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Customer satisfaction and paid customer service: a contradiction?

There was a time when customer service was the cornerstone of customer satisfaction. But the Covid crisis happened, and some companies, which were used to being different thanks to a free service, had to rethink their strategy. This is the case of BNP Paribas, who announced, at the end of January 2021, that access to customer service advisors would become subject to a fee. Is it still possible to satisfy the customer under these conditions? Is free customer service a pinnacle of customer satisfaction? The answers in this article.

Customer service and customer satisfaction: a long-standing relationship

The relationship between customer satisfaction and quality of service is well known. In quantitative marketing, quality of service is the subject of specific research that has led to the creation of measurement scales such as SERVQUAL. We can use this scale in quantitative questionnaires (surveys) to measure the different dimensions of service quality.

The relationship between customer satisfaction and quality of service is so intimate that they are intertwined. Instead, read the following definitions of customer satisfaction.

France Quality Public defines customer satisfaction as “a value judgment resulting from the confrontation between the perceived service and the expected service.”
Or the definition given by Sylvie Llosa, a well-known researcher, in her doctoral thesis:

“Customer satisfaction is based on a comparison of the service’s perceived performance with a pre-established standard.”

As you will have understood, customer service and customer satisfaction go hand in hand. So how can it be reasonable to charge the customer for a service that was previously free of charge?

Why is BNP generalizing the paid service?

On January 19, 2021, the BNP bank announced that access to a dedicated customer advisor would now be subject to a fee. To be entitled to it, customers will have to take out a 12€/month subscription.  This may not seem much, but it still represents 144€/year for a service that in the end will rarely be used since access to the service concerns mainly “patrimonial, investment or real estate projects.” It is unlikely that you will meet with your customer advisor every month on this subject.  If you expect 4 meetings per year, this will probably allow the bank to compensate part of the said advisor’s costs and multiplied by a few tens of thousands of clients, and this puts some butter on the bread.

Because in the age of Covid and low rates, banks are continually looking for efficiency. All of them have launched drastic cost-cutting programs (BNP will cut 300 sales positions in France), and some, like BNP, are looking for additional revenue sources.

So, one question that deserves to be asked: by constantly being ” clipped, “isn’t there a risk that the customer will run away?

The customer is already doing everything himself, and the agencies are closing down.

keytrade bankIt is too often forgotten that the bank of 2021 has nothing to do with the bank of the 80s (or even 90s). The cost structure of today’s banks has already been significantly reduced through digitalization. Some banks have gone entirely digital, and one of them, Keytrade Bank, even paid customers for transfers they made themselves. In 2017 it had paid €496,697.65 (see opposite).
This digitalization has several visible consequences:
customers now do almost everything themselves
the time spent in an agency is scarce

The major retail banks are therefore closing their network of branches:

  • 21% of branches closed in Germany
  • 18% in Spain
  • 17% in Italy
  • 10% in Belgium
  • 3% in France between 2014 and 2018

To take some concrete examples in Belgium in 2020:

  • BNP Paribas Fortis has closed one branch out of five (123 branches), and 144 others are expected to close in 2021
  • ING Belgium plans to close 50% of its branches by 2021
  • KBC: -8%
  • Belfius: -6%

We’ve lost the “physical” account manager’s reference because we can’t see him anymore.

So, is it possible to satisfy the customer while making him or her pay?

Paradoxically, I think you can make the customer more satisfied by making them pay. And I even believe that this can benefit the bank beyond the meager revenues generated.

It is better to pay for a good service than to have a bad service for free.

Remember that customer satisfaction is the implicit calculation that results from comparing an expectation and a perception. The digitalization of banks, which has been in progress for more than 10 years, has made it possible to forge habits among customers. We now do everything ourselves via mobile applications and home banking solutions. Our point of reference is, therefore, digital. We have lost the “physical” account manager’s reference point because we no longer see him.
In these conditions, it doesn’t make sense to give those who need it the opportunity to benefit from better quality service at a higher price. For the risk hanging over the banks’ heads is that of scaring away its customers when they have to address, very infrequently, a real person in the flesh. If the contact is wrong, if the service is terrible, it is this standard of quality that becomes the new benchmark, and that risks causing some problems.

Get rid of bad customers

The other argument that reinforces my idea that BNP’s strategy is astute is knowing how to get rid of bad customers. If we learn that customer loyalty is a profit driver, what we forget is that retaining bad customers costs you money. So, you have to know how to get rid of them, as I explained a few years ago in this other article. I had also given several useful tips on how to get rid of them.
Making clients pay is a way to sort out and not “waste” resources on clients who are not worth it.


In a nutshell, I think that BNP’s strategy is well thought out. It allows a leverage effect on 3 levels:

  1. strengthening customer satisfaction through a service that benefits those who need it
  2. differentiation thanks to a better-quality service that contrasts with the standard of “all-inclusive” or “all free”
  3. sorting between “good” and “bad” customers which allows pushing the customers who cost money towards the exit



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