Given public disaffection with the banks, and the widespread trust we place in John Lewis, Max Davidson has a suggestion
"It will be my pleasure, Mr Davidson. Take a seat while I process your mortgage application. Can I get you a cup of coffee? White with one sugar? Not a problem, sir. You will find a selection of newspapers and magazines on the table.”
No, not a sci-fi movie, but an image of Britain as it could be, if the public got the high street banks they wanted, not the ones they have to endure, staffed by mouse-clicking zombies with dodgy haircuts and no obvious connection to the human race.
Such is the scale of public disaffection with our banks that more and more people are prepared to switch their allegiance from traditional lenders to those run by supermarkets. But unsurprisingly the retailer they most wished offered bank services is John Lewis, 148 years old and fabled for its silky customer service.
In a new poll by uSwitch, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed an astonishing figure when you consider the risks involved in banking said that they would trust John Lewis to look after their money. Never mind that its “partners” are more used to keeping the grateful middle classes in quality white goods and soft furnishings than ISAs and endowment mortgages: staff are courteous, affable and conscientious and, in a world where such qualities are in pitifully short supply, that resonates with the man and woman on the street.
Alas, there is no immediate prospect of the department store diversifying into the banking sector. But the contrast between customer service as John Lewis interprets the term and customer service as offered by the likes of Barclays (LSE: BARC.L - news) and HSBC (LSE: HSBA.L - news) is so stark that you can hardly miss it.
Broad smiles of the type that only cross bankers’ faces when they open the envelope containing their annual bonus suffuse the whole store. The smiles cost nothing, but they tell you everything you need to know about the company’s ethos.
A few years ago, I asked John Lewis’s customer service manager how the company recruited such outstanding staff. “Oh, you can quickly tell if people are suitable for customer-facing jobs,” he replied. “They have a natural warmth about them. You can take an intelligent person and train them to be polite. But you can’t train a person to be nice.”
But could that niceness for which the paying public yearns and which is so absent from the typical high street bank, with its pervasive air of surly indifference be applied to other areas of the service culture?
Rather than handing the West Coast Main Line franchise to below-par operating companies such as FirstGroup (Other OTC: FGROF.PK - news) and Virgin, how about letting John Lewis Railways have a go instead? You’d have commuter trains that not only turned up on the time, but were staffed by beaming guards and ticket inspectors in pristine uniforms who would call you “Sir” or “Madam”. There would be buffet cars without puddles of coffee on the floor, serving fresh, cut-above sandwiches with interesting fillings and reasonably priced, too; you can’t beat that “Never knowingly undersold” promise. The carriages would be uncrowded, spotlessly clean, and with piles of fresh, white guest hand towels in the “on-board facilities”. Which, for a change, would be never knowingly out-of-service.
If John Lewis could make our trains run on time and with an acceptable level of comfort, what’s to say they couldn’t turn around our other ailing institutions, too such as the NHS? Imagine a hospital at which there was an orderly waiting system and the receptionist didn’t look as if she had just murdered her mother-in-law. Imagine doctors and nurses who spoke the Queen’s English and took the time to put you at your ease and answer your questions and make you feel like a human being, not a statistic. Imagine blood-test results that did not go missing in the post…
What if John Lewis ran the Inland Revenue? You’d have a tax office where the staff were on your side, didn’t treat you like a potential fraudster, and even helped you fill in the simplified tax form, rather than leave you to struggle with it for days on your own.
And what if John Lewis were in charge of traffic wardens? They’d be unfailingly polite, and cut offenders some slack occasionally, instead of slapping a ticket on your car the second the meter expired.
Just daydreams, of course. In a hectic world, customer service rarely receives the priority it deserves. John Lewis has set standards that others can only marvel at. But if it does decide to set up a bank on my high street, I will be first in the queue.