Customer service is sometimes like a morality play for the customers where they have to deal with both good and bad service people. However, from service people’s perspective, customers too can be hard to please, where difficult situations like unsolved problems, unrealistic expectations and unpleasant interactions leave even the best of customer service people powerless. Nevertheless, it is the courtesy and responsiveness of service reps that has the potential to turn even the worst of situations into favorable ones.The appropriate route for service providers is to handle these interpersonal situations with responsiveness and connecting to people from the moment they speak to them. Same could be said of telephone service, as voice still remains one of the main and perhaps the most widely used touch points that customers frequently resort to when seeking service. 

Call Operators’ Nonchalance Makes Emiratis Switch Banks:

Although customer service is placed as a top concern by customers while rating their bank in the UAE, yet there has been seen a distinct disparity between what is promised by the banks and what is actually delivered in terms of both customer service and online banking. And that is exactly the reason why customers switch their banks for the better.

A survey by Souqalmal, a financial comparison website in the UAE, polled 2,000 residents, which revealed that a whopping 60% of customers did not even consider their bank worth recommending to a friend or relative. “Poor customer service drives customers to change their banks,” said Jad Rammal, director of measurement solutions, Ethos Consultancy.

Moreover, a survey carried out by iProspect and Arabian Business showed that more than half of the UAE’s customers want to switch to a better bank because of poor customer service. 48% of them cited both poor service and high transaction fees as the main reasons for switching. Non-preferable banks were described as “being rude on the phone, inaccessible and unprofessional whereas good banks get a good turnout on these matters.” “Promising the customer will be called back within 48 hours is in itself an indication that the information required cannot be provided at that moment by the person on the phone. Very often, the inquiry then gets forgotten and the customer remains without an answer,” says Robert Keay, managing director of Ethos Consultancy.

Focusing primarily on the process and people aspect of service and taking into account five key variables of call center customer service i.e. reliability, responsiveness, assurance, empathy and a well-equipped service environment, the findings of Ethos Consultancy’s 7th Annual Bank Benchmarking Index (2011) revealed that less than 50% of the UAE banks have customer service as a principal focus. The results of the Call Centre measurement indicated that many of the country’ leading banks still do not respond to customers within two working days of their inquiry, or even record incoming callers’ details. However, the matter is no different today than it was two years ago. According to Ethos Consultancy’s 8th report, many of the UAE’s banks are still not focusing enough on customer service where 30% of the respondents were extremely satisfied, 49% were satisfied, and 15% were neither satisfied not dissatisfied, 5% were dissatisfied, and 1% extremely dissatisfied.

Dis-satisfaction over telephone banking prevails in the whole GCC, not just in the UAE. Ernst & Young’s Retail banking in the GCC report reveals that customers in the region have a feeling that banking interactions have become more tedious and tiresome with the passage of time.

Speaking specifically about the customer service in the banking sector, Fredrik Schauman, managing director of iProspect, Middle East and North Africa at Aegis Media MENA said, “There is a massive inconsistency in the online marketing promise versus the delivery of the marketed service. I feel with the right approach in place client expectation and satisfaction can be ‘controlled’ to a large extent. Dissatisfaction comes from the potential customer’s unrealistic expectations or from promises that are not delivered on. If banks gave improbable marketing promises that were followed up with poor service delivery, then as the study suggests, consumers will look to move on.”

Jessica Martin, one of the many disgruntled customers, vents about her not-so-pleasant experience with an international bank’s call center saying, “It was ridiculous, I receive my salary every 27th of the month and I pay my loan installments every 28th, effectively one week earlier than my cut-off date.” “I called the call centre, but all I get were promises that they will get back to me, which they never did,” she said. “When I went to their branch, I was passed on from one customer service representative to another.”

Manosh Kumar is yet another aggravated customer, who also had been sent from one bank to another just to clarify some unexplained charges in his credit card. “No matter how much I work out the maths, it just doesn’t sum up accurately. I tried to call the customer service toll free number but they were just talking gibberish. No wonder banks incurred massive losses during the financial crisis”, he said, “It’s either they have indeed become too big to think of the little ones like us or they simply just forgot what customer service is.”

After these experiences, both of these customers started working towards finishing their liabilities with their respective banks and became ready to switch to some other bank with better services.

Owing to this failed customer-centricity, 53% of the customers already want to switch their bank, yet it was the complexity of administration that kept many from doing so (iProspect and Arabian Business report). 36% of customers say they have not been able to switch to another bank due to the lengthy paperwork process that came with it, while another 24% said that they didn’t switch because there was no better option to switch to.

