ING Direct Serves Up Customer Service With a Latte

I started writing this post from inside one of ING DIRECT’s internet Cafes on the near north side of Chicago. Aside from the heavy branding and ubiquitous Orange color, the place seems like any internet cafe I’ve ever been to – halfway decent food, funky couches, free internet, everything you might need to get a few hours of work done.

But this is a bank. Sort of. ING DIRECT is an online-only bank offering basic banking services such as checking and savings accounts, CDs, retirement products and home loans. The bank is able to offer superior interest rates and very low fees largely because of the savings it enjoys by not having to staff and rent physical branch offices – as well as by keeping its services bare bones and simple. It’s a little like the Southwest Airlines of the banking industry.

The savings and convenience are paying off. The company is now one of the largest and most profitable banks in the world – depending on how you measure it – and its US operations are quickly gaining ground against traditional big banks like Citibank and Chase. But despite a reputation for excellent customer service, ING has come to realize that some customers are still nervous about the idea of banking without branches. Hence the friendly cafe.

I asked Noah Creager, Cafe lead in Chicago, a few questions about how the Cafe concept has helped build the company’s brand….

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Nick Aster: What’s the cafe all about? Do you think it makes the customer happier?

Noah Creager: The concept of the ING DIRECT Cafe is to bring saving to life and make banking similar to a retail experience for the customer. The Cafes are a place where customers can get to know us, get to know the products, have their voices heard, and experience our values. It’s really about coming in and “trying us on for size,” so to speak.

I definitely think this unique approach to banking makes customers happy. We’re reminded of that everyday when we emotionally connect with a customer to help them achieve a financial goal. We’re available 24 hours, 7 days a week for our customers whether it’s online or on Main Street, explaining banking products in common language over a cup of coffee.

Aster: Is banking online “greener”?

Creager: We try to be green in a number of different ways. Do we use less paper? Yes, we strive to be a paperless company and reduce our carbon footprint where we can. Do customers use less energy to do their banking? Then yes, because you can do everything online from the comfort of home and don’t need to drive to go to the bank. Do you make a little more “green” in the process? Yes, our customers earn a competitive interest rate on their savings and even their checking.

Aster: What else about ING have you observed that embodies the principals of good customer service and a greater awareness of global sustainability?

Creager: We pride ourselves on having great customer service by being simple and straight forward in our dealings with customers. Our mission is to lead Americans back to saving. People overspend, that’s not sustainable. As an advocate for greater financial responsibility, we try to educate customers on how to grow their savings and be responsible spenders. We also provide our customers with tips and tools to keep their spending in check. At the end of the day, our main goal is transparency and delivering on that brand promise.

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My opinion is that the cafe is a nice touch of customer service at exactly a time when other banks are becoming less friendly and more costly. It’s a perfect example of the “people” side of sustainability that can’t be forgotten when thinking about all the stakeholders – not the least of which are your customers.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.