Monday, January 31, 2011

Where did it go wrong for the Barclays branches?

It was a surprise last week for me to see the news that Barclays was to sack 1,000 Financial Advisors from their branch network.

It’s a while now since I last worked on bank branch IT, but when I did (only four years ago) the focus was very much around replacing old branch systems and enabling branch as a sales channel. The market was full of software vendors offering everything from the RFID identification of clients to analytics engines that ensured the presentation of the best offer to clients. Many of these products also talked about their multi-channel capabilities (by which they meant internet) and a very significant focus of the market was on enabling sales in branch. Occasionally lip-service was paid to contact centre or ATM or mobile, but the main focus of the analysts, consultants and many banking executives was on branch based sales.

So where did it go wrong for the Barclay’s branch advisors? At a superficial level, being a sales person at a bank with a strong brand, at one of the few banks not to need a government bail-out and with a large UK retail market share would seem very attractive. Barclays has a good SMB business banking franchise, so that would suggest lots of small business owners to sell products to.

I think part of the answer is that the target market is still attractive and still there. The number of individuals just below High Net Worth (HNW) status continues to grow and these individuals need advice. The true HNW demographic that is targeted by the Barclays Wealth division, part of Barclays Capital, so although there may be some overlap the branch advisors had a significant number of potential customers. The branch advisers were meant to target individuals who were below the £500k asset threshold required for Barclays Wealth, but I suspect the advisors didn’t for a number of reasons.

Firstly these higher earners or asset significant individuals do not regularly visit branches. I’m prepared to bet that most Finextra readers (especially those who live & work outside a city centre) have not been to a bank branch in a long time and this seemed to be the case for many Barclays branch customers.

This misalignment between the demographic the advisers were meant to target and the demographic that actually was accessible in branch accounts is perhaps one of the significant factors in the decision to end branch based advisers. My suspicion is that it was this misalignment that partly contributed to the investment advice failings that led to the FSA fining Barclays £7.7m and requiring Barclays to pay up to £60m in customer redress. On the retail banking side, that is a significant sum, especially when added to the not insubstantial cost of maintaining a staff of financial advisers and paying for the associated training and compliance.

Additionally, as Barclays acknowledge, buying habits have changed substantially and as Barclays say the reduction in branch advisors is “…reflecting a growing trend of customers purchasing and managing their investments online”. The problem for Barclays is that the wealthy middle class individuals who they most want to target are some of those who have most readily adopted the internet as a comparison shopping channel. The growth of UK financial services comparison sites (Go Compare, Money, etc…) has had a profound effect on insurance (I last wrote about it in this blog post on Aviva 2008) and clearly is catching up with retail banking. There seems to me little point marketing to customers on the basis of brand when most customers can purchase products without engaging with any of the brand value propositions and can instead buy more easily on price, on line. Barclays are acknowledging some of this reality with the launch of their online "Investor Zone" and all their retail investment services will now go through this route on a non-advice basis.

The problem is I’m not quite sure where these leaves branch banking. Advisers in branch were expensive, but were always justified as necessary for selling the higher margin, usually longer term products. The trouble was that branch advisers were not necessarily that well utilized and many of the more aware customers preferred to use either on-line purchase without advice or the service of an Independent Financial Advisor (IFA). I thought Barclays had the right idea with their centralized Barclays Financial Planning team when they had that operating as a central team, based from a contact centre. That model, where an IFA qualified adviser could remotely cover the branches too small to have a dedicated financial adviser seemed to me to combine the necessary level of coverage and scale that was necessary to be cost effective. However, the model didn’t seem that successful in practice and I wonder if that was due to the maturity of the technology. At the time, multi-channel was not easily possible in an integrated manner and this made things very difficult when trying to run a sales business that was regulated by both OfCom and the FSA. Longer term, I wonder if video could be the solution for the centralized adviser model (though it’s been talked about for long enough) or whether we may seem some of the ideas Bradford and Bingley toyed with, of having an IFA in branch who is more independent than the traditional tied financial advisor. The one area this has always neglected is how the internet channel can be supported by advisors in the contact centre and that, with or without video, strikes me as the best future for low cost advice.

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