Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot Jul 12, 2019

Digital machines, flesh-and-blood digits: Putting the human touch in mobile and online banking

As banks rush to digital in an effort to please their customers, many leave behind one of the most important elements consumers want: the human touch.

To be sure, automation and machine learning can drive efficiencies. But they still can’t deliver the long-term value people can. “People and relationships still matter,” says Bob Meara, senior analyst at Celent’s banking group. “All things equal we do business with people we like and you have to have some person-to-person interaction—even in digital.”

Given how much speed preoccupies consumers, the perception that consumers want to do everything on their phones doesn’t quite ring true. Celent surveyed a few thousand adults in 2018 and found while consumers have increasingly moved to digital banking, 55 percent still prefer in-person interactions when they need to have a conversation—including the 93 percent of millennials who say they prefer “some matters” handled face to face.

Even as banks roll out digital initiatives, most focus on increased efficiencies and quick transactions more than long-term customer value. A report by The Financial Brand released in conjunction with BAI on humanizing the digital banking experience found that many institutions fall short of delivering what consumers really want.

“We think,” Meara says, “the banks dug a hole for themselves.”

‘Establish that baseline trust first’

As for how they shoveled themselves in there, many banks “overtly trained bank staff to show customers how to not come into the branch as frequently,” Meara says. “Now that they hardly talk to their customers, they struggle to develop a connection with them.”

Yet throwing human elements into the digital mix could drive value and produce a competitive advantage. Financial literacy could mark a good starting place because while there’s no lack of such information on the web, not many banks work to improve the situation alongside their customers.

“What’s missing is someone who knows you and understands what you’re trying to do with your life, has access to your financial history and has your back,” says Eve Callahan, executive vice president and chief communications officer at Umpqua Bank in Portland, Oregon.

Umpqua is meeting the call with an innovative app that marries the human touch with digital banking. Go-To takes mobile banking to a new level by pairing customers with 300 real-life mobile bankers over the platform, noting their available hours.

These bankers serve as more than just names on the other end of phone numbers and email addresses: They have social media type-profiles with head shots and a little bit about their personal interests. Sometimes that’s goofy, as when one banker brags that she’s “an especially gifted napper, and I can even tie my shoes using the bunny ear method.”

Knowing little things like this or your banker’s hobbies may not seem like much at first blush, but they can personalize digital channels. Umpqua calls it the “human digital experience,” and that kind of thinking has helped produce tremendous growth in recent years. It’s less about the technology than a new means to evolve the customer experience, Callahan says.

“You establish that baseline trust first,” she notes. “There needs to be a movement where you have added value,” she says.

Customer experience meets customer relationships

In recent years, new fintech companies have tried to use digital technology to enhance the customer experience. Most of these initiatives remove humans from the equation—which may work for some niche applications—but a human element is really needed to develop long-lasting relationships, says David Vasquez, executive director of customer care and experience at Ally.

“At the end of the day, we have to remember we’re dealing with people’s money,” Vasquez says. “It’s personal to them. That trust is really important and they’re not just comparing the experience to other banks but to other customer care and user experiences across the economy.”

The good news is that a better marriage of the digital and human experiences need not be difficult to arrange.  

You can start by using data to enable human associates to serve customers, Vasquez says. A holistic view of customers across all channels can improve personalization with product-driven information and the ability to predict some answers before they’re even posed.

For example, some of Ally’s customers had liquidity issues in 2018 due to government shutdowns and coastal hurricanes. Ally associates waived early withdrawal and interest penalties on CDs, nixed fees on instant money transfers and pushed back loan due dates. While machine learning could identify potentially impacted customers, human learning and empathy fueled the action. 

“What really mattered was that associates were empowered to help them, to take the time with each customer to understand their unique needs and how we could find workable solutions,” Vasquez says.

Banks can also use human interactions to drive customer engagement. For example, when a customer called in and mentioned during the conversation that they were celebrating their wedding anniversary, the associate was able to offer a gift card for dinner.

Those moments of empathy and authenticity can forge lifelong loyalty, Vasquez says.

Using data to cue “next actions” can likewise work effectively, Meara says. For example, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia pings customers with real-time alerts when credit card bills go past due or a transaction will overdraw an account. Customers get the option to pay the following day without incurring a late payment fee. While banks may give up fee revenue in the process, they can prove their digital and human reliability.

“They do that believing that if they act in their customers’ best interest, they will build trust and loyalty—and have a greater lifetime value with that customer and lower churn in the process,” Meara says.

Finding the right mix means allowing the customer to choose how they want to interact and opening all channels with a connection to a person when needed.

“It’s an area I think banks must continue to focus on as we go to this more digital world,” Vasquez says. “For us, technology combined with the human touch of a customer care associate is really the bridge that binds the customer experience across all channels.”

After all, the very same customers who want a digital experience that’s seamless never said they’d settle for soulless.

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Craig Guillot is a business writer who specializes in retail and finance. His work has appeared in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, CNBC.com, Bankrate.com and Better Investing.

For more articles like this, check out our recent executive report: Banking's digital transformation.

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