We interviewed Monzo's Simon Balmain...

FinTech ‘unicorn’ Monzo provides app-based banking to almost two million customers and was rated top for account satisfaction by Which? in 2018. Hear from Simon Balmain, Customer Operations and Community Specialist at Monzo, on how radical transparency became an award-winning formula for world class customer experience.

Please tell us more about Monzo, your journey up until now and what makes the company and its vision unique?

Simply, Monzo began out of the obvious gap in the market for something better to exist. Other sectors have had modern, progressive, forward thinking apps and services almost since the beginning of the smartphone era (in the mid-2000s), something that didn’t materialise in the financial services space for a while after. It’s no mean feat to build a modern bank, and the incumbents had no reason to be at the cutting edge, so it took a while. We started distributing alpha prepaid cards at the end of 2015 and ran the prepaid programme until early 2018 whilst we got our full license and built our own infrastructure – then we transitioned all our beta customers to full, modern bank accounts. Fast forward just a year after ending the prepaid programme and we’re pushing towards 2 million current account customers. Our aim is to serve as our customers financial hub, and to create the most delightful, thoughtful and engaging user experience as possible to really give people empowerment over their financial lives.

“Fast forward just a year after ending the prepaid programme and we’re pushing towards 2 million current account customers.”

Monzo was an early challenger to the incumbents, but now faces challenges of its own. PSD2 will exacerbate this issue as the barriers to provide banking services fall. Monzo has successfully competed on experience so far. Do you believe this strategy is still the right one, and if not, how are you changing your approach? 

Yes, we absolutely do. It’s interesting, actually. Even as other incumbents modernize their apps and offer access to other accounts in line with PSD2, research still suggests that their stickiness, or user engagement, is still being measured by how many times people open their apps per week. Our stats can be measured by how many times our customers are opening the app every single day. That comes down to a delightful, helpful user experience. The app feels like it’s made for each customer, the human being using it, and is not just a place to view information like many other apps. Ultimately, the first step in feeling like you’re in control of your finances is that mindfulness, that awareness. And so, the experience really has to be something you enjoy and that you tell your friends about. It’s funny – sometimes people will compare us to others by picking out one service or one feature and then find another service or company that does that one thing better. We’re totally fine with that. What we aim for is more of a digitally holistic experience.

Monzo heavily involves its customers through the Monzo community. According to your website, you have 40k total forum users and last month you registered 14.5k posts. How do you monitor this community activity at scale, while still making your customers feel valued? 

Our forum is really a place for our most engaged customers to come and chat with staff members and fellow customers, discuss ideas and feedback, and really feel part of what we’re doing. It’s played a role in almost every product development that I can think of, although it’s of course not the only place we gather feedback. More recently, we saw that major media outlets will quote what people are saying on our forum when writing about us or something that we’re doing, which is really cool. That’s something that not many companies have – an engaged user base of people who are actually fans of a service. We go around the country doing events and the one thing we always hear is how much people value our community. I can’t think of any other bank that has anything like it. Some other companies have forums that just become an overspill of customer support, and because their main customer support structure isn’t very good, people look for places to complain. Our support is world class, which means people come to the forum to actually discuss ideas and thoughts, and that’s invaluable! I don’t like the term “monitor” – our staff members who look after the forum are actively engaged with the discussions, not just there to keep an eye on things. We have a small team who look after the forum, but try to get as many other staff members as involved as often as we can. We’ve had people across all areas of the business, from our CEO and co-founder Tom Blomfield, to people who have literally just started at the company, get involved in Q&A sessions to talk about what they’re working on.

“Our support is world class, which means people come to the forum to actually discuss ideas and thoughts, and that’s invaluable!”

Customers certainly appreciate the fact that you consult them before making decisions. Have you found this to be an effective strategy for product development? And how do you manage the dissatisfaction of customers who do not see their requests being fulfilled? 

It’s one strategy. Of course, you need to have a strong vision as a company as well, which we always have done. Our co-founders are incredible visionaries, and that’s evident by the fact that our company culture and long-term aims are still pointed in the same direction now as they were at the beginning. What tends to happen more is that we have long lists of things we want to build or goals we want to achieve, and then we look to our community and talk to them about how this might work in relation to our app. That gives us an idea of how much demand there is for certain features. Some things come together really quickly, and some things take longer, and it can be difficult to gauge how much use there will be for them until you’ve shipped. Some features are deliberately niche, but we build them because it’s the right thing to do, like our Gambling Block, which we’re proud to say has helped some very vulnerable people conquer very heavy addictions. I wouldn’t say there’s much dissatisfaction. People typically understand that we can’t build everything all at once, and that companies have shifting priorities. Most of our users really believe in our vision, so if we don’t have a few specific things they need, we’re still overall a better experience than our competitors.

