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Give the customers what they want: Less and more

It used to be that as the competition goes, Bank X was across town. Or a few blocks away. Or down the street. Now the agile, quick competitor that badly wants your customer is even closer. Much closer.

Just a few mouse clicks away, in fact. 

More than ever, traditional banks must redefine what customer service means and execute a frank analysis of their businesses. Are you set up to offer service that customers in 2018 expect? Are you meeting or hopefully exceeding their expectations? Do you know when to offer help to your customers—and when to step back and let them do it themselves? If so, you’re probably in good shape in today’s consumer-oriented marketplace.

Of course, how you greet and chat up customers still matters. But not as much as you might think. 

 “When banks and credit unions talk about service, what I hear them referring to is a very traditional, specific sense of service, meaning, ‘I’m going to have someone friendly in a branch smiling at customers when they come in. I’m going to have coffee, I’m going support local charities,’ that sort of thing,” says David Eads, CEO of Gro Solutions. “And it’s not occurring to them that technology is a form of service.”

BAI Banking Outlook statistics bear this out in bracing fashion. When asked if they would switch banks merely for a better mobile app, more than half of millennials (51 percent) said yes. Among Gen Xers, the numbers were lower (two in five), but still cause for alarm.

So much for all that smiling.

“Having a user-friendly experience is a form of service and helping customers,” Eads says. “And really, it’s the most important type because ultimately the customer is working with the bank to try to get banking done. And if the banking experience is not good, the bank is not providing great service.”

Nor is a paper cup of joe going to do the trick. “They’re not there to drink the coffee in the branch or to read the newspaper,” Eads contends. “They’re there to get a loan or to have a bank account and transact, and so on.”

Why clients leave without a word

If you aren’t doing a good job with customer service, some of your clients will let you know—loudly. It’s second nature for a lot of today’s customers to complain on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and other social media channels, knowing their banks are watching.

But many more will voice disapproval silently by switching banks, something increasingly common and easier to do, says Jeffery Kendall, senior vice president and general manager of North America and Latin America for Kony.

“The risk to credit unions, regional banks and community banks not providing great customer service is that customers will leave them,” Kendall says. “When we talk to [those institutions], they’re worried about things as dramatic as annihilation and being put out of business if it becomes easier and easier for customers to migrate. That’s the lifeblood of any financial institution and what’s really at stake here.”

With more than 12,000 banks and credit unions in the United States, a growing number of fintechs and companies such as Amazon exploring banking options, customer service is a secret sauce to help today’s financial institution prosper—or, if missing, allow it to wither.

“The days are gone when someone stays with a bank for life because they live in a certain community and know the banker,” Eads says. “It’s relatively easy to switch an account; most people have relationships with multiple institutions, and the products and services most banks and credit unions offer are relatively similar. Price is often the only differentiation.”

Three ways to find banking balance

So, if your institution struggles with customer service, it may be time to stow the coffee machine and brew up something new. Here are three ways to get started:

1. Recognize that sometimes your customers don’t want to talk to you.

It’s nothing personal. Today’s customers prefer an ATM to a bank teller; they’re more willing to use self-checkout at the grocery store than wait for a cashier; and they’re more comfortable shopping online than at brick-and-mortar retail stores. Customer service today means knowing when your customer really needs your help—and when to back off.

“One of the things that’s interesting about self-service transformation in general—whether you’re in banking, e-commerce or any other industry—is this mindset people have that great customer service means high touch,” Kendall says. “But I would challenge that: Customers don’t want high touch everywhere.”

So what do they want instead? That depends.

“If I’m calling a customer service line and I have a big, complex problem, the last thing I want is to go through a phone tree,” Kendall says. “I want someone on the phone as quickly as possible. The flip side is that if I have a really simple transaction and just need access to a point of data or to check my account balance, I don’t want high touch. I want something that’s efficient and gets me in and out without having to talk to a person.”

2. Let artificial intelligence make your job easier.

A chatbot powering the business side of the interaction can handle everyday transactions. The key is whether that chatbot can answer questions in a natural language so a customer gets her answers without repeating herself, says Leo Loomie, senior vice president of client services at Digital Risk LLC.

“And that applies in a call center, too, which has pretty cool stuff happening,” Loomie says. “If you call, it recognizes you so you don’t have to retype a 19-digit account number. The financial companies ahead of the game can recognize who’s calling and find them an answer relatively quickly using data they have on them.”

3. Focus on new accounts.

Eads believes banks that focus on existing customers don’t put enough priority on expanding their businesses. “We’re in a world where any product or service can be bought electronically from a mobile device or a browser,” he says. “Let’s face it: Banking products are virtual products. They should be the easiest thing to sell on a mobile phone or via web browser. But banks are really far behind compared to a Zappos or Amazon.”

He poses this question: “If I can buy a refrigerator while I’m across the country and have it shipped, delivered and installed with one click then why on Earth can I not buy a bank account, or at least start the lending process? All of that information is in the computer in the first place.”

As opposed to, say, the coffee pot.

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Based in Maryland, Patrick Sanders is an assistant managing editor for U.S. News & World Report and formerly worked as an editor for The Associated Press and at newspapers in West Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

If you enjoyed, this article, check out our recent Executive Report: Raising the customer experience bar.