Banking on a mirror image

Banking on a mirror image

Lawyers and accountants like to know how they are seen by their clients, but what about the banks? Lisa Hart from Acritas tells BQ they could benefit from some customer feedback.

Brand perception may not, even now, top our harassed bankers’ agendas. Maybe it should.  Which do we see as deserving our custom these days, and which need to prove their house is in order? The present banking debacle probably has many retail customers in a fog.

Even in business, there is confusion over which banks are providing a proper service, rather than merely lip service.

Lisa Hart, at 35 the North East’s Emerging Talent of the Year – a title bestowed by fellow entrepreneurs in the region – is planning through her company Acritas a study of stakeholders’ attitudes to their banks.

Some banks are spending, lavishly, money we understood was scarce, to convince us they are now genies and we the Aladdins – be it a mortgage, a release of capital for retirement, or even an engagement ring that’s the rub.

Isn’t that a ‘horse bolts, stable door closes’ syndrome, or at least a case of putting the cart first? Shouldn’t they listen to what we actually need now? What about, for example, a few bob to buy shoes for the kids? Lisa Hart’s Acritas is a market research specialist with prominent clients in law (which is its main revenue stream), property, investment management, insurance and other financial services.

"We talk to people of influence and challenge their assumptions,” she explains, “not from our experience, but from talking to others who can advise and analyse.” Just what banks need, surely? “I think on the consumer side they are probably finding out public attitudes and reactions already,” Lisa says.

“In business to business, however, they tend to be slower at getting feedback.

“Yet it’s a moving feast every week just now, the way the market perceives their brands, because there’s something different happening every week. So we’re looking to develop ongoing tracking to let them see the changing perceptions and different reactions to their various campaigns.

“Now’s the first time in most of our working histories that everything has changed. The way people buy has changed. The emphasis is on different criteria. And what people think about major institutions has changed dramatically. A lot of trust has now gone.

This is a time, more than ever before, in which banks need to know what their stakeholders think, and to react accordingly.” Acritas is a young firm based in Jesmond, Newcastle, with activities in London and New York.

It acknowledges about 10 major rivals, some of them in the US, which include both big research companies and other specialists like itself.

In its seven years, it has worked with 100 of the world’s largest companies in law, accountancy and financial services.

These include Lloyd’s of London, from which significant revenue comes; BDO Stoy Hayward, the world’s fifth largest accountancy network with more than 1,000 offices in 100countries; and national insurer Hiscox, whose motto is “If there’s a hoop we’ll jump through it ...” Since its start-up, Acritas staff, which now number 30, have interviewed about 30,000 business leaders, 10,000 of them in the past 18 months.

Why so quickly its move into London and New York? “In professional financial services, it’s our vision to be the world-leading agency, and to do that we must work for the world’s best organisations. London and New York tend to be their main bases.

We’ve always had London clients.” Acritas (‘sharpness’ in Latin) has relatively few wholly North East clients, though it does serve investment managers and bankers Brewin Dolphin and law firm Dickinson Dees.

Judges who chose Lisa for her award from the Entrepreneurs Forum did so after learning that although all sales are sealed in London, most of the work comes to the North East and is exported from here.

Lisa says: “Many marketing services-type agencies tend to thrive on public sector work and that type of thing. We’ve gone out of the region to be very much international. It’s easier to do that when you specialise as we do.” Under Lisa as chief executive, Acritas makes two broad offerings.

There is a bespoke service for clients wanting specific research for action, and a second, product approach; Acritas completing major research programmes of its own within specific sectors and selling the results on to relevant organisations. One of these products is Sharp Legal Brands, a major study for law firms now in its third year, and involving 3,000 interviews annually.

“Firms need information, self-protection, to know where to be active and in what sectors to survive,” Lisa has said previously.

Bankers might take note: “There has been quite a transformation this year in how legal buyers are going about their procurement.

Under immense cost pressure, they want more value, so they’re cutting budgets, reducing the number of law firms they work with, trying to get better deals; generally seeking more added value and being more demanding.

They can do these things because there isn’t as much work around.” Banks may also have to upgrade their customer service to win or retain loyalties.

This is supposition, however; it may require Acritas to indicate the true picture, and one benefit to the banks of a sector study is that the cost involved would be shared.

“It wouldn’t meet every individual need because they haven’t designed it individually, but it would give a lot of value for less cost,” says Lisa.

“So we may do our own analysis for the banking market then sell it to them.” Would bankers blanch at the findings; does that happen with clients? “Often, we have to tell them what they don’t want to hear,” she says.

“But better to know than not. At least they can do something about it.” Why do firms with bright staff need outsiders to analyse what others think about them? “Because their skills lie in their own profession.

To do market research effectively you need an independent party capable of doing it properly. It’s our research, our expertise, and our ability to extract views which they are buying. Also, we have the deep understanding of their sectors necessary.

Many firms in a sector can be very similar. You have to understand the nuances of each, know how they differ and the issues they face.

“Our value lies in us being used to dealing with highly placed stakeholders.

We interview chief executives, finance directors and seniors who must be handled very differently from the way in which you would question the consumer on the street.

“You need a very different type of interviewer, and you need to prep very differently.  Business to business isn’t quite as easy as working in consumer goods. That has very standard methodologies. When relationships take over, it gets cloudier.” Acritas interviews with high-value stakeholders can comprise 60 minutes of face-to-face input.

“You build a rapport and trust with that person, resulting in views which are very difficult to get over the phone or by email,” Lisa explains.

“It’s hard persuading people to give an hour, though it’s generally okay if they are a client of our client as they have an interest in delivering feedback because it will affect them directly.” What’s the most common misapprehension firms have about their brands? “Often, that they’re better known than they actually are, particularly if they are in a mature and crowded market.” Anything can come out of the studies, Lisa points out; human resource issues, finance, systems, IT, the general culture, and Acritas can identify partners for clients to come in and help address the issues.

And with maybe 500 interviews required for one client, how doeseveryone stay motivated? “People attracted to research are quite inquisitive types, so it’s interesting for them, especially as they’re working with different clients.

“You learn from every programme. I don’t think there has ever been a project where we haven’t learnt something. It’s an attractive occupation if you like asking questions and working with numbers.” US operations, after two good years, slowed last year because economic pressures hit the markets there sooner.

“But it is starting to pick up again, so I’m hoping that side will grow,” she says.

“Our whole sector has been under a lot of pressure.” She has set up a business in Maidenhead with a business partner, covering the consumer side. It is run by the partner, and Lisa takes a non-executive role.

There will not be a move into consumer marketing at Acritas, where the ultimate goal is to be a leader worldwide in the professional and financial fields.

“I think we’re nearly there on the legal side,” she says.  “On the product side, we’re now in 17 countries, having just done the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, so we’re expanding to more countries and more industry sectors every year. We started with the legal programme, looking for law firms worldwide.

Now we’re looking at two more sectors.” Research, she maintains, is at its most powerful in helping to shape and define business strategies and in inspiring confidence that the correct decisions are being made using intelligent extraction, analysis and interpretation of the questions asked.