Transparency seems to be one of Monzo’s core values – you talk to your customers openly and keep them well informed. Do you think nowadays transparency is the winning formula to gain customers’ trust? Why? 

It’s a winning formula if it’s part of the DNA of your company. If your company doesn’t start out with those values, it’d be hard to bake them in after the fact. For us, because we’ve always been radically transparent, it’s been refreshing for people for whom the norm, before us, has been very opaque financial companies. We define radical transparency as this idea that you’d need to make a solid argument to not share information with your colleagues (internally) or your customers (externally). If there’s no good reason, then we default to transparency. There are very few examples where we haven’t been able to tell our customers what’s been going on, and generally that’s when something involves other parties or other companies who don’t operate in that way, or if we’ve had to sign any kind of NDA. There’s a trust factor, a relationship there for sure, but it also continually reassures people that we’re building this thing together. We’re making an app for everyone – not the 1%, not just people who are into software or tech, not just for people who are already inclined to check out different financial services, but for everyone. We can’t do that unless we keep everyone in the loop as much as possible.

“We define radical transparency as this idea that you’d need to make a solid argument to not share information with your colleagues (internally) or your customers (externally). If there’s no good reason, then we default to transparency.”

Consumers making digital shopping decisions of any type – including new banking services – make extensive use of online reviews. How does Monzo engage with these sources? What issues, if any, have you had with these sources? 

Well, I think there’s actually different demographics that value online reviews in different ways. A formal review system is less valuable to some demographics compared to social proof and word of mouth, which is where most of our growth to date has come from. Our Golden Tickets were a huge driver of growth, because anyone sharing them online was effectively giving us their stamp of approval to their peers. Other demographics will look at things like TrustPilot. We make sure that we have a relationship with sites like TrustPilot because we want to be able to spot any trends – whether those are good or bad. We haven’t really had too many issues – we have a very robust complaints structure, so if customers do have complaints, they’ll be in touch with us directly and generally we can address any grievances they have directly. We find that, if you have a great product, any bad online reviews would be coming from people who feel they haven’t been listened to or have nowhere to turn, and that’s where a great complaints team can make a difference.

At the end of 2018, Monzo placed first in a survey from Which? into how satisfied people are with their accounts. How do you think Monzo currently ranks in terms of customer experience compared to your competitors?

We’re very proud of ranking first in the Which? survey. Our aim is to always have a world class customer experience, and it’s nice to be able to top that list even when internally we’re still full of ideas to make the experience even better! So, with some hard work we hope we can increase the gap even further. I personally feel that a lot of our competitors still focus on information and functionality over experience, and although that’s a valid demographic to target, by nature it’s targeting more experienced customers. What we try and do is make the experience simple but powerful, so anyone can easily navigate and stay on top of their finances, whether they only use a few functions and features or whether they like to look around the app and explore every possible feature and area. There are things some of our competitors do very well on, and that we can (and do) learn from, but the overall customer experience is where we shine, and I think the Which? survey reflects that.

What type of employee engagement programmes does Monzo have in place (for both frontline and non-frontline roles)? And how do you think employee engagement impacts customer experience?

I feel our commitment to radical transparency is perhaps the greatest employee engagement programme you could possibly have and especially when it begins in an organic way. What that means is that everyone is free and able to learn as much about the company as possible and get involved in discussions that interest them, even if it’s not directly related to their job role. The open and transparent nature of the company means everyone is accessible. We’re lucky that we still have the small start-up mentality where many of our employees apply because they believe in what we’re doing as a company and have been customers first. So, all of that plays a part, and the other thing is that we have a strong focus on mental health in the workplace, and we look after our staff and their personal wellbeing. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance isn’t just encouraged, it’s a staple of our company culture, because burnout doesn’t help anyone. We have publicly committed to inclusion and diversity, and we celebrate our differences. As just one example, our public commitment to often marginalized groups, such as our transgender colleagues, has been so strong that talented transgender people have applied to work here solely because they see what an inclusive and supportive environment we’ve built. Engagement directly impacts customer experience, because people see that we’re all passionate about what we’re doing. That kind of positive culture is recognised both internally and externally.

How do you see expectations of customer experience in digital banking evolving in the near future? Is there any trend that you think is going to have a significant impact?

“I expect to see much richer context around transactions and predicted spending.”

I think a lot of apps are going to have to pick up the pace with their UX or risk falling to the wayside. What we’re doing is setting a new standard for delightful UX. With PSD2 and much more availability of API’s, people will be able to access and utilise services from a wider variety of places, so why would you settle for a sub-par app experience? As far as trends, I expect to see much richer context around transactions and predicted spending. There’s no reason why something like Google Assistant shouldn’t be able to really get to grips with your finances and show/tell you relevant information. With customer support, I expect that machine learning will come into play a lot more, and we can use a lot more context about transactions to understand and resolve any issues much faster.

Written by:

Simon Balmain