James Daley

By James Daley

Ten years ago, just a few weeks after I started Fairer Finance, Santander launched an advertising campaign under the strapline “Simple, personal, fair”. I’ll always remember where I was the day when I first saw it – because I nearly caused myself an injury.

Santander entered the UK market when it bought Abbey National 20 years ago. And it’s fair to say that during its first decade, it did not build up a reputation for great customer service. I was a national newspaper journalist back in those days, and each week my mailbag would be full of complaints about Abbey National, later to be rebranded Abbey, and then finally Santander. 

I was on a treadmill the first time I saw the “Simple, Personal, Fair” advert – and I remember nearly falling off the back of it. The ads were launched in the very same month that the bank was being fined £12.5m for giving poor investment advice. I couldn’t think of three words that were less apt to describe Santander at the time.

Over the following years, the bank continued to grow its share in the UK banking market, attracting customers with its genuinely innovative 123 account. However, after winning a wave of new customers, it predictably went onto water down the rewards and increase the fees – massively diluting the value of the account, and exploiting the sticky nature of current account customers.

Living up to the rhetoric

Fast forward a decade, and Santander looks to be a completely different beast – perhaps even starting to live up to its old “Simple, Personal, Fair” strapline (which I think still gets rolled out from time to time).

In our latest bank account customer experience ratings, Santander jumped 15 places from 24th out of 27 up to 9th. In doing so, it leapt past the rest of the Big Five high street banks and won itself a bronze ribbon.

It’s the first time in 10 years of running our ratings that Santander has scored above the industry average in this sector – and the first time that it’s made it into the ribbon tiers of our bank account league table.

Embracing Consumer Duty

So what’s changed? From a data perspective, the biggest boost in our ratings is in the bank’s transparency score – a clear indication that it was quick off the blocks responding to the FCA’s Consumer Duty. Our transparency analysis looks at the clarity of information presented to customers in its online customer journey, as well as the clarity of its terms and conditions document. Its old bank account Ts&Cs were one of the worst in the sector – but its new ones are a big step forward. The reading age has reduced significantly from 17 to12, and the smallest font size increased from 6 to 10pts. Still work to do – but a big improvement.

More broadly, Santander has seen incremental improvements in its customer happiness and trust scores at a time when the rest of the sector are trending downwards.

The final part of our ratings is Ombudsman complaints – specifically the uphold rate. The bank still has work to do here – with around 35% of Ombudsman complaints still being upheld in favour of the customer.  Although this is not a great result, it has been improving – and is not much worse than most of its large peers in the sector.

Change in leadership

My instinct is that all of this positive change is in part linked to the arrival of the UK bank’s new chief executive, Mike Regnier. Before taking the helm at Santander two years ago, Mike ran Yorkshire Building Society for five years – a mutually owned business with a strong customer-centric culture. 

Under the new Consumer Duty rules, all banks now need to prove that they are working to deliver good customer outcomes. And the change in CEO and emphasis proved to be perfectly timed. It tends to take a couple of years for a change in leadership to filter through to changes in culture and tangible improvements in customer experience – and that’s what we now appear to be seeing take shape.

The rest of the high street – with the exception of Nationwide, which continues to go from strength to strength in our ratings - does not appear to be doing quite so well. Barclays has effectively traded places with Santander in our tables falling from the silver ribbon tier five years ago down to third from last in our latest tables. Lloyds also looks to be on a downward trend, while HSBC and Natwest are perhaps showing the early signs of a rally after some years towards the bottom of the tables.

As we approach the end of the first year of Consumer Duty, there’s undoubtedly more work for all banks to do. But the new rules are clearly beginning to drive change – not just in our transparency scores, but also in customer perceptions. I’m confident that this will become a competitive advantage for those who embraced the Duty at the earliest stage. We’ll be keeping an eye on our data to see if that hypothesis holds true.