In my last company i had an argument with one of the owners about whether 'service' was a differentiator for a business. He was adamant it wasn't and i must admit i still haven't read Killer Differentiators to find out why he thought this, but i had an experience last week that proves that not only is service a differentiator, sometimes it is the only differentiator.
When i was looking to open a bank account for my business, i did a little research online and found that most business accounts were similar. So i was pretty sure i would end up going with the same bank where i have my personal accounts. I have never had problems with them, i like their online banking and i thought being an existing customer i might get preferential treatment. As it turns out, when i wandered round branches of the main banks, the service was pretty bad in all but one ... and that one was not my existing bank.
All of the banks now seem to employ greeters, who approach you as you enter to find out why you are there. Generally all of these greeters are smiling and try their best to be helpful. How helpful they actually are, very much depended on the bank. I will cut the list down to 3 banks that were illustrative of the levels of service i received:
Bank 1 - Bank Of Scotland
This is who my mum has her business account with and she seemed to think they were ok, so i decided i would check them out. When i walked in and said that i was looking to open a business account, the greeter looked like i had just asked her to hand over all the cash. She seemed genuinely shocked. After overcoming her initial panic, she tracked down a more senior person, who told me that they no longer opened business accounts in branch and i would have to signup over the phone.
Let's see, i would probably spend ages on hold, followed by a lengthly phone call, with lots of trying to explain and spell things, probably with a call centre in India and either have to post my passport away or go into a branch to hand it over anyway. Not my idea of a good time, thanks but no thanks.
Bank 2 - The Royal Bank Of Scotland
It has to be said that my business was theirs to lose. By this point i had been to a few other banks and had similar experiences to the above. I decided; stuff it, i have my personal accounts with them, i might as well go with RBS.
The greeter was slightly less terrified than the one in Bank Of Scotland, but she also informed me that they didn't open business accounts in that branch. She did tell me that they had a business consultant at another branch in town, at which point i said i would just go there then. This did not go over well, she insisted that i stay so she could take my details to pass them on to the business consultant. Why? I'm really not sure. Maybe the greeter got some sort of bonus for referrals, or maybe she thought she was being helpful. Either way, i would have rather gone to the other branch to see someone who could actually help me. So after a bit of waiting while the greeter attempted to find some brochures and forms, she proceeded to ask me questions to fill in a form that replicated my account details. What a waste of time, both mine and hers. I was then told that the business consultant would call me later in the day ... or maybe tomorrow. Very reassuring.
Totally dismayed at the poor service, i thought i would try one last bank, which lead me to ...
Bank 3 - HSBC
Things i knew about HSBC before last week; 1) They have a lot of international branches, 2) They have a lot of intelligent adverts, particularly at airports and 3) Absolutely nothing about their accounts. It was a long shot, but i figured i might be traveling or living abroad, so international branches could be useful.
I went in and the service was radically better than i had received anywhere else. The greeter was pleasant and helpful, she told me that they had a business consultant in branch and she would check if he could see me there and then. While she went to check, she sat me down in a comfy seat, asked if i would like tea or coffee and quickly returned to let me know the business consultant would be out shortly. The business consultant was very helpful. While he couldn't open the account on the spot as he had appointments for the rest of the day, he did juggle some other appointments around so that i could open it as soon as possible. He listed everything i would need to bring with me, gave me a business card with the appointment details on it and i left. The whole experience made my decision easy and obvious.
Ok my company is unlikely to turn over a vast amount of cash and make HSBC lots of money. But consider how many people will be pissed off with other banks and open an account with HSBC, then square that number to account for all of the people they tell and that adds up to a lot more business.
Now there is a good chance i will never be back in a branch again (i do all of my personal banking online and i suspect my business banking will be the same) but it is nice to know that should i need to go in the service is good. It may seem slightly irrational to base a very rational decision (opening a bank account), on something as ephemeral as customer service in one particular branch at one particular time. But in the absence of any other meaningful difference in the product, it was all that mattered.
Service may not be the best or most secure thing to differentiate your business or product on, but it is definitely a differentiator in the eyes of the customer.