer service in 2014, First Direct have been praised for their empathy, approach to resolution and seamless service online and via telephone. Luckily for us, we managed to have a chat with Karen Walker, Customer Services Director at First Direct, and here’s what she had to say…

karen-walkerFirst of all, congratulation! Best company in the UK is quite the title to have, and a lot of companies will be wondering how you do it. What’s your secret?

We launched 25 years ago on 1 October 1989, so we’re relatively new for a bank.  We were able to start with a clean slate and build the business around the customer – we aim to deliver amazing customer service and really wow our customers whenever they get in touch.  However, none of this would be possible without our people; they’re the ones that have great conversations with our customers day-in, day-out; they determine whether we’re brilliant or just OK.

You’ve been quoted many times saying that it is the hiring process that has a lot to do with the success of your customer service department. Can you explain further?

We call it ‘hire the smile and train the skill’.  We recruit our people for their attitude and personality and their customer service ethos and then teach them all they need to know about banking; it’s as simple as that.  We realised early on that, because we don’t have branches, our people need to be fabulous  at delivering  service over the phone, so the interview process starts with a telephone interview;  that way we know they’ll get on famously with our customers.

“…none of this would be possible without our people; they’re the ones that have great conversations with our customers day-in, day-out; they determine whether we’re brilliant or just OK.”

What personality traits are key to a good customer service rep? What do you look for? And how can you spot the good ones?

A positive attitude, an outgoing personality and a smile you can hear.

Our Representatives connect with customers over the phone, so they genuinely need to make customers feel appreciated, valued and understood without relying on facial expressions to help.  We’re all about striking up conversations with customers to find out what they really need and ensure they connect with us on more than just a ‘customer – bank’ level.

We always try to go above and beyond for our customers – we need people who work out how something can be done rather than people who find reasons why it can’t.

You are very meticulous about who you employ. But do you have any systems in place to monitor and measure the performance of your contact centre employees?

We regularly listen to calls to review how our people are interacting with our customers and we coach our people to ensure they improve continuously.  We also regularly ask our customers what they think and act on their feedback to improve how we do things.

“We need people who work out how something can be done rather than people who find reasons why it can’t.”

Hiring for attitude and training for skill is great in theory, but doesn’t that take up a lot of time and resources? Or do you have a procedure in place for this?

It’s true that it’s not a quick process, but it is robust and we think it’s worth spending more time to get it right.  Our business succeeds or fails based on how our people interact with our customers – getting the right people for our customers is not something we want to rush.

It’s interesting (and trustworthy on your part,) that your Customer Service staff don’t have a script. How much freedom do you give to your staff?

In banking there will always be regulation, certain things we have to say to the customer in a certain way – these elements are scripted to ensure we remain compliant.  Nothing else is.  Our people feel able to have easy, natural conversations with our customers without the need for us to tell them what they need to say.

Customers comment on how accessible you are. Just how accessible are you? Is serving customers through multi-channel an important part of your customer service strategy?

It’s essential.  We want our customers to be able to get in touch in whichever way and at whatever time they prefer and to receive the same level of excellent service no matter what the channel.  Currently our customers can call, send us an email, Tweet or leave us a message on Facebook, and we’re always looking for new ways to interact with our customers and stay connected.

“We don’t view our business in a hierarchical way; our CEO doesn’t even have an office.”

For many companies, the contact centre is at the bottom of the company hierarchy, how do you see your customer service department?

We don’t view our business in a hierarchical way; our CEO doesn’t have an office.  Our contact centre is the hub of our business and the most important element.

Finally, what would you say to those companies who don’t have their contact centres within the UK, never mind at the heart of their company?

I’d tell them to listen to what their customers want and be mindful that every contact the customer has influences how they feel about your company.


 

karen-walkerKaren Walker is Customer Services Director for first direct, the Leeds and Hamilton based direct bank.  Over 23 years in the business Karen has held a number of key roles in Credit, Customer Services, HR and Organisational Development and has gained a wealth of operational, change, people and customer management experience across both first direct and its parent, HSBC.  Over the last four years, Karen has specialised in culture and employee engagement, maximising engagement and ensuring people feel valued through the design and delivery of strategic people experience programmes.  18 months ago, Karen took on the mantle of Customer Services Director at the bank and is now responsible for delivering its award winning service and maintaining first direct’s number one slot at the top of the customer satisfaction charts.