How Santander Learnt To Innovate Responsibly

The bank has opened up their innovation practices and partnered with charities


Innovation today is often looked at as a technology-driven phenomena, something that tech companies do and everybody else uses in marketing copy to make what is a relatively run-of-the-mill product sound more exciting than it actually is. No, your dog food is not an innovation in canine nutrition, it's dog food.

Even worse is ‘innovation’ within mature industries, like banking, where each ‘innovation’ is normally just a small iteration, blown out of proportion as a way for them to attract more customers without offering anything to those who already bank with them. But Santander have taken an entirely different approach that is seeing them look at innovation with new eyes. Rather than looking to complex customer survey data or graphs that show little aside from trends, they instead met with people and, more importantly, met with charities to discuss what they could do.

We heard from Justin Hannemann, Head of New Product and Service Design (Customer and Innovation) at Santander, who spoke at the Chief Innovation Summit in London about exactly how the bank are doing this.

Previously in his career, Justin had been the head of fundraising at Barnardos, a children's charity in Australia. It was the kind of understanding he got from this work that led him down a path towards taking a new approach with Santander - working with charities to find solutions to their customers.

This is an idea that makes a huge amount of sense and has already had some real world applications away from the banking space that Justin, and Jan Levy, Managing Director at Three Hands, demonstrated. One of the most interesting was a partnership between Howdens - a UK timber merchant and kitchen fitter - and Leonard Cheshire Disability - a UK based disability charity. The two organizations worked together to create kitchens that were easily useable by people with physical disabilities. These include height variable counter tops, color co-ordinated handles to help those with visual impairments, and drawers underneath the cooker to allow for items to be placed if they were too heavy to carry straight from the oven. These originally started out as specialist kitchens donated by Howdens, but some of the ideas that were specific to those with disabilities soon became part of the regular Howden products. For instance, the height adjustable counters were particularly useful not only for people with disabilities, but also for particularly tall or short people.

Santander adopted this approach because, as Justin said in his presentation, 'Charities are very good at solving problems, businesses are very good at scaling up solutions.'

The case study that Justin and Jan discussed looked at the work that Santander did with Open Age, a charity looking at the needs of elderly people. This wasn't simply a random charity however, it was carefully chosen based on demographic trends. It is no secret that there is a large aging population in the UK and across most Western countries and that this older population control the majority of the wealth. Therefore, as a bank, Santander need to do better catering towards this demographic as they are going to be their most important customers in the coming years. Over 50% of Santander's customers are already over 50, so this is already an issue that Santander need to concentrate their efforts on.

Rather than simply looking at numbers, trends, and visualizations, they wanted to sit down with people and discuss the issues they had and how Santander could overcome them. They spent three days together and brought in stakeholders from various parts of the business in order to get ideas across the entire company. This goes along with the mantras that Justin has within his department that 'We have a healthy disregard of research' and 'We like to sit in front of customers, not put them behind glass walls'.

Through this work it became clear that there were several issues that Santander could work on to help make people's experiences more rewarding and safer. For instance, they spent a long time talking to people with mobility issues who were essentially housebound. According to Jan, they found that 'In order to get cash out to pay their gardener, they were willing to give their card and pin number to a taxi driver that they'd only met once before, in order for them to get the money out and bring it back so they could pay for someone to clean up the leaves'. This clearly causes huge potential risk for these vulnerable people because they are essentially giving strangers access to their entire life savings. This gave Santander an area of innovation that they would have never found through regular customer surveys or traditional focus groups - it is exclusively because they partnered with a charity that this idea came about. In the words of Justin 'It made us think of how we can provide money to older people without them necessarily leaving the house', which then led onto allowing those with power of attorney or a trusted person to be able to get money for them.

However, it wasn't only through their services that they learnt about their customer's needs. One of the really important insights that came from these discussions was that people with dementia often view doormats as holes, which stops dementia sufferers walking across them to enter a building. This is, once again, something that would never have been found through traditional surveys, data, and focus groups. However, as we move towards a larger cross section of the population likely to suffer from dementia or similar ailments, these kinds of design decisions are going to be essential for companies in the future.

Ultimately, this kind of collaborative innovation through working with charities creates significant opportunities in pushing forward both the agenda or the charity and the business. The business gets the insights it needs to improve its services or products, which in-turn helps it to increase profits, and the charity is acting to help the people it has been tasked with helping. Santander's work, in particular, shows that there is significant value in actually engaging with people who their decisions will impact, rather than trying to gain insight from reports, surveys, and data - something that in our increasingly data-driven society, isn't as common as it once was. 

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