“Most of the time the owner of a business is also the CEO, the MD, the FD, the HR Director, the Marketing Manager, the Risk Director and the Head of Communications all rolled into one. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that many of our SME customers perform every single day.
Our customers’ businesses are usually run by a passionate owner, trying to make a living but they can sometimes be slow to recognise when they need some help – when in reality, support is all around them. I expect all these businesses employ an accountant and solicitor. They pay business rates to a local authority. They are often members of trade associations and, importantly for us, they all have a bank.
In my conversations with local business organisations there’s a consistent theme – there’s a lot of help and support out there but many businesses don’t know how to access what’s available. It can be very confusing and time consuming if you don’t know your way around the local business network.
That’s where we play a vitally important role. Banks have a highly privileged position at the centre of the business finance ecosystem. We have the skills, expertise, network and experience to help our customers succeed. We have the power to open up our networks and connect people.
When I visit our local SME banking teams, the length and breadth of the country, they are packed full of intelligent, experienced, well-connected and enthusiastic staff – all with something to offer. Not only that, but the average local team has contact with a rich tapestry of entrepreneurs, professional advisors, mentors, industry experts and business coaches. And if we don’t the right people, we’ll know someone who does.
Whilst banks can’t be there to run people’s businesses for them, we can do a number of very practical things. If, after exhausting all the avenues we decide that we can’t support a new business financially, we look at who else might be able to support them. I’ve seen this work really well locally, where bank staff have directed customers to organisations who can help them draw up a business plan. I’ve also seen great examples of local teams referring businesses to alternative sources of finance where we can’t support.
This goes to the heart of what it means to live out the RBS values of supporting customers, working together, doing the right thing and thinking long-term. If we can add value to a small business today, it will be remembered by them when they become a bigger business of tomorrow.
And it’s more than just the financials we can help with. At a recent visit to the North West, a new business owner was talking about her decision to leave a large corporate to run her own business and said : “It’s not good being on your own”. Fortunately for her, NatWest participates in a mentoring scheme where one of our managers now works alongside her, helping her navigate through life as a sole trader.
Another businessman I spoke to said he didn't think he needed a mentor but was encouraged to take one as a condition of grant-funding. His bank mentor wasn’t needed for giving the financials a once over, but was hugely helpful in putting the business in touch with some experienced non-executive directors to help drive the business forward.
Finally, another businesswoman who was very mistrustful of the banks decided that after being matched with a bank mentor ,we weren’t so bad after all. The human face of a bank mentor had changed her perception of the bank and, importantly, the role of the industry. She is now working closely with the bank when previously she avoided us.
Beyond the role of a bank
Wherever I go, the customers I speak to say that it’s the quality of our people that really makes the difference. That’s why we’ve put so much effort into professionalising the workforce through accreditation, sector training, professional qualifications and skills-based volunteering in recent years and we still have more to do. We believe that if customers are met by professional and knowledgeable bankers, who understand their business and the dynamics of their industry, then they understand the risks and opportunities to grow better. The result is business conversations on a totally different level and support which extends beyond what people traditionally see as the role of the bank.
By making sure that we have these quality, interactions with customers right from the beginning of the relationship I believe, in fact I’m certain, we can win their support and advocacy and help them to grow. By opening up our networks too, we can help SMEs take their businesses to the next level - which is good for them, good for us and ultimately good for the UK economy. “
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