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10 December 2023

Financial crisis will force banks to refocus on customer service

Robert Keay, Managing Director and Founder, Ethos Consultancy (LOAY ABU HAYKEL)

By Karen Remo-Listana
Customer satisfaction with the UAE's retail banking sector, especially in the call centre area, has fallen steadily over the past few years, according to the Benchmarking Service Quality study conducted by Ethos Consultancy.

But this is all about to change as the global financial crisis is expected to force banks to finally make customer service a priority, Robert Keay, Managing Director and founder of Ethos, told Emirates Business.

"Banks this year will be on a drive to improve customer service," he said.

"There are fewer people so there will be fewer customers, so service becomes imperative.

—We are no longer in an era of easy money and analysts expect that the focus will now shift from quantity to quality. And because you are in the business of measuring service quality, does this mean 2009 will be a good year for you?

—Yes, our business is doing very well. Our order book is already 50 per cent higher than last year. We expect our 2009 revenues to be Dh40 million and we will make about 30 per cent profit out of that. Last year, our revenues were Dh16m and currently they are already between Dh24m and Dh25m.

—So the crisis is pushing banks to become more customer friendly?

—Yes, and there are two factors. The first is that the government is committed to improve the quality of service. And second, the banks – because of falling sales – are beginning to take customer service and customer loyalty seriously, which in previous years they did not. We have run our fourth annual benchmarking study and it tells us that customer service is not improving in the banking sector. But I think we will see a difference this year. In previous years all the banks were rushing to service the growing demand and in that situation customer service, most of the time, did not come at the top of the list. In the past few years there is only one bank that has significantly improved its customer service and that is RAKBANK. Some other banks, such as First Gulf Bank, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and Dubai Islamic Bank, have improved but there are 30 banks offering retail services so it is a small proportion.

—Is customer service really poor?

—The way banks do business here is different. Another challenge is the huge increase in the number of residents and businesses, which meant a huge increase in recruitment. That whole combination created a process that left people dissatisfied. But the main thing is that the banks know that. Of course, they got complaints before but the applications for loans and credit cards were going through the roof. What is interesting is that, according to a recent global report, there are many countries in the West where the banking sector is worse than here.

—How do you measure the performance of each bank?

—In the benchmarking study we measure three delivery channels – branch, telephone and website. We have found that the call centres have been the worst performing area – getting someone to speak to you has become more difficult. The 2007 satisfaction average was 76.48 per cent and for 2008 it went down to 65.64 per cent. What has improved is the web as most customers prefer to do transactions themselves rather than dealing with bank staff. The satisfaction average went up from 42.3 to 46.4 per cent. Branch visits have gone up from 68.04 to 70.46 per cent.

—What can be done to improve the performance of the call centres? Would it be better to hire in-house call centre agents rather than outsource?

—It does not make any difference. The crucial aspect is that you hire the right people and give them the right knowledge, training and interpersonal solutions. So many banks just recruit anybody. The turnover in call centres is high around the world. It is a boring job, people shout at you, there are not promotion prospects, it is not a job that many people like doing. The customer's satisfaction countdown starts the minute the phone starts ringing. If the phone is not answered the customer becomes frustrated, and the longer it takes the more frustrated he gets. If he is told he will be called in an hour he has to be called back within an hour. That is one of the biggest complaints. If you go back to the root cause – why is the customer ringing? – it is because the customer needs to call in the first place. Centres fall short for a number of reasons. They do not recruit the right people, they do not give them the right training, they do not monitor their performance, they do not retrain them and then there is the nationality issue.

—As there are no consumer groups in the UAE where can you raise complaints, what can the customer do?

—The consumer has a choice: Find another bank. That is the power of the global economy. You have 30 retail banks in the country, you do not have to stay with one that gives you poor service. And that is why I think banks in the UAE this year will be on a drive to improve customer service. There are fewer people so there will be fewer customers, so service becomes imperative.

PROFILE: Robert Keay, Managing Director and Founder, Ethos Consultancy

Keay is the owner of Ethos Consultancy, the UAE's leading specialist customer service company.

He is also the co-founder and chairman of the International Customer Service Institute and was the driving force behind the development and launch of the International Customer Service Standard, now implemented globally.

He also developed the UAE's only customer service benchmarking study for the retail banking sector, which is now in its fifth year.

Keay set up Ethos in the United Kingdom in 1995, having spent the previous six years as co-owner of one of the UK's leading customer service training and consultancy firms. Prior to this he held senior positions at Audi-VW and Land Rover.

Keay was a senior assessor for the inaugural Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum UAE Business Award in 2005.