Stuart Fearn on Optimising your Branch Network During COVID-19

In this Q&A - Stuart Fearn, Head of customer contacts at Newcastle Building Society, talks about how his organisation is optimising their branch network during COVID-19.


Episode 18

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Episode Summary 


Keeping the high street relevant during COVID

Trying to maintain close personal contact with customers during a pandemic is a seriously difficult task. However, what should be of primary importance to any high street bank is keeping their customers safe. Sacrificing a small portion of human contact for this is an unavoidable trade off.

Branches are still the largest part of banking. However there has been a definite shift online for the majority of financial services.

Many consumers have been forced to adapt to online banking. Reluctance to learn pre-COVID meant a visit to the high street was the preferred channel every time.

Previously, the shop-front was physical. Now with a mostly virtual experience – What will happen to the high street? 

Having cutting edge online facilities is always fundamental. That has an industry standard. If you don’t meet it – your customers will not be happy.

However, this has its plateau, which stops at the current tech development and subsequent acceptance of new tech by the public. But in-store customer experience is something with no upper limit, due to the subjectivity of human interaction. 

There will always be a core of customers that simply need the high street. Ensuring they have the best experience possible with these face to face interactions should be of paramount importance.

What steps are being taken to keep the branches safe and control the flow of customers?

As a critical service, keeping up the high street presence while following government guidelines will continue to be a focus. Any changes made also has to be quickly and effectively implemented across a whole branch network.

The measures being put in place in banks includes:

  • Queue management
  • Protective screens
  • Plenty of hand sanitiser
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Temperature checking
  • Reduced store capacity


How can data be used to understand a branches customer base?

One thing that is changing in current times is definitely the types of in-branch visitors. People who cannot go online or perform transactions electronically/digitally have no choice but to come in store. Pulling and analysing location data to identify the branches that are more likely to have a higher footfall for this reason will aid the allocation of resources to these sites.

Using more advanced data, Banks & building societies can also begin trying to determine what the long-term effects of this pandemic might be - and what changes we need to make going forward.

Customer feedback during COVID

Running positive customer programmes and initiatives are an excellent way to catalyse big changes in customer service that have huge benefits, with an ever turbulent and changing environment. 

Collecting this feedback (through carefully distributed forms) will allow financial institutions to differentiate themselves from competitors, highlighting what makes them important on the high street. Further analysing this feedback by demographics and other individual factors allows you to dig even deeper into what more could be done for the customer.

However the first pillar of obtaining this data is flexible and centralised systems capable of obtaining this valuable information.



Using Video conferencing internally

The changes we have seen of internal communications is just the tip of the spear when it comes to digital transformation.

What started as just a means of meeting virtually with your teams, is now evolving into end to end virtual operations and customer service, which includes providing tablets to all branch employees to hold remote appointments.

Moving forward - this added dimension of communication will undoubtedly play a huge role in the future of retail banking, while saving a lot of time and money.

The future of retail banking

Everyone in the financial industry knows it - significant changes are guaranteed.

A huge shift towards digital banking is already well underway. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the high street will become obsolete.

There will always be people who want to see people face to face.

As branches continue to become less about their financial products, and more about the human experience... organisations who analyse these customer preferences will begin to understand the value of a more human and community-centric high street.

Written by Louis Simmons linkedin


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Full episode transcript

Louis: In this episode, we speak to Stuart Fearn, head of customer contacts at Newcastle Building Society, about how his organisation is optimising their branch network during covid-19. If you enjoy this episode, don't forget to subscribe to our mailing list and become CX Insider where you will receive all valuable CX content and have the opportunity to give input into future episodes to go to to subscribe.

Louis: Hello, everybody, welcome back to another episode of Customer Experience Conversations, I'm joined today by Greg hello and Stuart Fearn. Hello. Stuart is the head of customer contacts at Newcastle Building Society, and Stuart has been driving the branch customer experience innovation at NBS for five years. He's been with NBS for 12 years.

