Post-COVID-19: More digital, more ‘controllers’

Looking forward, banks will face a tough question when shelter-in-place orders are lifted: Will today’s social distance eventually create a commercial distance between banks and their clients?

Banks were already transforming points of contact with customers before the COVID-19 crisis, closing branches and channeling more interaction through automated apps. Fears that exchanging money or coming into contact with ATMs can spread contagion have only underscored the role of remote interactions in the future of banking.

Banks are reshaping their vision of what lies ahead two ways. First, they’re picking up the pace on new technology. Customer experience experts say video chat could play a bigger role at branches, online and at ATMs. Behind the scenes, apps will help to break down barriers between products and functions that previously were siloed and harder to navigate. Meanwhile, financial institutions envision a new legion of customer service and branch employees who will be quick, proactive problem solvers.

Grave new world, brave new customer?

Before COVID-19, the banking industry was getting better acquainted with its new customers: Digitally native generations – primarily Millennials and Gen Z – who have begun earning more money, generating wealth and shopping for accounts, credit and mortgages.

Studies show these new customers respond best to take-charge, confident CX reps. A 2017 article in Harvard Business Review labeled this assertive CX personality type as a “controller,” driven to find solutions and inject their opinions into calls. Interestingly, the same study found executives and managers were almost three times more likely to favor more empathetic personalities.

That’s starting to change, says Devin Poole, a director for the consulting firm Gartner. “Banks realize this is going to take a different playbook when it comes to working with HR and recruitment partners.”

Poole says new ways of screening candidates can better home in on controllers. One successful approach is reconfiguring interviews to better mirror real-life, on-the-job situations by setting up a series of two-minute interviews with different managers to place applicants in a rapid-fire situation that mimics the role of call or chat agents.

The controller also has a place in the smaller, redesigned branches that consultants envision for the future. These offices would be more thinly staffed with a versatile workforce of “universal bankers” who can pivot between transactions and sales.

Prepping back offices for the future

Customer expectations for more streamlined solutions will push banks to better equip both back-office customer service and in-branch employees. There’s one formidable obstacle: traditional channels of products that banks offer and the divisions of information that come with that schematic.

Representatives in person, online or in a follow-up frequently have trouble quickly aggregating a customer’s relationships on one screen. Call-center agents often spend valuable minutes trying to scale multiple hurdles to research client profiles on databases containing mortgage, checking, credit card rewards or approvals.

Reconfiguring platforms can address the problem but may require years of adjustments and a potentially prohibitive price tag. Poole says a large banking corporation is often staring at an eight-figure expenditure. “It can take years to redo a system platform, and if everything goes right, another couple of years to understand and generate actionable insights on customers,” he says.

CRM applications such as Salesforce may be a more cost-effective solution to speed customer interactions, says Liliana Petrova, a New York CX consultant. A centralized CRM system will give service representatives a better sense of what customers are trying to accomplish, as well as the resources to anticipate next options.

Takeaways by the numbers

There’s an upside in a few numbers that track how banks have done so far and the benefits of looking ahead.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) last noted that large banks had scored some progress to draw almost even with credit unions in terms of customer satisfaction. The ACSI links that in part to the huge investment the bigger players have made keeping in digital platforms and apps up to date. Small banks still score wins in more personalized service.

At the same time, banks now enjoy a cost advantage compared to what other industries pay for customer service. According to Gartner figures, banking overall is spending just $5 a call, roughly $6.25 on emails and $8 for chats, expenditures below broader averages for these three of between $8 and $9 nationwide.

As technology continues to bridge the human-automation gap, Petrova believes the current crisis will cement video as a key platform in customer service both now and in the years ahead. “The pandemic has accelerated the digitization of life and work and changed consumers’ expectations of how much can be done remotely,” she says. “Expect consumers to demand video connections now that they have become accustomed to it in every aspect of their lives.”

James A. Anderson is a freelance financial writer whose work has appeared in Barron’s magazine, Black Enterprise and other publications.