Banks have always been an important cog in the engine of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). From financing to ongoing money management, banks have perpetually forged strong relationships with entrepreneurs.
At Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and NatWest, we believe that banks must do more to help SMEs succeed in today’s business environment. So in early 2013, we unveiled BizCrowd, a free online business supplier community that enables companies to pitch for new business or invite offers for goods or services they need themselves.
But the difference between this and – say – any other B2B sourcing platform is that BizCrowd is also a community—a place where RBS, NatWest and participating business people can share insights on how to run a successful enterprise.
The site includes sector-specific noticeboards where companies can rate suppliers based on their experience, just like sharing a hotel rating on TripAdvisor. We have also integrated many of the most popular social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to encourage greater interaction among members.
While RBS and NatWest, like most banks in the UK, were already active users of social media within the retail division and internally, moving forward with a supplier community was new territory for these financial institutions. This, of course, brought about great opportunities and risks for the different functions within our Business and Commercial Banking business.
The finance group, for example, quizzed us about the potential financial returns from the idea. Risk management identified some notable risks—to our brand, our customer relationships and, of course, our customers’ security and privacy.
At the same time, colleagues in our business units quickly became excited about the data we could gather to help us better serve SME customers. And our marketing department felt that putting RBS and NatWest at the forefront of a movement to help entrepreneurs succeed would be fantastic for our brand.
In the end we all agreed that, if we could effectively manage the risk, it was the right thing to do. Yes, it was like placing a bet. But we were confident enough in our approach and the potential for benefits that it was a bet worth making. And so we set our minds towards building a thriving community—one that puts RBS and NatWest at the center of the SME conversation in Britain.
It’s tempting to look at the potential of social media technology and assume that if it offers something useful, people will flock to it. But the reality is that the social aspect—doing something that helps the community—is what matters most. So we recruited the support of RBS’s 8,000 relationship managers across the UK – those who have the closest relationships with our SME clients – to help us define the initiative and then communicate the program directly to our core audience.
We also recognized that the traditional branch network would need to play a role in promoting BizCrowd and so we developed and launched an outreach campaign aimed at our front-line bankers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, because we have people with a wide variety of experience—from those who ‘get’ the potential of social media right away, to traditionalists who haven’t spent more than a minute of their lives on Twitter. We need them all to become digital advocates.
To ensure that the program achieved the greatest impact at launch, we even turned to ‘old school’ communications strategies such as conducting a physical ‘road show’ aimed at communicating the benefits of the program to our internal employees across the country. We essentially travelled from town to town telling our story and sharing client testimonials about how BizCrowd has helped uncover new clients for their own businesses.
We believe that BizCrowd is helping our Business and Commercial Banking business get back to the basics of what it means to be a community banker—that reliable business partner who helps local businesses succeed. The only difference is that we are now leveraging new digital tools to connect people to people, rather than pacing up and down the old high street.
We debated whether or not to keep BizCrowd a ‘closed’ community for RBS and NatWest clients only. Our customers answered that question for us: they don’t care if their new trading partner is our customer or not. It works to our advantage too, because we reach a whole new set of prospects.
Ultimately, we firmly believe that BizCrowd provides a valuable service to our business customers while giving our front-line bankers the opportunity to have more vivid, less transactional conversations with their clients. In turn, this will enable us to understand our SME clients’ needs better and fine-tune our services accordingly.
And ultimately, that’s what building a community is all about: helping everyone reach their potential.
By Alastair Grier, Chief Operating Officer, Business and Commercial Banking RBS and NatWest