Companies often wrongly assume that being the best means being the biggest. But if your main driver is to go after every sale, it can be hard to do business in an ethical way – or in the right way by your customers.
Banks in the UK and US often get this balance wrong and focus purely on profit and growth. So when I joined financial services start-up Abu Dhabi Finance (ADF) in 2009, my priority was to get that balance right.
To do this, and to differentiate ADF from other UAE mortgage providers, we gave our sales team customer satisfaction targets alongside traditional sales targets. Calculated from customer feedback questionnaires, these targets help determine their pay and bonuses.
This business model has paid off. Not only are we on target, with 85% of customers “very satisfied” with our service, but we have also grown our customer base steadily year on year since launch. Though our market share has dropped from 25% to 20% since 2011 as other lenders entered the market, we remain in the top three conventional mortgage lenders in Abu Dhabi.
Building customer trust remains hugely important as there is an inherent distrust of banks in the UAE. This isn’t surprising as there have been so many examples of bad behaviour in terms of pricing and consumer protection. When I arrived in the UAE in 2007, I was surprised by how great the gulf was between what a customer wanted and what a bank reserved the right to do. It has improved but it will take time to build up that trust.
This focus on integrity and ethics was also important to me on a personal level. Growing up in Portsmouth, my parents were librarians with an inherent distrust and limited knowledge of the business world. Though I now know this not to be true, I also associated it with greed.
I had no intention of becoming a chartered accountant, let alone a CEO, and probably wouldn’t have had I not chanced upon a Deloitte stall at a career fair while studying geography at the University of Liverpool. The people I spoke to were brilliant; they loved sport, were passionate about their jobs and had an excellent work-life balance. Those people are the reason I joined Deloitte and they are why, five years later, I found myself on a fast track to partner level.
Had I not been seconded to New York aged 25, I probably would have continued on that road, but when you’ve spent time mixing with the decision makers and brightest brains of the firm, it is hard to return to your old desk. That’s why I left the profession and, in 2007, relocated to the UAE where I was appointed interim CEO of the National Bank of Fujairah, before joining ADF.
Working in the UAE was a huge culture shock. Not only because there is a lack of trust in the sector, but because it is such a multicultural society. ADF has a potential customer base spanning 200 nationalities, each with different expectations and experiences of banking in their home country.
Even within ADF, our employees are made up of 15 nationalities, so I have to adapt my leadership style accordingly. For example, some cultures automatically trust management whereas, with others, I have to work harder to gain respect.
But I have also come to realise how lucky I was to move from West to East at a time the global economy started shifting in that direction. Certainly, there are drawbacks: there is still a natural lag in the UAE banking sector behind some of the more developed markets, while the legal and regulatory framework requires improvement. But what’s important is that it is improving, and, slowly, we are getting there.