We launched Starling with the aim of being a different kind of bank; one that was open and transparent with its customers in a way that banks had never been before. That objective was partly why we opened the Starling Community Forum, because we wanted to provide an online forum where our customers could give us feedback, talk directly with our product developers, help each other out with product queries and discuss wider developments in the fintech world.
We’re immensely proud of the products and services we provide for our customers - nearly 250,000 accounts have been opened - but it’s time to admit that this experiment of having a forum hasn’t turned out the way we would have hoped, so today we’re closing it.
We’re truly sorry to Starling customers who enjoyed the forum and found it helpful. But we believe that the decision is in the best interests of the majority of our customers, most of whom have never used it at all.
We have not made this decision lightly. It’s hard to admit to getting things wrong, and we expect lots of smart people who believe passionately in freedom of speech to be disappointed. So in the spirit of the honesty we champion here at Starling, we want to explain why.
Getting our priorities right
When we launched the forum in 2017, it was in some sense a big experiment - after all, most banks don’t provide anything like it – but we took the view that it was better to have a space where we could post and engage with our customers. Too often, however, we’ve found the challenge of running it has proved too big a distraction from our core job, which is to protect the interests of our wider customer base and to grow the bank.
We had hoped the forum would be a place where customers could openly discuss with each other questions they may have about our app. In reality, however, we’ve found that a small but vocal minority of forum members have had unrealistic expectations of what it is for. In addition, the conversations that take place there often expose potentially sensitive customer information.
It’s important to note that as a bank we exist in a highly regulated environment and this hampers how openly we can converse in our forum, particularly when individual cases are raised. Often, customers would use the space to escalate issues, but yet we couldn't share personal information on the forum or answer questions or complaints from individual customers on how we detect fraud or spot potential money laundering.
We’re bound by strict “tipping off” rules not to do anything to prejudice any investigation by the authorities for wrongdoing. We usually can’t tell a user why, for example, their account has been blocked, and in addition, we can’t responsibly expose a customer’s full situation in any of our responses. This is something all banks face, but because most of them don’t have open forums, it’s not one that surfaces in the public domain very often.
While we take our responsibility of protecting our customers in this way very seriously, we also have a duty to ensure that our staff and our ‘gurus’ – unpaid volunteers and Starling customers who play a prominent role on our forum – are not subject to impossible requests, or sometimes hostility. There are times when our staff are asked to respond to a forum member who says their card has been declined when it has not, who might ask us to release funds that have been frozen by courts, or who posts incomplete screenshots of conversations with our customer support team that don’t give a fair and true representation of the full interaction.
For the greater good
There will no doubt be some who claim we’re closing the forum because we’re trying to avoid negative feedback – but that’s not true. We welcome and actively encourage thoughts and suggestions from customers that help us improve the product and enhance the Starling experience for all. While we know we don’t always get things 100% right, we always want to learn from our users, but based on experience, we now believe there are more effective and healthy ways of registering and responding to feedback.
On reflection, in running a forum we were effectively setting up ourselves as a publisher, with a duty to take responsibility for the content published on our forum. But as a bank, we are different from conventional publishers. It’s not just about the law. It’s also about trust. Our customers trust us with their hard-earned money and we have a duty to them to maintain that trust. Part of that meant ensuring that our forum felt like a safe, productive, useful and positive place, but we found this harder to achieve than we imagined and we know now that we’re just not suited to being a publisher of user-generated content.
Continuing the conversation
We have closed our forum, but we remain as dedicated as ever to having an open dialogue with our customers and the wider fintech community. Our commitment to openness is clear from our decision to publish our gender pay gap, even though it wasn’t required by law, and by our first annual ‘Letter from the CEO’.
We’ll continue to post information about technical disruptions to the bank and we’ll carry on alerting our customers about important technical issues in-app and by email – all services that banks have never traditionally offered.
We’ll also remain active on all our social media channels, and our blog and monthly newsletter, The Murmur, will continue to provide great content about our products and offer helpful financial information. We’ll still be out and about at conferences and consumer events and our users can still contact us via our customer services department, which is staffed 100% by humans, not bots.
This isn’t the end of the conversation. We’re just figuring out a different way to have it.