Sam Curtis – Going the Extra Mile
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photography by Pip Andersen
Childhood nostalgia is a powerful thing. As someone who was born on the outskirts of London in the mid-80’s, for me, that means strong memories of WWF Wrestling, the heady early days of the Premier League and listening to Dire Straits records on repeat. Another of my strong childhood memories is walking with my Dad into the centre of the town that I grew up in and opening my first ever bank account at the local branch of Natwest. And I’ve been a happy customer ever since.
Maybe it was this nostalgic pondering or perhaps the long-awaited arrival of the estranged sunshine but, whatever the reason, I drove towards the Natwest offices on Pynes Hill with a sense of positivity and purpose. I was on my way to meet with Sam Curtis (Director of Business Banking for Devon and recently selected by Grow Exeter as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Women in Exeter’) to discuss her career, the history of her organisation and how it approaches the complex and finely-balanced subject of customer service.
Hi Sam. It’s lovely to meet you properly for the first time and thank you for your time. I’d love to start by hearing a little about you and your background?
Lovely to meet you too Joff. Well, I’m the Director of Business Banking in Devon for Natwest and I run a team of thirteen Relationship Managers who look after a portfolio of businesses that range in annual turnover of between £250,000 and £2,000,000. Our job as a team is to listen to the needs and desires of our clients and, essentially, to help them to achieve their ambitions and goals. That team is spread around the region; in Exeter, Newton Abbot and Barnstaple.
I’m giving away my age here, but I started at the bank thirty-one years ago, when I was sixteen and came straight out of school, with just 5 GCSE’s and not really knowing what I wanted to do in life. I started working in the Exeter High Street branch (which we’re about to move back into in a fortnight’s time actually) and this was back in the day when the bank recruited hundreds of new staff every year.
I worked in a machine room environment processing cheques and printing cheque books – the more manual and now outdated side of banking. I started alongside twenty other teenagers, most of whom were going to college to do their banking exam, so I followed in their wake and studied for several years, eventually securing my ACIB qualification. I later converted this into a degree in Financial Services and haven’t looked back since.
It wasn’t particularly my intention to get into banking but working for Natwest has given me opportunities that I never thought I’d have and they have invested a great deal into my development. I’ve stayed in the same organisation, in the same city for over three decades and that is testament to the fantastic place that Natwest has been to work and to progress in my career, through various life stages.
I’d imagine that you have seen an awful lot of change in both your personal and professional journey over that thirty-one-year period. Talk me through some of that change.
Yes – personally a lot has happened in that time. I have become a mother to two lovely daughters (now aged sixteen and thirteen) and have had several different working patterns during that time to allow me to care for them – particularly as I have been a single mother for the last ten years. The bank has been incredibly accommodating over the years and even now are flexible with my working hours and patterns. I simply wouldn’t have been able to carry on working for the bank if they hadn’t been so understanding and helpful.
In terms of my professional journey, I have progressed in my career, working in a variety of departments and roles. Over the last 31 years I have worked in H.R and then branch, business, commercial and corporate banking. I managed my own portfolio of clients for years until I took on my current role and I now have the joy of managing a team of portfolio-holders across the region.
When I look back over that journey, a huge amount has changed. Clearly the advances of modern technology alone mean that the world of banking has changed significantly. It has presented us with both challenges and opportunities.
And what do you think has changed for the better in your industry over the years?
I think being able to respond more quickly to our customers’ needs has been a huge positive change in the last decade. Leveraging the possible applications of web and app technology, we have developed award-winning tools for customers to use. This has been vital as the expectations of modern customers are so high in terms of being able to find information, make transactions and speak to experts instantly. The fact that over 5.5 million of our customers use our app goes to show how seriously we take investing in and making proper use of the technology available to us. In fact, our app was recently awarded ‘Best Banking App’ at the British Bank Awards for the second year in a row; something we are hugely proud of.
Do you think that technology always improves service though? For example, I still choose to queue for a human-operated till at the supermarket rather than opt for the quicker self-service checkouts.
As an organisation, we have been focused and single-minded in putting our customers at the centre of everything we do. This has resulted in a core part of our vision statement being that we aim to be number 1 for customer service, trust and advocacy in our industry by 2020. Having this at the centre of our company vision has been a huge driver in us maintaining as many face-to-face staff as possible in our business banking teams. Balancing the need for human interaction with the desire for instant engagement has been a huge but rewarding challenge for us.
