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Credit where it’s due, Starling Bank pay attention to customer behaviour

Russ Wilson
Hall & Partners OpenMind

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Hello Starling was Josh Ritter’s third studio album, released in 2003.

Since then it’s provided the soundtrack to much of my adult life – the first song I learnt to play on the guitar, the one that my wife and I held as ‘ours’ in the early days of our relationship, and the track that helped us name our second daughter, Starling. The lyrics of Snow is Gone, the track that informs the album title, are about moving on from hard times:

Hello blackbird, hello starling
Winter’s over, be my darling
It's been a long time coming
But now he snow is gone

So when Starling Bank launched in 2014, it was always going to catch my eye. And all the more so given I’ve spent much of the last five years working with big financial services brands, helping them better understand their customers’ lives and needs in order to develop more customer-oriented products and services.

Starling was born out of the hard times suffered by the industry in the 2007/8 crisis and the founders’ views that banking was fundamentally broken. The Bank have been in the news again last week, generating headlines like, “Starling Bank flips the debit card on its head”. I hadn’t heard about this beforehand so was curious to see what the proposition looked like. How had they flipped it? What were they be doing differently?

Initially I was disappointed to see that this was more design tweak, less fundamental product or service innovation. In short, they’ve looked at how customers use their physical cards and realised that the landscape orientation and embossed numbers on the front are a legacy of how we used to behave with old payment machines. But as Mark Day, Starling’s Art Director, says:

“When you think about it, a landscape card is just a solution to a ‘problem’ that no longer exists”.

So the ‘flipping’ relates to the card now having a portrait orientation. While a digital-only banking proposition wants the focus to be on the app, if the Bank’s going to have a card then of course they want it to represent the future, not the past.

Winning hearts and minds in financial services often means doing things differently

I think this is a great move – it makes Starling a little bit more distinctive, in much the same way that Monzo and TransferWise have used bold colours for their cards and other banks have played with card design by allowing customers to select their own pictures as the background. Being distinctive matters. But more important is what it says about how Starling think. It shows that they’re both paying detailed attention to how customers are behaving and interacting with them in the real world.

I’m fairly sure that Josh Ritter didn’t have customer acquisition in the financial services category in mind when he wrote Snow is Gone, nor any time he’s sung it since. But winning hearts and minds in financial services often means doing things differently and helping customers move on from their relationships of the past. Or, going back to a particularly poignant line from Ritter’s song Kathleen:

“Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied…”

And while this time from Starling it’s a design tweak, there’s a fair chance that next time, or the time after that, it will be something more fundamental, based on something they’ve seen by really paying attention to what their customers are thinking, feeling, saying and doing.

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