Branding was on the mind of Andrew Pople, managing director of England's Abbey National PLC, though he was speaking at a symposium on processes and technologies to improve customer relationships.

"A brand is unique, but what a bank is doing with" customer relationship management isn't, he said in an interview after his speech last week at an American Banker conference.

Mr. Pople-who hails from the country that has such financial service brands as Egg, Zenda, and Goldfish - has spent two years developing his bank's brand and is beginning a two-year effort to show employees how to deliver on Abbey National's brand promise.

That promise-to deliver convenient service "because life's complicated enough"-can be achieved, he said, only by aligning the essential elements of customer relationship management- people, processes, products, and technology-behind the brand.

"That is 80% of the challenge of building a brand," he said. "You can't buy loyalty through advertisements. It must be delivered by all bank staff directly to the customer."

Abbey's brand is designed to appeal to its core customer base of middle- market families. The bank's data show that the married heads of these households are 30 to 40 years old, earn $40,000 to $60,000 annually through two incomes, and have two cars and two children. About 63% of adults in the United Kingdom fit this category.

Unlike many of its U.S. counterparts, Abbey National is not very focused on expanding relationships with its most profitable customers, who tend to be older and wealthier. "They are already very loyal," Mr. Pople said, "and they're not going to define our future."

The bank identified its target customers as being people with fast-paced lifestyles who want quick service, front-line staff who can bend the rules, and advice that serves their best interests. They also hate junk mail.

To speed up service, Abbey identified customers who do a lot of branch transactions but don't provide a lot of value and encouraged them to use automated banking. Branch transactions have decreased from 30% of the total to 20% as a result, Mr. Pople said. The goal is to have fewer than 10% of transactions executed at branches.

To solve problems more quickly, Abbey's 2,500 front-line managers have been trained to make swift decisions about complaints or requests, based on a customer's relationship with the bank.

Abbey also has cut back its junk mail. It has achieved response rates of 50% on some personal-loan offers and more than 20% on auto insurance offerings by linking them to the timing of policy renewals. The bank estimated that it will save 18% of direct marketing costs this year, even while expanding customer contact.

Abbey has eliminated cold calling and product-of-the-month sales in favor of pitches based on greater knowledge of customers. More than 600 managers use Enact software from Action Systems Inc. of Dallas to get updated customer information.

As a result, salespeople have learned to stop overselling, Mr. Pople said. "We wanted to turn a familiar brand into something that meant something to the customer," he added.

Abbey National's efforts produced a cost decrease of 14% and product sales increase of 25% in the second half of 1998. During the last 12 months the bank's stock price has risen 25%.

Because the retail bank is responsible for three-quarters of overall profits, Mr. Pople said, he will take credit for three-quarters of the stock price appreciation.

Susan L. Howard, executive vice president at Benton International, a consulting firm, did not dispute the connection. "If you have a cogent brand strategy and are really consistent in executing it," she said, "then that will drive the stock price up."

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