It has meant that, very often, people no longer need to wait two weeks for a lending decision but two minutes in some cases or two days in more complex situations. We are more agile and reactive than ever before and this is thanks in large part to technological advances. You’re right though, we never want to lose the personal human touch of dealing with our customers. It is fundamental to offering a truly holistic and positive customer experience.
Is this part of the reason for you moving back to the High Street Branch in Exeter?
Yes, partly. The honest fact of the matter is that, with remote working becoming much more prominent in recent years and with staffing levels decreasing overall, as we neared the end of our 10 year lease at Pynes Hill, we just didn’t feel it represented our ideal premises any longer. We are positive and excited about the move though as it allows our personal and business banking teams to work on the same premises, meaning that we will be more joined up as a total workforce in Exeter. It will also mean that staff socialising after hours will be easier, client entertainment will be more convenient and an increase in public presence and brand visibility will be achieved. Parking might be a bit trickier but that’s not the end of the world!
You touch on an interesting challenge there Sam. Having gone through several recessions, one of the challenges for businesses today is how to offer the best possible customer service whilst remaining profitable and focussing on the vast array of other business-critical tasks.
Exactly. Making Natwest an easy bank to do business with is a primary focus for my team. Remaining profitable and making sure we are time-efficient are the key challenges that sit behind that desire.
In fact, that has been the starting point for many of the products, tools and initiatives that we have pioneered in recent years. For example, take the Natwest Boost events which my colleague James Court organises locally. These events offer inspiration, networking and collaboration opportunities for local businesses of all shapes and sizes. That face-to-face connection with the local business community is vital for us as a bank. James is one of 70 Business Growth Enablers in the U.K and his role is to give back to the business community and stimulate growth opportunities in the local economy. He is incredibly good at what he does and is a huge asset to our team.
We have also made a piece of cloud accountancy software called Free Agent, freely available to our business customers. It is very similar to other cloud accountancy software which usually costs in the region of £30 per month to subscribe to. We see this as both a benefit for our customers but also a way of us offering them added value.
Adding value to a customer relationship is clearly an excellent way of giving them a positive experience. What other skills or behaviours do you encourage and value to ensure your customers are happy and loyal?
The backbone of positive customer service is listening in my opinion. A vital part of any healthy relationship – personal or professional – is listening to the other party and feeling heard yourself. So, we open conversations with our customers and we listen and attempt to accurately understand their needs and goals. That is at the start and the heart of everything we do at Natwest.
Internally we continue to invest heavily in training and development for staff to make sure they are well equipped in this area. We also offer ongoing coaching, perform quarterly reviews and have a ‘closed-loop feedback’ process in place which allows customers the chance to instantly rate their experience and offer feedback. This is then monitored and, if necessary, the customer is contacted to speak personally to them. This helps us to continually achieve ‘best-practice’ in our team in terms of the customers’ experience.
Also, keeping proactivity and a culture of problem solving at the centre of our team keeps us agile. We instil in our staff the fact that they need to care, to go the extra mile and to under-promise and over-deliver. Our CEO of Personal and Business Banking, Les Matheson, says that we should offer “effortless service every day but be brilliant when it matters”. This sums up our entire approach perfectly.
That’s so refreshing to hear Sam. Such a positive vision is admirable but must be tiring sometimes too?
Yes, sometimes it is. On a personal level I try to get out into nature as often as possible. Whether it is hiking, going to festivals or going for a long bike ride I need to get out into nature to reset and refocus sometimes. I just cycled the Exmoor Beast last weekend actually. It was due to be 62 miles, but they lengthened the course by 15 miles the day before due to adverse weather conditions.
So you literally went the extra mile then!
Ha! Yes, I hadn’t even thought of that. I suppose even when I’m outside of work I can’t help but value the same things.
Sam, thank you for your time and generous conversation. I wish you and your team the very best in achieving your goals and I hope the upcoming move goes smoothly. Finally, before I go, tell me a little about how it felt to be nominated as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Women in Exeter’?
I was taken aback to be honest Joff. I have had so much positive feedback, so many compliments and even a few requests for autographs at the rugby! It has increased my profile no end locally and has been an incredible ‘feel-good’ initiative to be a part of. When we move offices into the city centre, we must meet for a coffee and I can finally pick up my certificate to display proudly at my new desk. Thank you to you and the Grow Exeter team for allowing me to be a part of such a wonderful campaign.
It is our absolute pleasure Sam. Your selection was thoroughly deserved and we look forward to seeing you continue to have a positive influence in the city and the region.
To keep up with Sam’s journey, follow her on Twitter @SamcurtisSam