Louis: So he's also been directly responsible for the delivery of exceptional customer outcomes when contact has been made in any society branch through a range of different channels. Maybe that's a good place to start. Would you like to tell the audience just a little bit about who you are and what NBS's mission is as a company?

Stuart: Right. Hi there, Louis. Hi, Greg. Yeah. My role as head of customer contact is is very much focused on branches and it's very much focused on the organisation is delivering just fantastic financial futures for our customers. We are very focused at this point in time in making sure that we maintain a high street proposition and that we try to help keep the high street relevant.

Louis: Yeah, I can imagine that's. Very difficult at the moment with everything that's going on.

Stuart: Yeah, it's it's probably as a as a moment in time and it's a most unusual one.

Stuart: But obviously, when we're trying to maintain personal contact with customers at a time when the absolute opposite is the reality, today is difficult. However, we still do in our own way. We're still doing well, still doing what we need to do well. We're doing our best to keep people safe at the same time right now, down the line, not too many weeks from now, hopefully everything is back to normal.

Louis: Yeah, it's quite interesting because especially for your organisation to the face of your company was your branches. But at the moment is the focus is entirely shifted now. The shopfront is digital, is virtual, is the experience that the customers have with your organisation through the customer service online. So it's quite interesting to see how different organisations are handling that.

Stuart: Yeah, well, we ourselves it's very much a case of obviously we've got some fantastic online facilities and functionality and and in a lot of customers online. But what we are doing at the same time that I experience is as good as I think it needs to be. But we still have this core of customers that just need high street contact. And right now to there's been a lot of change in digital in the last three, four weeks for what we're doing. We still see an awful lot of contact through our branches.

Greg: Absolutely sure. With Newcastle Building Society at the moment, I see you've been obviously responding in many ways, like you say, doing an amazing job to keep the face to face interactions happening. Well, maybe share a little bit more detail about exactly what you've had to do, because, you know, I know in our conversations, you know, you've talked about all the amazing work that not just you've done, but all of the best team have done to you and maybe elaborate on some of those things, the steps you've taken to make, for example, branches safe, control the flow to the branches and things like that.

Stuart: Yeah. Thanks, Greg. Yeah, well, I was just keeping a branch open to start with. You know, I think let's be honest right now, is that is that if we could close everything down and let people stay at home, let them be safe soon, that would be better.

Stuart: But however, as a critical service, as we've been deemed, as the banks and building societies have, maintaining a high street presence and keeping up and being really important, as I said, there's a lot of people relying upon our services and still using the High Street. So to do that, we've got to bring in new measures. We've got to take that measure across our network. We've actually seen queues outside of our small and managed, and we've actually put up new screens in the branches to protect staff from any, any, any, any of our spread. We've got more sanitiser into the branches to help staff. Now, there's an awful lot of change. The work environment is very different. So as we usually do everything we could to get closer to the customer in this instance, we're trying to keep and maintain that relationship, but obviously in line with the requirements of the government right now.

Greg: Yeah, it's an amazing it's an amazing operation. You've obviously got a set up there because you cover customers over a broad a very broad age range, as well as obviously a physical set up as well in terms of lots of different places. How have one of the things I remember we talked about previously, very briefly, was to do with data, have used data at all to help you in this situation in terms of looking at and understanding your customer base?

Stuart: Yeah, well, one of the things is, I mean, I suppose one of the things we produce, the patterns of usage of our branch is generally so, you know, if you follow this, we would have understood who would use as well.

Stuart: What's been really interesting as we've gone into this is our user types definitely changed and we probably see more of our vulnerable customers at the moment. But our customers who can't go online can't transact electronically with us and digitally. So we're seeing that now. We've we've been slow to see that we've been pulling out just to see what that pattern looks like on the data perspective across our network. And there are probably a higher, higher, slightly less branches. Are people to use as more? We can we can see what we're also doing. Is it something that we've we've we've been working with the National Center for Ageing and a National Centre for Data Newcastle, two fantastic new facilities that we have here. We're starting to work with them now using data to understand more about what this means to our customers as we go forward rather than what it's doing today. So was this whole experience meant to our customers and and how how is pulling the data out so we can talk to those customers right now that we're starting to look forward and think about what is the long term effect going to be amazing.

