After it launched in September 2002, Dubai Bank rode the wave of growth that enveloped the region to the point that it now boasts 22 branches and more than Dh15bn in assets. But there were significant growing pains. In 2008, when Ethos Consultancy released the results of its annual customer service bench-marking study, executives were embarrassed to learn the bank was rated 21st out of the 29 in the region that were measured.
"We knew we were better than that," recalled Lufti Al Shukaili, head of Dubai Bank's service quality and performance development. The bank stressed customer service concepts throughout its growth, but Mr Al Shukaili acknowledges that all banks certainly do the same. "The question is, 'How much do you really believe in it?'" he said. Under his direction, the government-owned bank undertook a major push to improve its performance. At least according to the Ethos survey, it succeeded. In the 2009 study, Dubai Bank jumped 19 places to second overall and was rated the UAE's top Shariah compliant bank for customer service.
In many ways, banks throughout the region are faced with many of the same challenges that Dubai Bank is tackling. The era of explosive growth is likely over, giving way for the time being to an emphasis on keeping the customers they have and retaining those consistent revenue streams. In other words, in this economic environment good customer service is critical to the bottom line. The biggest hurdle for banks in this region is managing the expectations of the dozens of nationalities who walk through the door each day. Dubai Bank, for example, has customers from dozens of different countries, each with its own traditions that colour the way consumers evaluate their experiences. The bank in 2007 became Sharia-compliant, but provides services for non-Muslim customers as well.
While there are many consumers who are keen on internet and mobile banking, there are others who prescribe to a very traditional style of banking in which they expect to meet in person with a manager on every visit to discuss their specific needs. "What you expect from your bank if you are American is much different from what someone would expect who has lived here their whole life," said Mr Al Shukaili. "We have customers who have never seen an ATM."
In classroom training sessions, the firm stressed that employees should be able to meet customers' needs regardless of their background or preferred mode of banking. The bank also hired its own team of mystery shoppers, deploying them not only to Dubai Bank locations but other banks and even five-star hotels to compare the quality of service. After the Ethos ranking was announced, Mr Al Shukaili visited each of the bank's 22 branches in person to congratulate them, but also remind them that they could not rest on their laurels. "We've got a bigger challenge this year," he said, saying he has his eyes on the top spot of Ethos' list.
To get there, Dubai Bank will have to do battle with RAKBank, which was named the best overall bank for the fourth consecutive year in the Ethos survey. "We have one unique selling point - we are not embarrassed to say we are sorry if we have made a mess out of somebody's transaction and we will find a way to fix it," said Graham Honeybill, RAKBank general manager. The Ras al Khaimah-based bank in January revamped its website, in part in response to consumer suggestions.