Some well-known sayings are there for a reason. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is among the best of them, and one of the traps we can easily fall into when it comes to judging our banks.
First Direct has just topped a customer service league compiled by Which?. It’s good news for the beleaguered banking industry, and it’s no fluke either. For some time now, the online bank has been lauded for its strong performance and excellent customer service.
But because it’s owned by HSBC, which has gone the other way in recent years, First Direct becomes too easily associated with all the misdemeanours of its parent bank.
Move Your Money, a campaign site that encourages people to switch banks, is one site that is particularly culpable of this blinkered way of thinking. Despite admitting that First Direct ‘has happy customers’, it overlooks this completely, preferring to bracket everything about the bank together with its owner.
I took them to task on this a year ago, when First Direct was voted the UK’s third best company in the same annual Which? poll. “We hope to refine”, they said. A year on, and clearly that hasn’t happened. In fact, First Direct somehow ranks below Move Your Money’s detested HSBC, which makes an absolute mockery of its ascent to the top of the customer service league in 2014.
@moveyourmoneyuk New Which? poll ranks FD as the UK’s 3rd-fav company. It’s an oversight to insist that affiliated banks must rank the same.
— Which4U.co.uk (@Which4U) September 24, 2013
To my mind, there are two fundamental flaws with this rather convenient methodology.
Firstly, to say that ‘[in the] most part the performance of the whole group is the same’ is to grossly misjudge any exception to the rule. It’s one thing to lump together two banks like Yorkshire and Clydesdale, which are both Australian-owned and where one doesn’t cough without the other one following.
This is clearly different, however. The liquidity is HSBC’s, but the operations – quite clearly – are not. And it’s just too lazy to talk about a bank entirely in terms of its provider, as MYM does here.
Ahem. What if I want to know about First Direct? This tells me bugger all about it! Instead, it’s pushing scandal down our throats like a tabloid. It doesn’t even try to see past HSBC – and therefore, unfortunately, it stinks of agenda.
Secondly, it’s a bit raw for the site to be making such weighted value judgements about what it expects customers want from their bank. The site’s scorecard is largely based on what is loosely termed ‘ethical’ value judgements. That’s fair enough, to a point. But it doesn’t reflect everyone’s prerogatives.
If everyone placed ethics first, Triodos Bank and the Charity Bank would be household names. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Moreover, trust in the ethical has understandably dipped, following the Co-operative Bank’s brush with disaster last year.
I’m willing to bet that if a bank is keeping its customers happy, that will be their first priority by some considerable distance. That’s why it’s poor form that a switching site is telling us that First Direct’s excellent customer service should count for nothing.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Move Your Money’s overarching objective. Two of the reasons why banks have misbehaved the way they have in recent years is because of sightless greed on their part and dogged resistance to change on our part. It’s right to remind people that there are alternatives beyond the high street giants and that not all banks are the same.
But the big banks are going to dominate the current account market for some time to come, and it’s sending completely the wrong message to say that a bank rated so highly for its customer service is entirely the wrong place to go.