Greg: Maybe come back to because I've got a question later. Actually, I'd love to ask you to get some more detail on that. But before we do, I heard you on a recent podcast with the North East England Chamber of Commerce. I know what you talked about and things like that,would be great if you were to share a little bit about how you're working with them as well as another organisation at the moment.

Stuart: Yeah, I mean, obviously, before this all happened, we're in a situation where, you know, there's an awful lot of focus going on these days on high streets where an organisation that's very, very much focused on making sure that high streets and communities are as strong as they can be. Things can be some really interesting outcomes from this, because in the end, however, to actually do that, you've got to try to as a larger organisation on the high streets in the Northeast, look to how we can support other businesses on the high street to thrive, survive. And so we've been providing masterclasses workshops with the Chamber of Commerce and with other businesses to try to help retailers seize on the High Street and improve what they do, improve the proposition, give them access to the free, free support from larger businesses.

Stuart: So as is the case in larger businesses supporting the smaller ones and everybody to say I'm just helping people be successful, and then I guess that links onto the customers themselves in terms of collecting that feedback.

Greg: Are you are you constantly collecting feedback from customers and tracking that over a period of time to see how not only they're feeling about the current situation, but obviously long term and then how that then shapes obviously the direction you take the business? How are you sort of tracking that?

Stuart: We've been running a positive customer program for quite some time now, and through that they've a bit and probably the response from the customers is the most important point. We've got some fantastic scores, some fantastic metrics. But what customers are actually saying to us is actually the most important point, what they say about our services, what they say about the support we provide. And it's great because what we do get from that is we get lots and lots of feedback about how we differentiate ourselves from others and why we're important on the High Street. That also gives us an opportunity to sometimes take a little bit deeper and to work out what we need to do.

Louis: Okay, right. On that topic, looking at the wider financial sector, a lot is changing in retail banking at the moment, especially on the High Street. What do you see the future of retail banking looking like?

Stuart: That's an interesting one. I don't know if any of us can really tell what it's going to look like when we come out of this. I do definitely think there's going to be some changes and differences.

Stuart: Now, if you'd have asked me a few weeks ago, I'd have said that this obviously is just an absolutely significant shift towards digital banking. Of course, a part of our business, Newcastle Saving Solutions Limit, is actually the digital and digital provider for the Challenger banks.

Stuart: However, for myself and my part of the business, I think we're all focused on the people who actually do still want to see people face to face.

Stuart: I think our banks have pulled away from that in the main, but we see is a definite need and I think there's been a definite gap there.

Stuart: Yes. Stuart. One question I had then is what sort of things are you maybe seeing in the wider space? Because I know that within the building society community there is a lot of cross pollination of ideas and ideas sharing. The organisations seem to work fantastically well together. What are you seeing other organisations doing in response to the current situation, to maybe even what are they thinking about the long term as well?

Stuart: I think right at this very minute there's not probably a lot of sharing going on as to what is out there.

Stuart: And you're right, we work well together. We know we do talk. And we tried to share some great ideas of his great ideas of building society association, particularly fantastic and sharing those ideas out there. I think right now I think we're still trying to try to provide the best services we can. And then one of the things we're all looking at the moment is trying to work with the post office, and that's to try to provide an emergency backup service for transacting customers in the in the situation. For whatever reason, we're unable to provide a service at branch is closed and somebody needs emergency access to cash. That is something that can happen. We've been very fortunate. We've not lost and not closed any branches, really. So we've not a great need for it. But it could something could quite easily have happened where we could have had to show a lot of branches, nothing across the sector as being the case as well as the banking sector.

Stuart: So we're with the post office to provide wider access to a wider network of places for people to withdraw. Cash is is very important and very interesting to be a relationship that'll come out of this. I think that's going to be something new, something we've shared something with all our clients, our customers and our members will benefit from it.

