The Digital Path to Customer Loyalty

By Gerard du Toit, Katrina Bradley and Stanford Swinton

Technology companies and other insurgents have been attacking banks’ weak points—picking off individual aspects of the banking experience and delivering better propositions. In payments, for instance, third-party providers have become dominant in the U.S. and many other countries. Unless banks sharply improve the convenience and quality of the experience, insurgents will continue to gain ground.

Besides their digital expertise, huge customer bases and war chests, major technology firms are nibbling away at financial services on the strength of consumer trust. Firms such as PayPal and Amazon garner a level of trust with consumers almost as high as banks in general, according to Bain & Company’s new survey of nearly 152,000 consumers in 29 countries. Some 54 percent of respondents trust at least one tech company more than banks in general. And trust affects a customer’s willingness to buy banking services. For example, among Amazon Prime respondents (who pay an annual fee for such perks as free two-day shipping), 65 percent say they would try a free online bank account if it were offered by Amazon with 2 percent cash back.

It’s no wonder that banks find it harder to earn customers’ loyalty and advocacy. Loyalty stems not only from trust, but also from how well banks deliver value as perceived by customers. In banking, of the 30 elements of value we have identified, the five elements that have the greatest impact on loyalty are first quality followed by saves time, reduces anxiety, simplifies and heirloom (a good investment for future generations). Here again, many banks are struggling. Survey respondents on average give their primary bank a lower rating on these elements than one or more of the major tech firms: Amazon, Apple, Google and PayPal.

Our survey analysis suggests three key moves that can help banks earn more loyalty and defend their positions.

Accelerate the digital migration. Customers who shift to digital banking have greater loyalty to their primary bank, as measured by Net Promoter Score, cost less to serve and are more profitable. Keeping up with digital advances requires the ability to adapt quickly. Take the adoption of home voice assistants in the U.S. It took just 3.5 years to reach 30 percent household adoption since Amazon released its Echo in November 2014, compared with about 5.5 years for 30 percent adoption of smartphones. And a large share of consumers in many countries told us they are open to banking through a voice assistant.

Regional banks often worry they will be out-invested by larger national banks, yet even smaller banks can thrive as digital innovators. Frost Bank, based in Texas, was one of the first regional
banks to launch Internet banking (in 2000), offer digital deposits, join the Zelle virtual wallet network, and allow customers to freeze their debit cards by replying to a text message. Frost’s digitally enabled experience has helped the bank ascend to the lead among traditional U.S. banks on Net Promoter Score.

Join, acquire or die. To compete with technology firms, it’s essential for banks to join together on common solutions. Payments markets make this clear: Only multibank payments platforms have allowed banks to stay in the hunt for consumer adoption of their apps, notably in Sweden and Poland. In the U.S., by contrast, until recently many banks have gone it alone for digital payment apps. As a result, banks have captured only a sliver of that market. In some cases, banks will also need to take a stake in a technology firm or acquire it outright to gain the right capability or people. Santander, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have all made such acquisitions in the past few years.

Cultivate emotional elements of value. Banks have to deliver better on a few functional elements such as saves time and simplifies. And quality remains essential. But banks have an opportunity to further increase loyalty by improving on reduces anxiety and selectively adding other emotional elements.

No doubt technology firms will continue to make inroads, with some reaching substantial scale. Banks that dawdle risk being left with the most unprofitable customers and a shrinking share.

Gerard du Toit, Katrina Bradley and Stanford Swinton are partners with Bain & Company’s financial services practice.