When the West Bromwich Permanent Building Society was founded in 1849, its objective was 'to enable its members to acquire property by the fruits of their own honest industry and frugality'. Things have moved on in the world of financial services since then, and although West Bromwich remains faithful to its founding principles, it has learned how to adapt to the requirements of a fast-moving, technology-driven and customer-focused marketplace.
The society chose to remain mutual, but its embrace of change and commitment to business transformation has yielded rich results. While many other financial service providers have struggled, the West Brom has doubled pre-tax profits, increased assets by 80% and lending by a remarkable 305% in the past five years. And it has won more than 60 awards.
It has been one of the most consistent entrants to the MT/Unisys Service Excellence Awards over the past 10 years, and has always striven to benefit from the feedback it has received - which is why the society was chosen as our Learning Organisation this year.
West Bromwich has an ambitious target. 'Our five-year mission is to be the top-performing building society,' says Heather Foote, assistant general manager. 'That means being the most responsive, the most dynamic, and having the most trusted, recognised brand.' To get there, it has identified six strategic drivers, two of them specifically service-oriented: moving from being product-dominated to being advice-driven; and achieving continuous improvement while increasing customer satisfaction.
West Bromwich's customer programme is still evolving. The society has a fully fledged Siebel CRM system to provide all the information its agents require about customers; it phones a sample of them within 24 hours to get their feedback about the service they received; a recently developed members' panel provides another forum for customer intelligence; and the society holds quarterly customer forums where members can put their views straight to directors, including the chief executive.
The society has created a special unit - Ideas to Action - with the brief to translate customers' ideas and feedback into new product design and delivery. Customer views were used extensively, for example, in the launch of the offset mortgage. The society acknowleges it is seldom an outright pioneer in developing new products, preferring to wait until concepts are proven and demand is established; then it seeks to engineer top-quality products.
The West Bromwich is committed to business improvement across the range of its activities; it has recently reviewed and updated all its standard operating manuals, launched a contact-centre efficiency programme and a mortgage-process efficiency project. Eager to learn from outside, it reviewed its process design with the University of Exeter, and engages in extensive benchmarking with the UK Best Practice Club, the Contact Centre Association and the Customer Service Network.
Recognition schemes include the Customer First awards, which can be nominated by colleagues as well as customers. And its people are encouraged not just to learn new skills but to help each other: more than 200 managers have completed its in-house coaching programme.
One of the society's most important recent initiatives has been 'virtual franchising' within the branch network, whereby each branch is responsible for its own finances and run as its own going concern. It's all about becoming more entrepreneurial, says operations director Stephen Karle.
'We've already seen a number of other benefits, such as improved community links, and a more enlivened atmosphere in terms of the service the branches are offering.'
West Brom is setting out to show that the building society model is as relevant in the next 156 years.