3 simple steps for banks to better serve women in business

We’ve thankfully been able to move beyond needing to convince most institutions, including those operating in the banking sector, that female entrepreneurship needs to be taken seriously. It’s taken a while but we got there in the end. The realisation that more effectively supporting women in business presents an opportunity does not, however, appear to have had sufficient resonance to shake every bank into action.

Much can be achieved if these banks take action now

I really do need to ask myself why not all banks have responded, because the opportunity to me (and some of their banking competitors) is pretty obvious. Rather than re-stating the well-rehearsed economic argument for getting more women to start up and grow a business, let’s simply look at it from the banks’ perspective. If banks better serve women in business they will acquire, and keep, more customers. Through receiving an improved service, these customers are more likely to prosper. In my mind that’s a win-win for the banks – more customers and greater, more sustainable, profits – and of course in turn the economy improves and so the cycle continues. There’s also a secondary benefit for the banks. As they become increasingly adept at serving women in business, their overall customer orientation will have grown, so the service experienced by their male business customers will naturally evolve too, with the obvious ripple effect.

The size of the prize available for better serving women in business surely cannot continue to be ignored, but why has so little effort been invested by some banks to seize it?  Surely it can’t be that it’s too difficult. In a sector which is tackling complexity in the form of financial regulations every day, this challenge is absolutely within the realms of ‘do-able’, and of course the banks that lead the force of change will reap the obvious benefits of being first. So, to keep it simple, there are 3 key steps that banks need to take, to catch up with this race to market.

3 simple steps for banks to better serve women in business

To better serve women in business banks need to take steps in the three key areas of institutional culture, communications and service design and delivery.

Here’s how.

Step 1.  Build a positive institutional culture around women in business

Banks that aim to effectively serve women in business need to build awareness and understanding of the opportunity throughout their institution. A good place to start is to evaluate the bank’s own culture with respect to how it values and supports women by taking a bird’s eye view and applying a ‘gender-lens’ to determine:

–  the extent to which women, in particular, can thrive within the institution;

–  the effectiveness of recruitment and employment practices to employ, retain and develop  women;

–  how far the institution effectively promotes and supports flexible working practices;

–  whether women are sufficiently involved in institutional decision-making to allow for real diversity of approach;

– the extent to which front-line staff, managers and senior executives understand the opportunity working with women in business presents for the bank.

Undertaking such a review will lead to a clear set of actions to provide a starting point for building a positive culture around women in business throughout the bank. The culture change can then be accelerated by appointing and training a network of male and female women’s business ‘ambassadors’ or champions who, on behalf of the bank, can continue to provide feedback on institutional culture, external communications and service delivery from a gender perspective.

Step 2. Communicate effectively with women in business through effective market segmentation

There was a time, not so many years ago, when every entrepreneur was cast as a suit-wearing risk-taker with bullish aspiration and destined for boom or bust. It wasn’t surprising that women didn’t necessarily see themselves as natural-born entrepreneurs! Although this stereotypical picture has to a great extent been broken down, and we can now recognise that entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as action, we still have a way to go to include women effectively in the mix.

Even in 2015 we’re still seeing business support targeted at ‘women’. Effective marketing to women in business starts with a recognition that women do not exist as one homogeneous group – just over half of the population cannot be classed as a niche sector! To communicate effectively with women in business, banks need to start getting serious about market segmentation, because by really understanding the nature of women in business at a niche level they can effectively communicate with women as individuals, and so be much more confident of being heard.

Undertaking a communications audit, applying a ‘gender-lens’ to all external marketing, would go a long way to identifying how effectively market segmentation is being undertaken, and might seek to discover:

– whether marketing communications reflect the different circumstances, journeys and needs of women in business (business aspiration, professional background, family and domestic  circumstances, motivations);

– how imagery and case studies used in off-line and online marketing communications are  balanced, avoiding stereotypes with respect to gender, age and demographic;

– to what extent media and promotional platforms, such as conferences, seminars, business dinners, feature a balance of males and females;

– whether measurement of campaign take-up is disaggregated by gender, and findings fed back into the marketing system.

Building on step 1, once complete, this type of evaluation can be undertaken on an ongoing basis, introducing a policy for all marketing and communications to be subject to review through a ‘gender-lens’ to continually improve communication with women in business.

Step 3. Take an approach to service delivery that matches the needs of women

The key to banks effectively serving women in business is to take into account their needs in their approach to service delivery. This should not be interpreted as needing to offer distinct, different service offerings for women, but to develop a customer-orientated approach to service delivery on a holistic basis, ensuring that needs that are specific to women are taken into account – to apply a ‘gender-lens’ to service methodology. Examples of service innovations that could usefully emerge from this process of evaluation include:

–  supporting women in business to manage loan payments during a maternity period;

–  encouraging intervention during the loan application process should it be evident that a female business owner is requesting a lower amount than is required to support business growth – women typically ask for 33% of the amount requested by men setting up and growing equivalent businesses in the same sector;

–  offering services that extend beyond finance, to encourage deeper relationship building and provide access to business contacts and networks. A positive example of this could be Santander’s Breakthrough programme;

–  enabling bank managers to act as sounding board and honest broker to customers, beyond the traditional transactional relationship.

 

All banks need to take action, now

Simply looking at new ways to attract female customers is not an option if banks are to better serve women in business.

By starting with a review of their own institution, being prepared to apply a gender-lens to themselves as well as their customer-facing activities, banks can secure their success from the inside out. Through an improved customer orientation, and effective market segmentation, banks will succeed in improving themselves as employers, profitable businesses and pillars of the business institution, as well as better serving women who are starting up and growing businesses.

Banks, if you haven’t already, we challenge you to take action. Please take these 3 simple steps to better serve women in business. Your race to join your competitors in the market is now on.

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the following ICE Associates and experts in female entrepreneurship who have contributed their knowledge and expertise in the development of this article:

Jackie Brierton, Director Women’s Enterprise Scotland

Professor Eleanor Shaw, Professor of Entrepreneurship Strathclyde University

Pat Richardson, Director Richardson Howarth

Carolyn Currie, Consultant in Gender and SME Finance