First Direct’s lab rats

HSBC’s online and phone bank First Direct has now introduced a lab section to its website, where customers can view and comment on new ideas.  The lab idea appears to have been inspired by Google labs, where new ideas are experimented with, and of course customers browsing the First Direct lab page can comment on the lab page itself.  First Direct’s ideas don’t have the same out-and-out creativity as Google’s but then most of us don’t want the people managing our current accounts being over-creative with them.

Most of the first few comments on First Direct labs are very positive and, significantly, one is from somebody who declares herself to be a First Direct employee.  But, interestingly, somebody has asked whether Google minds the idea being copied.  The answer – of course – is almost certainly not: this is related to the concept of perpetual beta which originated with Tim O’Reilly as one of the key elements of Web 2.0.  Nevertheless it’s a fair point: the idea of asking your customers about ideas and and calling the forum for this a lab is quite a generic one, but Google could certainly argue that certain characteristics of their lab site were specific and shouldn’t be copied.

First Direct has good reasons to concentrate on being customer focused.  It was created in the 1980s as a phone bank in response partly to the Midland Bank, as it then was, having a reputation for atrocious customer service.   This was done through the (then radical) idea of encouraging customers to contact the bank by phone, and not to use their local branches.  Although phone, Internet, and mobile banking are all important parts of their service, I do get the impression that the call centre is still regarded as the principal point of contact for most customers.

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