first direct collaborates with customers online

first direct is renowned for the quality of its customer service. So it’s no surprise that the bank is inviting customers to collaborate on new ideas via its first direct lab website.

In 2009 first direct launched its remarkable ‘Live’ campaign, with a microsite that gathered every mention made about it online. It was a remarkable exercise in openness and transparency, laying bare exactly what the public thinks about the brand.  Conversations evolved off the back of that, with customers able to provide continuous feedback by means of telephone and secure messaging service.

Now the bank has taken the logical next step, putting in place an online forum for customers to provide feedback to its initiatives and make suggestions for improvements. The project is called first direct lab, and launched on August 1 after six months gestation.   The site is open to anyone to view and has received more than 7000 comments so far.

From the start it has been clear that customers’ ideas do not necessarily coincide with the bank’s. For its first initiative it solicited feedback on plans to redesign its debit card.  At a casual glance this looked almost identical to the credit card, and the two were hard to tell apart when paying at the checkout.  “When we asked customers for feedback it turned out they liked the existing design for the debit card and would prefer any changes to be made to the credit card instead. Now we are doing that, and hopefully it will go the next stage,” says Natalie Cowen, head of brand and communications.

first direct was an early adopter of online banking, and many of its customers are technology-savvy veterans. So an invitation to comment on a projected homepage redesign – one tailored specifically for existing first direct customers, and another designed with non-customers in mind – has brought a flood of suggestions, gripes and comments. These show a variety and sophistication of views: from widening access to different browsers and the provision of mobile devices, to aiding navigation by cutting down clutter and a facility for customers to label their own direct debits. In short, enough to keep the bank’s designers busy for months.

A large proportion of comments come from Android smartphone users puzzled by the lack of an app similar to the one first direct provides on the iPhone. The bank’s response is that the iPhone is still by far the most used smartphone, while Android accounts for a minority of the customer base. However it reveals it is now developing an app that will work on all mobiles.

Other content includes a poll soliciting yes/no answers to a specific question and a ‘We love’ column, which this month features a list of cool brands, also an app for ordering from pizza express.

first direct lab is a marketing initiative: of course it makes sense to talk to customers about ways to improve the interaction between them and the brand. But could they also provide suggestions about  improvements to existing products, or even come up with ideas for new ones?  In fact there are plans to do that, although in a banking environment the potential is somewhat more restricted.  “Obviously there is a financial equation that sits behind a product, so there may be less flexibility for changes based on their recommendations. But it is useful to get feedback,” Cowen says.

It’s also clear that the bank must be prepared on occasion for a negative response. For instance a plan to develop a mobile app for finding a mortgage was greeted with a loud raspberry. Many said that this was something they would do on a PC at home, not on the move, while others again took the opportunity to complain about the absence of a current account app for BlackBerry or Android.

The company is also asking for opinions on QR codes, which are beloved by marketers but less so by consumers, to judge by the comments left on the website.  ‘Gimmick’ and ‘waste of time’ are common responses, although some readers have also come up with constructive alternatives.

Negative views might not sit well in a traditional marketing perspective, and it could be tempting to play them down. But any healthy relationship involves a certain amount of give and take.  As a demonstration of the bank’s commitment to transparency, its willingness to throw open the design process to customers arguably counts for far more in the long run than any discomfort from a thumbs down to  particular plans.

In fact a perusal of the comments shows a customer-base that is passionately attached to the brand, and when offered the opportunity to interact is only too happy to do so.  “Social media demonstrates that people want to engage, and if you give them the opportunities and the channel they will respond,” says Cowen.

From Social Business, Q4, 2011