Britannia Building Society can add winning the Financial Services category of the 2006 Service Excellence Awards to its 150th anniversary celebrations this year. Founded in 1856 as the Leek and Moorlands Permanent Benefits Society, Britannia is now Britain's second-largest remaining building society after Nationwide. But it's ambition is to gain recognition as 'Britain's best mutual'.
Despite continuing sector consolidation, demutualisation is 'not up for debate', according to business leader Philip Garlick. Indeed, the society has just completed the first remutualisation of a Plc banking business, having bought the savings business and 66-strong branch network of Bristol & West last autumn.
'The merchant bankers said we couldn't do it,' says Garlick, explaining that Britannia delivered full system integration within nine months, while receiving just 60 complaints from the transfer and closure of 26,000 Bristol & West current accounts. The society pledged that no B&W saver would be worse off as a result of the transfer, and overall these deposit-holders are said to be in line for £7m more interest this year by vitue of being with Britannia.
The acquisition underlined Britannia's commitment to its branch network - one of the mutual's 'givens' and arguably a channel seeing something of a comeback in the wider banking sector.
Britannia is unique among building societies in giving annual dividend-style payouts to savers and borrowers (called members), based on their balance size and the products held. Sharing some of the mutual's profits - £48m this year, an average of £52 each to eligible members - creates a tangible loyalty benefit for membership distinct from the usual (and sometimes dubious) claims made by building societies to offer better rates. The society's customer-owners are also encouraged to feel involved - 10p is donated to charity by the business for each member who casts their AGM vote (by post, generally). This incentive got 25% of members voting at the latest AGM - the highest return at any society - and meant a £40,000 cheque for a children's cancer charity.
The Britannia Customer Experience Programme, which is sponsored from the top by group CEO Neville Richardson, is about differentiating by service through helping customers to feel what they say they want to feel in their dealings with the society. The programme is designed to ensure that processes and ways of working evoke the desired feelings identified by extensive customer research - 'best interest at heart', 'peace of mind', 'in control', 'understood' and 'special and valued'. So far, 35 areas of the business and projects have been looked at and product literature is being reviewed against the sought-after feelings identified.
Elsewhere, new systems giving staff a single view of a member's product holdings are said to have resulted in an industry-leading level of customer retention as well as a 20% increase in the average number of products taken up per customer.
But like any financial services organisation, the society is no stranger to complaints. According to strategy manager Christian Williams, two years ago complaints were answered but 'we didn't really listen or learn'. Now root causes are analysed and complaints are compared with other feedback to find ways of continually improving what the society does. The result, says Williams, is that 'we can make good things happen from bad things that happen'.
Complaints are now down 36% from 2004 and the society is moving towards a one-stage process where they are sorted out on the spot without the need for disgruntled customers to wait for a reply.
All staff have a £25 compensation mandate. Britannia says it wants to offer customer service guarantees that should be a real measure of its service mettle.