Only Top Performers Show Consistency:

Telephone banking in the UAE has not been at its best lately. Nevertheless, concrete improvements have been visible only in the top rated banks in the UAE, where progress is quite evident in all 23 best performing banks. “Customer service has improved a lot in the past five years,” says Robbert. Many companies are starting to realize that a well-managed customer service provision enlarges the customer base, and this is what makes it interesting for them.

However, there’s still a long way to go. “My over-riding concern is that the Index has improved because of the performance of less than 50% of the banks, whilst a number of the country’s leading banks are not providing the level of service as those of their competitors and this will ultimately impact on their bottom line. This is most exemplified by the results of the Call Centre measurement,” says Robbert Keay, “This shortfall in the quality of service needs to be addressed especially as telephone banking is one of the most preferred channels for customers when dealing with their bank.”

According to the 2012 Bank Benchmarking Index, for the list of banks that performed best in carrying out telephonic customer service, the top 10 Award Winning banks in the UAE were Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank for best overall call center and best overall banking, Noor Islamic Bank for most improved call center, Dubai Bank for best overall branch, AL Hilal Bank for most improved banking, Emirates Islamic Bank for most improved branches and Emirates NBD for best large bank.

Resolving the Predicament:

Given the issues that customers usually have to face in telephone banking, for better customer service, banks should consider;

  • Recruiting skillful personnel
  • Performing consistently good
  • Training employees better
  • Incentivizing staff to keep their morale high


Although call agent is considered to be a low-skill job in most parts of the world, yet for a service-focused culture, it is extremely important to recruit the right people. Given that call agents have to interact directly with the customers, they should possess the right skills, knowledge, professionalism and the ability to turn every situation around customer satisfaction.”Managers have acknowledged the fact that it should be a strategy included in their policy. Recruitment is the first step and most banks have a good eye on how to select the right person for the job”, explains Robert Keay. Therefore, personality and skill tests are necessary when it comes to selecting staff.

Maintaining Consistent Performance through Proper Management:

Another thing that banks should look out for is consistency in performance. Once a bank reaches its peak performance, measures should be taken to consistently uphold that standard. “Very often the bank starts off well, but then gradually loses focus. The strategy is there, but it is not implemented consistently.” Yet, it’s not just the management that is to blame for this inconsistency but the person providing the customer service is also equally responsible.

Sometimes, the employees too are overworked which causes performance to slip away. So the right way to deal with the problem is proper management. “You have to imagine that the number of calls these call centre operators are dealing with is very high, and every time they have to deal with another person, with another problem. Most people only manage to do this job for a period of 6 months, no longer. However, proper management is the key,” says Robbert Keay.

To take some examples for consistently good performing banks, 8th Annual Bank Benchmarking Index for service excellence puts forth that the most improved bank was Al Hilal Bank that had moved up from 12th to 4th place in 2011. Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank has showed consistently good performance as the bank had moved from ranking 18th to top position in the overall performance in just two years. “Over the last three years, since we embarked on our new vision, we have expanded our branch network to 69, quadrupled the number of ATM’s and revamped our call center to world class standards. We have introduced new ways to make banking simple and easy for our clients such as new mobile and online services, unveiled a new branch concept, improved processes and invested heavily in training our staff,” says Wasim Ben Khadra, manager corporate communications of ADIB.

Training Employees:

Despite the fact that numerous channels of communication have arrived lately, the importance of call centre customer service still cannot be overlooked. So, for companies, it is extremely important to manage and train the human capital. “With people working during most of the office hours of a bank’s branch, doing the inquiry over the phone is the preferred solution for many UAE-residents. It makes a very big difference when a bank employee smiles and greets you in a warm manner,” says Robert Keay, managing director of Ethos Consultancy.

While describing the service culture of Citibank, Karim Seifeddine, Corporate Communications Head of Citibank elaborates how customer service is valued at the bank, “The employees start their work with a daily huddle and an internal Newsletter which features case studies that reiterate the indispensable values (of customer service)”. “Citibank is strongly committed to enhancing customer satisfaction every day through a number of regular trainings customised to all levels of responsibility from new graduates to mid-hires and senior management. For all our Customer Service employees, we have an extensive Customer Service Certification to equip and edify them with the service mindset, right skills, and attitude. In addition we have an integrated Employee engagement and Rewards and Recognition programme to acknowledge exemplary customer experience.”

Employee Incentivization:

There is a direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction. Therefore, it is extremely important for employees’ morale and engagement to always recognize their efforts through incentivisation. “Employees need to have an incentive, and the financial incentive pays off the most. Other options would be career opportunities and company training,” says Robert Keay. Forresters’ Customer Experience Professional, Paul Hagen is of the view that, “Firms need some precursors in place, such as a clear strategy and vision, metrics that reflect customer perceptions and governance mechanisms that set standards and hold people accountable for changes. Once those are in place, rewards systems are one powerful lever to keep employees focused on what’s important.”