Even before the arrival of COVID-19 and subsequent branch closures and service limitations, many banks – large and small, urban and rural – knew they needed to develop better customer experience strategies in order to compete.
FirstBank of Nashville, Tennessee, for instance, had already begun to build a strategy for 2021 to become a scalable community bank focused on service, according to Wade Peery, chief administrative officer for the $11.5 billion-asset bank. Even before the pandemic nudged more digital-laggard customers to embrace digital and ATM channels, FirstBank had been retooling its call centers and mobile apps.
“Based on feedback, our customers really want Silicon Valley in Mayberry,” says Peery, referring to the classic small town of 1960s television. “They said ‘I want to have that convenience, but I want to be able to talk to you on the phone or in the branch, too.’”
But the pandemic has limited in-person connections, maybe for some time to come. “With branches closed or traditional access limited due to COVID-19, many customers lost the personal, face-to-face interaction they were accustomed to having with their banker,” says Mickey Goldwasser, vice president of marketing and chief of staff for PayRailz, a Glastonbury, Connecticut-based digital payments company.
“Digital has become the ‘new normal’,” Goldwasser adds. “Financial institutions need to carefully examine the digital experiences they provide in order to better meet the needs of their customers.”
Digital versus branch
However, the reality is not as simple as digital versus in-person interactions. With interest rates at an all-time low, customers have adjusted to doing more complex financial transactions (like refinancings or getting financial advice) entirely digitally. And yet, the desire to connect with a ‘human’ banker is still strong, especially for isolated individuals.
“Customer behavior has dramatically shifted to digital and mobile,” says Aarthi Murali, chief customer experience officer for Buffalo, New York-based M&T Bank, with $120 billion in assets. “However, in some cases, customers have a need to visit a retail location to get access to cash.”
Even Scotiabank, a Toronto, Canada-based institution with $1 trillion in assets, was in the process of developing several new customer experience initiatives before and during the pandemic, according to Holly Pontisso, vice president of customer experience. These included creating an online ‘hub’ where older or other less digital-savvy customers are guided through using digital channels.
“The role of the bank is even more important now than it was before COVID,” says Pontisso. “We need to support our retail and business customers through this time… We have an even bigger responsibility to deliver from a trust connection.”
Gina DeCorla, senior analyst at FBX, points out that many banks have been updating and improving their virtual assistant tools. Most notably, she says, U.S. Bank recently launched Smart Assistant, a voice-forward tool that simulates the experience of a bank teller. “Additionally, banks have been looking towards optimizing contactless payments and mobile check deposits as ATM and cash usage has declined significantly since March,” she says.
‘Warm and welcoming’
How, during a pandemic, can financial services providers offer the same “personal” connection with its in-person channels stymied? Many bankers believe this shift to digital will propel banks (and other industries) forward in how they connect with their customers.
“Banks always strive to provide warm and welcoming experiences to customers,” says Murali.
“Even though we may be doing so in different circumstances, being flexible to customer needs [by] offering digital appointment setting as an example, allows customers’ needs to be met at a physical location within preferred time slots.” As a result, she believes that video conversations with bankers will expand rapidly.
Scotiabank’s Pontisso also sees a “back-to-basics” approach rising from the current zeitgeist. “We’re focused on the safety protocols that enable our staff to work remotely,” she says. “And we’re laser-focused on customer advice… The goal is to provide a consistently great experience across all channels, in-person or remote.”
Simon Powley, head of global banking advisory services at Diebold Nixdorf, points out that many big banks are reaching out in very proactive ways. Barclay’s Bank, for example, has given tablets to several front-end Baby Boomer customers and is reaching out to help them connect with the bank digitally and through chat or other features. “You’re beginning to see the flexibility, and the banks are leveraging that,” he says.
DeCorla says interactive demos of the mobile and online banking experience are making their platforms more accessible to new users. Explaining how customers can change text size or display contrast offer a great benefit, she says. “Banks have been more proactive about messaging and supporting customers,” she says, adding that many financial institutions have a dedicated pandemic customer service line and interface on their web platform.
Murali of M&T Bank believes that financial services providers that see themselves as being in service of the customers and communities tend to deliver great customer experiences, even in the current pandemic environment.
She says simple changes, like “offering customers increased mobile deposit limits, or empowering front-line employees to handle a broader set of service capabilities, or providing transparent and relevant, real-time communications and alerts are great steps in the right direction for delightful experiences.”
Karen Epper Hoffman is a financial writer based in Olympia, Washington.
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