Chris Williamson, fdIT Head of Delivery, first direct
In 1989 first direct changed the banking landscape in the UK when it launched as the original challenger bank. Its stated aim was to deliver amazing service while changing how banks work; a telephone only bank that served customers 24/7/365 with intelligent, proactive service which differentiated it from all the competitors.
"The focus now is on delivery of amazing experiences for its customers driven by data and powered by machine learning."
Fast forward to 2017, and first direct launched a new ‘native’ mobile app to deliver an even better digital experience for customers. This built on the success of its initial hybrid app which was also pioneering when it launched in 2011 as it enabled customers to make transaction when most banking apps at the time only allowed customers to view balances.
The launch in 2017 was combined with the setting up of a co-creation lab called ‘fdesign’. This is a platform allowing customers to become involved on development of products and services to ensure customers continued to be at the heart of first direct service in a digital world.
It was around this time that customer expectations of their banks were beginning to tip towards digital banking as the norm. Today telephony accounts for less than 1 in 30 customer interactions at first direct, and 97 percent of transactions are digital.
Many traditional banks had by now caught on and were investing significantly in digital technology to compete with all the new challenger banks who were able to deliver digital features much faster than the traditional banks owing to lack of legacy constraints and greater appetite for risk.
This presented a significant challenge to first direct as to how it could maintain ‘feature parity’ with competitors who were churning out new digital features at a rate of knots.
The response was to move to a mobile-first strategy, and in 2019 the bank announced its ambition to challenge the challenger banks. Backed by its parent company, the global banking giant HSBC, first direct’s investment in its mobile capability was designed to complement its secret sauce, award winning customer service.
Across multiple measures and over multiple years, first direct has been differentiated by being able to maintain a top three position for customer service among UK banks. In fact, in the July 2021 UK Customer Satisfaction Index from the Institute of Customer Service, first direct was the most highly rated organisation for customer satisfaction out of 271 companies – across 13 sectors and industries. With a score of 85.1 (out of 100) the bank sits well above the national average of 76.8.
Developing a mobile-first strategy
To increase mobile development there were three key challenges first direct needed to addres
1. At the beginning of 2019 first direct had one mobile team. It needed to grow the team and change predominant skillset in technology from web to mobile.
2. It needed to change its operating model aligning to business outcomes while increasing the pace of delivery without compromising on quality.
3. Everything needed to be delivered with first-class customer experience aligned to what first direct is known for, amazing service.
In order to tackle this the product owners agreed the top priority features and first direct scaled up the agile mobile teams.
“We wanted to maintain a lean start up approach, with small, agile, full stack teams made up of a mix of experienced permanent staff with a passion for first direct together with contract resource to ensure there were always sufficient skills. We also partnered with a 3rd party to bring in a mature fully outsourced team with intention to learn from them to refine how first direct deliver.”
All teams were co-located in Leeds, with the first direct business to allow for agile working at its best!
The next step was to set up a scaled agile delivery shop aligned to business outcomes with a core mission to deliver features that allow first direct to challenge the challengers with amazing customer experiences.
There’s been a fair share of challenges in getting the teams to effectively work together. From the starting point the bank was running at one major feature delivered every 3-4 months together with more quality issues than was desirable in the early days.
Trunk-based development and feature flags allowed first direct to increase the volume of change being introduced into production with release on demand capability to get features to customers when they were ready. Investment in Dev-ops through focus on increasing pace and quality of delivery, together with a strong service-ownership mentality meant it was able to drive improvements to continuous integration/ continuous delivery without lots of quality issues.
“We introduced the Spotify concept of chapters and guilds to refine technical skills within each discipline and to introduce new tools. Regular governance allowed the team to maintain standards in a way that kept up with agile delivery.”
Feature throughput was improving, then came Covid!
There was a huge risk that the lack of co-location in Leeds caused by home-working would impact on team culture resulting in performance issues, however that didn’t happen.
HSBC technology teams did an amazing job to ensure all teams could work remotely and first direct was given a license to be as flexible as its people needed it to be in unprecedented times.
The bank was rewarded with committed people who made the best of a bad situation and the delivery performance continued on an upward trajectory.
However, to truly get the best possible outcomes it needed more; it needed to be transformational rather than transactional.
So in 2021 the bank started with a real investment in its people. A technology festival called recharge which aimed to instill greater alignment around first direct’s purpose. It would keep people engaged while working remotely and it would create more empowerment whilst fostering a spirit of innovation.
Hearing from our internal ‘rockstars’, inspirational speakers, and the biggest names in technology inspired the teams to come up with new ways of doing things. It inspired new features for customers all aligned to first direct’s mission to challenge the challengers and this enhanced the desired BAU culture.
As a result of this first direct’s people have introduced new tools for automation of testing, build and deployments. This was combined with utilising the bank’s best people to share knowledge and help in upskilling the team in order to become more performant.
The results of the progress to date have exceeded expectations. So far 2021 has been the bank’s best year yet for digital delivery. By May it had delivered more epics than it had done in the whole of 2020. Big features had been delivered to customers monthly, through weekly production deployments. And the introduction of cutting-edge cloud technology will enable it to deliver richer features going forward.
first direct has delivered straight-through banking which has cut new to bank current account onboarding from 10 days to 10 minutes, mobile chat is now live, it offers card controls so customers can control their spending from their mobile app, and transaction enrichment using a new cloud based data platform hooked in with a fintech. And it has stayed compliant by delivering mandatory changes such as mobile app authentication for e-commerce transactions.
The focus now is on delivery of amazing experiences for its customers driven by data and powered by machine learning. By using cutting edge cloud technology to overcome its legacy challenges it is able to progress its journey towards autonomous banking. first direct’s future mobile app will take its passion for service together with its purpose of reducing financial stress for customers to provide personalised autonomous experiences to take away the burden of managing finances for customers.
Exciting times to come for first direct to continue offering amazing service, all made possible by its amazing humans.