Digital Stress Test: Risks and Rewards for the Future of Banking

By Tara Sporrer

The pandemic has represented something of a stress test for the ability of banks to support their customers through digital channels. As pandemic risks led many account holders to shift from branch visits to their banks’ websites and apps, the quality of these digital experiences became a critical element of customer satisfaction. At the same time, financial uncertainty, shifting spending patterns and new banking requirements increased the amount of assistance many people needed.

A 2021 survey of 1,000 banking customers conducted by goMoxie reveals the results of this test—which forms of assistance were most welcome, where customers still struggled and what types of interactions customers prefer. The findings also offer useful insights for the path forward, as banks seek to leverage lessons learned, meet evolving customer expectations and strike the right balance between human and digital interactions in the future.

Digital gains ground, but physical is here to stay (for now)

The goMoxie survey confirms the rise in importance of digital channels over the past year. A full 33 percent of consumers reported using their financial institution’s website and/or mobile site more often during the pandemic.

While initially driven by caution or necessity due to lockdowns, restricted branch hours, or a reluctance to visit physical locations, this shift will likely have longer-term implications as well. According to research by BAI, 87 percent of the consumers who’ve used digital products more since the pandemic began are planning to continue this increased usage beyond its end.

Online banking and mobile app experiences were once, obviously, entirely optional, a choice made by more tech-savvy customers, while others continued to prefer interacting face-to-face. With a wider swath of the population forced into the digital channel by the pandemic, many customers have now had their first extensive experience with digital channels. The adjustment has been smoother for some than for others—as we’ll soon explore—but in general, digital tools have gained wider exposure and adoption than they otherwise might have. And many customers have discovered the potential convenience of anywhere, anytime banking—that is, assuming everything works as it should.

But branch operations remain important. In the goMoxie survey, 62 percent of customers said they want their bank to have a physical presence, 57 percent wanted to be able to speak to a banker in person for major issues and 10 percent wanted to establish a relationship with a personal banker. These high-value human interactions can be highly beneficial for strengthening customer satisfaction and loyalty. But to provide them effectively, banks need to be able to make the most efficient possible use of automated digital channels for more routine tasks. By making self-service as effective as possible for the majority of customers and interactions, banks can in turn make live assistance as effective as possible for those who require it—while controlling the overall cost of customer service.

The survey reveals three important lessons for banks seeking to optimize the use of both automated digital assistance and live human assistance, while striking the right balance between the two.

1. Poor digital experiences are all too common—and they’re terrible for business

Digital innovation has long been a hallmark of modern banking, from online bill pay to mobile deposits—but that does not necessarily mean banks are doing a consistently good job meeting customer expectations. In our survey, 55 percent of banking customers reported experiencing low-level problems such as login issues, transfer or payments, updating personal information, account balance checks, opening a new account, or adding a new product or service. That frustration has immediate and serious implications for banks. When customers did run into difficulty, 49 percent abandoned the transaction, while 30 percent switched to a competitor.

The nature of this digital struggle isn’t just an incidental annoyance—it goes right to the heart of today’s customer expectations. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents expect to easily be able to find what they are looking for, and to receive clear communication from their financial institution. Nonetheless, 31 percent reported encountering insufficient, incorrect, or confusing information, while 40 percent found a bank’s site difficult to navigate. And 38 percent couldn’t even log into the site or their account.

The flaws in banks’ digital self-service customer experience in turn make it more difficult to provide effective live human assistance. When encountering difficulty online, 56 percent of customers contacted customer assistance, adding to the burden on call centers—and the long wait times reported by almost a third of respondents. A more effective self-service experience will deflect calls about low-level technical difficulties and allow representatives to focus on higher-level and more profitable interactions.

2. Automation can go a long way if it’s done well

Given the nature of most customer experience problems—site navigation, login issues, error messages, and so on—an automated response to customer struggle can be highly effective and welcome. Of course, that’s only true if it works. In our survey, endless automation loops led 61 percent of respondents to say they’d rather speak with a representative. Keeping those calls out of the call center depends on providing the right kind of automated self-service, in the right way, at the right time.

Many banks, including digital-native fintech startups, have driven innovation and differentiating by expanding self-service further into traditionally human-based interactions. Still, many customers remain unconvinced of this new way of doing business, as shown in the continuing desire of the majority of customers for human interaction with their banks—especially for higher-value services—whether at a brick-and-mortar location or in a live call or chat. To realize the full potential of the new generation of financial services business models and customer experiences, banks will need to show how good digital self-service can be.

3. Not every innovation works

While chatbots can seem like the best of both worlds, combining efficient automation with the appearance of personalized assistance, the opposite is closer to the case: inefficient and impersonal. Asked how they feel about chatbots, 60 percent of customers said they’d rather interact with an actual person. The communication gap—real or perceived—cuts both ways: 60 percent didn’t trust chatbots to communicate their issues effectively, and one-third said that they weren’t helpful in answering their questions. All told, only 22 percent of respondents had a positive impression of chatbots, a failure rate that would send any teller to the unemployment office.

Meanwhile, social media can be a tempting way to project modernity and hipness, but it turns out to be a bad fit for a financial services brand. A quarter of respondents found the idea of interacting with a bank on social media platforms too intrusive; 48 percent preferred to stick to personal interactions with personal friends and family.

Taken as a whole, the goMoxie survey shows both the promise and the limitations of current digital practices by banks. While customers are making increased use of digital channels, their ongoing struggles in doing so will slow this evolution, making it difficult for banks to transition fully away from human assistance. The need for bank employees to help with low-level technical issues will in turn undermine banks’ ability to focus their teams on more profitable, higher-value interactions. Only by providing a more effective digital experience—clear, well-informed, and efficient—can banks step fully into the digital future of banking.

Tara Sporrer regularly writes about digital marketing. Reach her on LinkedIn.