Greg: I'd love to. I love it ultimately in times like this, where where organisations are really looking for that opportunity. And there are you know, there's a lot of negatives about where we are right now, but there are also a lot of positives. And it seems like Newcastle Building Society are doing anything and everything they can to stay open, continue to serve their customers in the best possible way. But like you say, are also exploring new opportunities and new partnerships to make that happen. So well done to. Obviously, you and to the wider embassy, because it seems to be something that really you're really sort of playing with innovation in some respects as well, which is which is amazing to see at a time like this one. Sort of I guess one of the last questions I definitely have is in terms of, you know, you and your staff and and everyone that you work with. How have you been finding that from from the perspective of an employee? Have you found, obviously, video calls, etc., be particularly prominent, like, you know, Zoom and things like that? Is that really helping you guys to stay in touch and and keep that working spirit alive?

Stuart: Yeah, well, it's really interesting.

Stuart: I mean, I think I probably scouts' and I talked previously about that is that the digital movement in the digital sphere, as in video conference call, has me so far forward for us. And we should be fantastic to see because we were able to our I.T. departments have been sort of implementing new technologies across the business and probably about two to three weeks where we could have the majority of our employees working from home, providing all the services that you would be seeing from two major head offices. So that's been great. We've seen the we've on video and Microsoft teams they've used every day.

Stuart: And how are teams even in the branch network that they're all using iPads and using teams for video conferencing to one another to ensure everybody and everybody is coping? I think the key to this actually is the connection is keeping everybody together. It was easier previously. Obviously, we could we could pull a meeting together and get guys in the room. But now we're actually getting into these virtual meetings.

Stuart: And I think it's a hell of a difference now. We've done that. But then we've also done the things that are known digital and done and so on. Technical, you know, if we provided handcream, for example, to our staff, which is the most bizarre and unusual thing you'd ever expect me to say about providing something the staff members take and make them something else that makes them feel better after sort of eight hours a day of constantly putting sanitisers on their hands, the hands are moving. So we've been working with a great organisation called Nurse em, which is actually Northeast best created by a nurse to provide cream that was particularly used sanitising in a hospital. And so fantastic. We didn't have to give every member of staff in the organisation hand cream. That was I never thought I'd say on it on anything like this. But what's happened as a result of that? We also distribute exactly the same amount back to the nurses, as well as the amount that we just got the nurses in the hospitals to use. So they benefit from that. So it's been great. We've done some of this stuff. You know, we've gone further than that. We've we've we've worked with distilleries in distilleries in downing down in London, where locally and in the north.

Stuart: And he's going to is that and I'm sorry, sanitiser just the communities around some very hardy rural communities and one of our branches and over the weekend was distributing not the community stuff, which is part of that community because they're really struggling to get access and sanitise it, believe it or not. So the frenzy all comes together. And just amazing stuff we're getting back to digital. Digital has been amazing and it's something that won't go away when we finish all this. I'm pretty confident that video conferencing and that will continue to be a big part of our business as we move forward and stuff, communication particularly. And I think that will end up saving us a lot of money as well, which is going to be fantastic. Absolutely amazing.

Louis: Well, unfortunately, we are running out of time, but in future, how can people follow the Newcastle building site?

Stuart: Historian I think following us, I mean, we've we've got a very lively linked in, I think, with colleagues across the whole society sharing everything that's going on. I think the society itself is quite active on that, whether it be Twitter or Facebook. We're very strong in the social media in terms of social media. I think we take a lot of national press as well, which is really interesting because we do things. You'll see a lot more of Newcastle, I'm sure, when we come out the other side of this, and we take advantage of the opportunity that we've probably created by being very consistent in what we've done during this. I'm sure you see a lot more in Newcastle.

Louis: Yes. A very important time to take care of the reputation of your company for sure. So thank you very much for joining us, Stuart. It's been a pleasure having you.

Stuart: And thank you for having me. Thank you. Thank you.

Greg: Appreciate appreciate your time and your insights. Yeah, it's not. Take care, guys, and still stay well. Stay safe.