Engaging at the Branch in a Tech-Driven Era

By Hoa Nguyen

Now that you can reach almost anyone from a distance, with a click of a button, a hand-written letter might be considered an obsolete mode of communication. Yet, some traditional methods of communication aren’t dying out any time soon. Like going to your bank branch to seek investment advice. Or meeting a bank associate to discuss loan options.

While banks have gradually shifted focus to a more mobile banking world, customers still yearn for prompt, personalized service. They want technology that advances—not replaces—human interactions.

These are among the insights in a May 2018 report produced by Celent for Samsung Electronics America. The report offers new perspectives on why banks should not neglect the in-branch experience when investing in the latest digital innovations.

Here’s what the report found.

Contrary to popular belief, consumers’ personal digital habits do not predict how they prefer to interact with banks. In other words, being an avid user of social media or video chat doesn’t necessarily mean you prefer completely digital banking. Even an overwhelming 93 percent of tech-savvy millennials still prefer some matters to be handled in person.

Let’s dig deeper into what this means. In-branch is the preferred method for customers when they need to discuss complex matters, such as investment plans (63 percent), budget advice (52 percent) and credit card applications (51 percent). For routine issues like fraud reports, stolen cards and identity theft, 53 percent of consumers would contact the call center, while only 13 percent would go online and seven percent would use a mobile app.

Back to demographics. Whether we’re talking about millennials or seniors, low- or high-income earners, every group shows a solid preference for having the option to engage in a meaningful conversation with a banker. A significant 77 percent of adults across all ages and incomes prefer face-to-face interaction for substantive conversations. Not only is that an easier and more efficient way to get things resolved, but also people just feel more comfortable interacting that way.

It comes as no surprise, then, that a poor in-branch experience ranks second after “too many fees” as the most likely reason why customers switch banks. This holds true for both mobile and non-mobile banking users—meaning customers are sensitive to pain points like waiting in long lines or encountering unknowledgeable staff, no matter how often they go to a branch.

Looking to maintain a loyal customer base? This only means you cannot afford to leave out branch experience in the strategic planning process.

The challenges ahead.

Knowing that the branch experience still matters to customers of all ages, what are some of the obstacles banks should expect to confront?

Branch transformation usually takes more than a year from designing, building, testing, and refining the pilot branch. It’s hard to predict how the landscape might change during that time. The tricky question then becomes: Will your bank be able to successfully put the new design to practice, assess it—and at the same time, keep up with the rapid development of technology?

Even when these innovations are taking place at an increasing rate, not all changes being tested in the branch are embraced equally. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that when Celent asked consumers how much they would like or not like some proposed branch improvements, they found that the most polarizing changes were tech-centric.

Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents are in favor of shopping for a new home in virtual reality, yet another 43 percent are not at all fond of this idea. On the other hand, the percentage of people eager for high-tech unmanned branches (43 percent) is essentially equal to that of those who aren’t (42 percent).

The one change that consumers seem to express the most openness to, with 62 percent of respondents favoring it, is that (you guessed it) a banker should greet the customer by name and be prepared for his or her arrival, even if the two have not met.

Implications for banks.

Given that consumers both welcome a selective use of technology and still prefer to maintain an in-person branch experience, what steps do banks take to navigate this complexity? Celent points toward these suggestions to help you get going.

  1. Experiment with different channels for transactions and services. Evaluate customers’ feedback and strategize accordingly. Deliver excellent personalized customer service regardless of the customer’s engagement preference.
  2. Equip staff with expertise and technology to make sure they respond quickly and accurately to queries. Empower them to leave their desks. To be on their feet. To be ready to engage, converse and connect with customers on a personal level.
  3. Make the branch experience—in addition to technological upgrades—a priority in strategic planning for long-term development.

Celent’s findings by no means downplay the significance of mobile banking—they simply reemphasize the role of in-branch banking in a tech-oriented era. It’s clear that sustainable strategic planning should incorporate a healthy balance of high-tech and high-touch.

Hoa Nguyen is a communications intern with the American Bankers Association. LinkedIn.  hnguyen@aba.com.

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