CRM with Attitude (Or, How Richard Branson will Transform the Banking World)

When Richard Branson and the Virgin Money team joined forces with Wilbur Ross to bail out the UK’s Northern Rock bank, a lot of the pundits took note and started to wonder if Branson might have as disruptive an effect on banking as he’s had on airlines. Can he drive down pricing? Introduce some kind of new low-cost banking secret weapon? Possibly, but I think Bank Branson could  transform banking simply by taking a page from the Virgin Atlantic playbook and focusing on customer service as a differentiating factor. The airline’s emphasis on personalized service bolsters customer loyalty like nothing else; it creates a bond that is uniquely enduring.

I say this as a man who, with a couple of million miles of airline travel beneath his feet, would have to be dropped out of the plane without a parachute — perhaps several times — before Virgin Atlantic exhausted all the good will credits it has earned over the years.

What has earned Virgin Atlantic such good will? The particulars of their services are important, but they are not the ultimate differentiator. Virgin sends a car to pick me up. They have someone meet us at the curbside to handle my bags. They streamline my trip to the boarding gate. When I’ve taken my seat, they ask if I’d like something to drink and when I say, “milk with ice, please,”  they invariably smile and tell me they’ll be right back.

Milk with ice is not supposed to be some kind of test; that’s just what I like to drink when I start a flight. But if it were a test, then Virgin is the only airline that passes. No other airline seems to be able to accommodate that request—which is odd because we know that planes carry milk and we know that planes carry ice. Combining them, though, appears to go beyond what personnel on other airlines are prepared to do. The attendants routinely offer a sad smile and say that they can offer only orange juice, water or champagne.

Therein lies a critical distinction that goes beyond any list of specific services: Attitude. Attitude is Branson’s ultimate brand, and he has imbued Virgin Atlantic with an attitude that distinguishes it among its competitors. Some of the individuals at Virgin recognize me on sight. They have interacted with me innumerable times, so I’m not surprised when they interact with me as though we have a longstanding connection. But everyone at Virgin treats me as though I am someone with whom they have a connection. They may not know me personally; they may never have seen me before in their lives; but they treat me as a valued friend of the firm and I feel recognized as such whenever I interact with them. I receive what feels like a level of personalized care and attention, even from people who have never seen me before.

So what does all this have to do with CRM or banking? It has everything to do with both. The combination of attitude and personalized services that I’ve experienced with Virgin Atlantic is what makes me come back time after time. If Bank Branson can imbue those customer relationship values throughout the ranks of the bank then I would find myself hard pressed to bank anywhere else. That sense of a valued, personalized connection is critical, and all too frequently absent in most business transactions.

As for CRM? That’s going to be key to facilitating the personalization of service delivery.  What’s the banking equivalent of my glass of milk with ice? There’s no reason why any teller should not know what is important to me in banking services — and it would be wonderful to feel as though a teller or a manager is going to make an effort to fulfill my banking request, even if it’s slightly unusual.

Moreover, there’s no reason why a teller should not have immediate access to information about me that will make me feel like a valued friend of the bank. If I frequently make transfers at the window, any teller should know that and ask me if I have any transfers to make that day. Even if I don’t have a transfer to make, the fact that they know I frequently make transfers makes me feel recognized and valued.

Richard Branson seems to understand the importance of cultivating that sense of personal connection. If he can bring this attitude to banking, it will be a most wonderful and welcome disruption.

Anthony Leaper is  head of Solution Management and Go to Market of the Customer Line Of Business Organization at SAP.