Human Customer Support in the Digital Age: The Challenge to Adapt

By Craig Colgan

As COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to digital banking, customer care is rushing to support that evolution. Banks are finding they must address customer needs not only around traditional banking but those from a growing digital universe.

And while customer experience and customer engagement are terms bankers hear a lot about these days, whatever it is that banks now call answering questions when customers need human interaction is changing rapidly.

Banks are asking: Should banks engage their own in-house IT employees to deliver technical expertise directly to customers? How do call centers answer customer concerns about both traditional banking and digital concerns? Can these two sides of the business work together?

Digital costumer problem-solving tools are getting better. Bots are becoming ubiquitous. But even creators of digital customer service solutions say a mix is best. “Having the opportunity to transfer from interacting with a bot to speaking to a human is especially important in the context of complex customer service inquiries that require a level of sensitivity and understanding that chatbots currently lack,” notes Javier Puga, VP of marketing for UnBlu, developer of a hybrid platform that balances automation and human advice for the financial services industry.

Bankers are continually trying new organizational methods to meet the demands of addressing customer questions in the expanding digital universe. Several bankers shared how they are facing these challenges:

The imperative of sharing expertise across the enterprise

David Kreinman, EVP and director of marketing at Glenview State Bank in Glenview, Illinois, noted that although there are certainly staff within his bank’s call center who are more adept at digital issues, “the ones who aren’t learn from those who are,” he says. His bank’s name for its customer problem solver team is Teleservicing.

“Our IT Department has never been a direct support resource to our customers,” Kreinman adds. But that department has consistently supported Teleservicing for highly technical issues, she adds. The Teleservicing team is “digital/mobile savvy and because our department is not large, it is obvious who is most comfortable troubleshooting those issues for customers,” Kreinman adds. “So a segment of the department handles calls of that nature, but also are encouraged to train others. And their training will come from the manager of the department so it becomes a train the trainer environment.

“In some cases, we will get support from IT or even our deposit operations area for nuance issues involving remote deposit, he explains. “Perhaps the biggest key is to make sure they are aware of who the best resource is in the event the customer issue is more complex. They are encouraged to contact that resource directly, get—and learn—the answer and resolution, and then also share that knowledge within the department and store that information on company Intranet as a resource going forward.”

Digital banking ambassadors are here to help

In 2017, First County Bank of Stamford, Connecticut, charted a digital roadmap. This would include partnering with the bank’s business lines to move forward the bank’s digital banking initiatives, enhancing the digital customer experience and spearheading an effort to increase employee knowledge and customer adoption of digital banking products.

The bank turned to Karen M. Kelly, SVP and chief digital banking officer. One strategy that is working well for the bank is its establishing one or more digital ambassadors in each of the bank’s branches.

“These employees are tasked with using the bank’s digital banking products and for helping customers use these tools,” Kelly says.

The digital ambassadors also help to educate colleagues by conducting regularly scheduled branch huddles focused on digital banking, highlighting new products or solutions to challenges.

Digital ambassadors have access to test online and mobile banking accounts and can conduct demonstrations on branch tablets, Kelly notes. An example of the types of questions the digital ambassadors are responding to can be as straightforward as how to download the bank’s mobile app and deposit a check using a mobile phone, to as complex as how to set up bill pay and open a new deposit account online.

Additionally, digital ambassadors help customers use the features of their own smartphones such as fingerprint and facial ID, as these biometric options are used to access the bank’s digital banking tools securely and conveniently.

“Our digital ambassadors need to not only be knowledgeable on bank products but also need to be agile in how they use technology,” Kelly says. To make that happen, the bank developed its own in-house digital certification program, which combines instructor-led training with the bank’s newly implemented digital training platform, “which allows for the delivery of both pre-requisite courses and post certification micro-learning modules,” Kelly adds.

The goal: ‘Providing a positive experience for our clients’

The single call center at Riverview Community Bank is called “client services,” and it handles a truckload of customer issues.

“Beside basic banking, they’ve had to learn, document and describe so many issues,” says Scott Miller, SVP and marketing director at the Vancouver, Washington-based bank. “What browser? How do I determine if I have pop-ups enabled/disabled? Do I have cookies enabled? Where’s my secure access code going? Are you Android/Apple? How do I use a digital wallet? As well as PIN, thumbprint, facial recognition.”

The challenge has been met by having everyone in that department work successfully on the branch front lines sometime in their careers, “so they understand all of our products, services and procedures,” Miller says.

“Like in a branch, we utilize our internal gurus, those who understand IRAs or ACH, and others who love setting up digital wallets or helping with Quicken. We do our best to cross-train each other so everyone knows the basics and we know who is our go-to resource as we come upon new challenges.”

As technology is constantly evolving, if client services is ever stumped on an issue, that team will consult with other departments to find solutions, he adds.

“Customer service is still about providing a positive experience for our clients,” Miller says. “At the end of the day, it’s about making sure their financial needs are met utilizing our personal communication skills, our financial knowledge and the latest systems available.

“The challenge for community banks is having the resources to put all of these systems into place. When Google and Amazon are setting the bar for an online experience it can be daunting. How do our community bank clients want to interact with us, consult us and manage their finances? Online chat, Zoom/Go to Meeting/Teams, ITMs, Facebook, Facetime, mobile banking, digital wallets, secured messaging? Or do they want to come see us in a branch? The answer is all of the above.”

To accommodate changing consumer preferences and technology, it’s necessary to shift the larger retail culture, notes Shelly Loftin, SVP for the retail banking, lending and payments segments at ABA.

“And that requires a wholesale look at the entire organization—and the removal of barriers between business lines that have existed within banks forever,” Loftin wrote in a recent article for ABA Bank Marketing. “This requires a level of trust and mutual respect between departments and leaders who may not have connected or communicated before.

“Make sure someone who speaks for the people—both customers and employees—is at the table for every discussion and decision,” she adds. “Follow up by considering the cultural, emotional and social factors, normalizing them internally, mapping them out, evaluating and communicating them appropriately with stakeholders.”

Technology help for local banks

As with any innovation or technology, in-house or partnering with tech firms, many local banks may find they are left behind. On-boarding and due diligence processes can be costly and time consuming for both banks and their potential technology vendors. The same is true for the hunt to deliver an ever-broadening suite of digital customer care solutions.

“These challenges are often amplified at community banks with tight budgets and limited technology expertise,” points out Jelena McWilliams, chairman of the FDIC, in a speech in August. “The costs are also high for technology firms. Each bank often has a somewhat different approach to due diligence, and the paperwork and review requirements for vendors are multiplied at each new institution.”

McWilliams recommends a voluntary certification program “to create a standard-setting organization to establish standards for due diligence of vendors and for the technologies they develop,” she says. “Standardizing the due diligence process and removing regulatory and operational uncertainty surrounding technologies could fundamentally change the way banks partner with technology firms.”

Craig Colgan is digital editor of the ABA Banking Journal, where he edits the ABA Bank Marketing and ABA Risk and Compliance channels.

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Craig Colgan

Craig Colgan is a staff writer at the ABA Banking Journal.