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Finding the human-digital balance in customer service

Jun 2, 2021 / Consumer Banking

BAI’s latest Executive Report focuses on how the pandemic changed the way banks and credit unions serve their customers and what changes can be made as the next normal takes hold.


By instantly upending the way they carried out their daily business, the COVID-19 pandemic forced banks and credit unions to focus on the fundamentals—and nothing is more fundamental than taking care of the customer.

Even in ordinary times, customer service is a continual work in progress. But at this moment in banking’s history, a key question is emerging: How much of what was done out of necessity will become standard practice after the pandemic has passed?

The trend in customer service has been moving toward digital self-service for years, and this accelerated during COVID. But there are situations when people want to interact face-to-face. BAI research during the pandemic shows that despite digital’s ascendance, customers opening an account or taking out a loan still prefer to do so in person.

Where banks and credit unions are now and what’s to come is the theme for this BAI Executive Report.

Our lead story by contributing writer Katie Kuehner-Hebert covers some of the most valuable lessons financial services providers have learned over the past year and how they are putting that newfound knowledge to work.

One of the key takeaways in her article is that proactively encouraging digital adoption can result in a meaningful payoff for institutions. She shares the example of one community bank that, in reaching out to its customers, discovered many of them needed bank employees to teach them how to use the digital tools. It’s time well spent, since moving more routine tasks to digital frees up personnel to handle more complex issues.

Financial services providers also offered new conveniences during the pandemic, such as curbside services and night drops for business customers. Some institutions plan to continue to make these services available as a differentiator, or hold them in reserve in case of future need.

If any one thing seems certain, it’s that banking customer service will not fully revert to what it was pre-pandemic. Contributing writer Lauri Giesen notes that reopened branch lobbies are not seeing traffic levels comparable to what they were before March 2020, another sign of technology’s sizable impact.

But, she writes, more customers going digital means customer service employees will have to develop expertise in the technology in order to field questions and troubleshoot problems. These workers will also have to gain skills in using new technologies, such as video conferencing, to effectively work with customers.

As powerful and versatile as these new digital tools are, they fall short in providing the human connection that so many customers want. Terri Panhans from Harland Clarke writes that empathy should be at the center of the customer-service experience because it’s good business.

She references a recent BAI Banking Strategies podcast in which my guest, Anson Vuong from Gallup, points out that customers who are emotionally attached to your brand are far more likely to sign up for new services, seek financial advice and increase their balances.

Even when that emotional connection and trust are established, customer service succeeds by helping the customer with their needs. To that end, Greg Kanevski from ServiceNow writes that financial services providers should be working to create end-to-end digitalization that benefits both consumers and employees.

The good news, he says, is that “for the financial services industry to thrive, no one has to start over. The key is to fix the broken connections between existing systems and processes.”

Other articles in this month’s Executive Report include:

» BAI contributing writer Edmund Lawler examines how some financial services providers are looking at the practices in other industries—from high-end hotels to fast-food chains—to pick up insights on how to upgrade their customer service, inspire greater loyalty and lock in lifetime value.

» Jessica Stallings from LogMeIn offers three powerful tips to inspire your customers to become your biggest public boosters. It starts with showing those future brand ambassadors just how much you value them

» And Neustar’s Adam Russell addresses contact center fraud with advice on how to stop bad guys before they even speak to an agent. The fraudsters’ schemes and technology grow more sophisticated all the time, so there’s value in authenticating callers before they reach your interactive voice response system.

Striking the right balance between people and technology is the name of the game in customer service. Those able to do it most effectively and most efficiently stand to gain a competitive edge in financial services, in 2021 and beyond.

Download “COVID-19 is remaking customer service … forever,” BAI’s latest Executive Report.

Terry Badger, CFA, is the managing editor at BAI.