Banking giant Santander claims it has turned the corner after a torrid past 18 months which has seen it consistently score poorly on customer service.

The bank's head of retail distribution Charlotte Hogg (pictured, below) admitted to that many problems still exist but she says customers are finally seeing some light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

Hogg, who runs Santander's personal banking services, points to reduced branch queues and improved call centre service after its telephone operation was moved to the UK from India earlier this year.

As she says, Santander still has a long way to go. It came rock bottom of our most recent poll on current account service in August. A whopping 39% of its customers who voted, rated their experience as poor.

It has come bottom of all our service polls since we started them in August 2010.

To find out where the bank sees itself now, we spoke to Hogg, who joined Santander in the summer from credit agency Experian. See her answers below (in normal font) to our questions (in bold).

What's the message to customers on how things have gone on service?

Customers will have seen some improvements but the more important thing is what they should see. There are things that are not so good, I'm not trying to be celebratory when there's no reason to be. There is much more to do.

But branch queues are shorter. There are now fewer than 10 branches where you have to wait more than seven minutes. We have a lot more staff, 600 more in branches.

It is also how you use them when there are busier times. We've really focused on having people at the right times.

Also more of our people are engaged. More try to understand what the person in front of them wants and then thinks about whether they have a solution for them.

For me everything builds into these questions. Did they get someone who served them they were happy with? Did they get seen in time? Did they get a solution? Did they get it without errors? If they had to make a complaint, was it solved?

Hogg: Much more work to do

What about internet banking? What's changed there?

Internet banking is a really good story. We've launched a new internet banking capability to make payments efficiently, securely and see all banking transactions and credit cards in one place.

We still have work to do in terms of people accessing it, some had teething problems, for which we apologise. We're looking at mobile capability too.

What about the call centres?

We've seen real benefits from having brought call centres back from India. Satisfaction scores are up by 20% in call centres. That directly links back to the decision to move them back.

Two of the common sources of customer dissatisfaction with banks are queue times in branches and non-UK call centres, so we've directly addressed both.

But there are other sources of dissatisfaction we know we need to address.

What's still disappointing on service?

There is a long way to go. I've done a lot of work looking at our complaints.

We have to really focus that we understand and listen to what a customer is saying, that we actually solve their concern. We've got to be relentless about understanding and fixing problems.

Also, we brought together three banks [Abbey, Alliance & Leicester (A&L) and Bradford & Bingley] and all of them had their own accounts.

So we've ended up with quite incredible complexity in what we ask people in branches to talk to customers about.

We have a high number of bank accounts and mortgages and when you've got that level of complexity it's hard for people to get it right every time. They should get it right, but it's difficult.

One of the big programmes we've got under way is around behavioural issues, giving staff the tools to remind them to put themselves in the customer's shoes.

I've been reading all of the complaints that come to the executive management team and sometimes, although not always, part of what customers are looking for is respect and an apology.

Maybe we don't have the perfect systems in every circumstance, because nobody does, but we need to collectively stand in the customer's shoes.

Have we got to a stage yet with the three banks are now as one?


Even behind the scenes?

Largely. There are still some technology issues, but they're all on the same basic technology platform.

We did a lot of job swaps so you will have people from Bradford & Bingley in former Abbey branches and former A&L branches and that helps the transition. Could we do better? I'm sure we could.

And that is definitely one of the sources of why our customer service slipped.

One of the worst examples of poor service was last summer when some former Alliance & Leicester customers couldn't use their cards. Is that problem behind us?

I haven't seen it since. These things occasionally go down. Can I promise you that there'll never be something difficult? No.

I would be wrong to try to do that, however good our systems are.

Last year, Santander said "the worst is behind us". Has the last year turned out that way?

I think customers want service to be better, and as long as they want it to be better we have to get better. It's that simple.

Was it worse a year ago? It's hard to tell.

Where do you see yourselves in a year? Do you think we're at the stage where in 12 months people will view Santander in a different way?

I think it will take longer because changing a culture and then changing a perception, particularly when it's deeply ingrained, takes time.

Again, what I'm saying to people in branches is 'do not expect external validation tomorrow because it won't happen'. But every day, if you keep giving customers a great experience, eventually one will come into the branch and say: 'You know, this is different.'

You've obviously got a big drive at the moment, as you have done for years, to get current account customers. Is there enough emphasis on service at the same time as customer numbers?

The fact we've reduced queue times, I don't see that as an issue. I think if we also got better at fixing customer issues, relentlessly, when it occurs, we'd find we had plenty of resources to deal it.

So you're confident the pace of improvements in service will keep up with the pace of customer acquisition?

I won't be around if it doesn't.

Looking at the industry as a whole, is service good enough?

No, I don't think so. If your aspiration is that you have an institution that helps you make some of the most important decisions in your life, and understands where you're trying to come from, of course it's not good enough.

Do I think banks generally put customers, and their interests, at the heart of everything? No, I don't. I think that should be the aspiration.

The indication we get from our surveys is that while a lot of people aren't happy, people say service is getting gradually better.

Yes. I think banks are getting better but the bar is still a long way away for the whole industry.

A massive banking issue over recent years has been PPI mis-selling. What have you as a bank and as an industry learned from it?

On PPI mis-selling, we weren't that participatory. I'm really glad about that.

But has Santander learned from that experience? Absolutely. The core thing we've learned is people have to want to use the product. And they didn't want to use PPI. That was obvious.

What about bank charges? Many banks have moved to daily charges, like Santander, rather than one-off fees per transaction. Do you think this is the way the industry should go?

We think it's the most transparent way, for now. But we keep listening to what customers are saying.

On banking products, the Government has talked about simpler offers. Do you think the current range is simple enough? Both from Santander and the banking industry?

It's complex and I'm sure none of us regard ourselves as particularly obtuse, but if you try to read some of the terms and conditions and the language sent out, even letters from Santander, it's not clear.

Current accounts is an area where there's a lot of opportunity for us for simplicity and clarity, so hopefully come next year you'll see some really good stuff.

On savings, you recently moved to paying interest upfront on one product. Are you going to roll it across other products?

The aim is to give customers value, and I think this bond does that. I'm sure it won't work for everyone but I think it will appeal to a significant number.

We might extend it to others and there are other innovations planned.