6 CX Developments Banks & Credit Unions Can’t Ignore in 2021

You can't take COVID-19 out of the picture as you assess the future of this key marketing discipline. The pandemic pushed certain digital technologies to the front of the line and actually made some old things new again. Trends and innovations from outside of banking will exert more influence than ever.

That 2020 was a unique — sometimes bizarre — time for customer experience sets a new bar for understatement. Consider that:

• Curbside service, once reserved for retro hamburger joints featuring wait staff on roller skates, has been adopted for everything from pet shops to home centers to banking.

• Masks have become mandatory in most banking lobbies that are open, when a year ago they might have been cause for alarm (literally).

• Drivethrough stations, which had been on their way to becoming “orphans of banking,” in one consultant’s judgment, suddenly became pure gold as a way of providing in-person banking at arm’s length.

• Home delivery of just about everything, even Starbucks beverages, has become normal, with payment engineered via app to eliminate the need to touch currency.

All this and much more directly and indirectly impacts bank and credit union planning for 2021 and beyond.

“COVID-19 has absolutely been a fork in the road, and also an accelerant, for customer experience in banking,” says Diane O’Hara, Vice-President and Solutions Principal at Medallia. O’Hara, who spent over 30 years in marketing and retail positions at Citibank, says the days of being able to study trends in depth before committing to a plan of action in financial institution customer experience strategy have evaporated.

Now, she continues, institutions have to become much more adept at “listening” — via social media, surveys, observing behavior and more — for clues regarding what makes people comfortable. And because the feedback loops are shorter and faster than ever now, O’Hara adds, banks and credit unions will have to grow even more agile than was expected pre-COVID. Not only must retail bankers and marketers be ready to jump on new trends, they must even be ready to jump backwards, to past practice, depending on whatever the current pandemic concerns may be.

And here’s some key career advice: Any banker or credit union executive whose job touches on customer experience will have to up their game simply to stay in the game in 2021, says Gina Bhawalkar, Principal Analyst at Forrester. Like 2020,the new year will be a time of tremendous physical, mental and financial stress, she predicts. Those institutions that make banking as painless as possible will thrive and those that don’t will lose ground.

Another element that’s been in the picture for years but has become even more important is a banking basic: trust.

Gina Bleedorn, Chief Experience Officer at Adrenaline, says it might not seem to be part of a discussion of customer experience. However, she continues, trust has to be embedded in every aspect of efforts to improve customer experience or financial institutions will be wasting their time. Transparency is part of that trust. Bleedorn makes it clear that any new experience that smells like it is more for the institution’s benefit, instead of the consumer’s, violates both trust and transparency.

Introducing new technology, such as chatbots, for example, without demonstrating that the end result is improved service, and not just a way to cut costs, will not resonate with consumers, notes O’Hara, especially when human contact is something many people crave as a missing part of their old normal.

Interviews by The Financial Brand with these three experts in customer experience thinking revealed key efforts financial institutions must look at for 2021. It’s an eclectic collection.

1. A fundamental shift will be to stop thinking about “physical” and “digital” as two distinct things. Truly understanding the consumer journey will be critical.

The increasing role of digital channels is considered such a given by the experts. It’s gone beyond table stakes — without focus on digital, you’re not even in the casino.

“Some tech-savvy institutions have spoken of moving away from thinking in terms of versions of technology — 2.0, 3.0, etc. — to continual, iterative development and refinement.”

But Forrester’s Gina Bhawalkar says the industry has to stop thinking about different “channels” and instead think about retail banking the way consumers do. Basically, it’s all “the bank” to them and they don’t think of distinct channels the way institutions do. They expect service to increasingly be as up to date regarding data like balances and they also expect the same functionality no matter which “door” they walked through.

Improving customer experience will hang more than ever on understanding the customer journey, Bhawalkar believes. She thinks adjusting institutions’ administrative structure can help produce such omni-thinking. One example is the U.K.’s Lloyds Bank, she says, which has been breaking through the channel management walls during restructuring.

Beyond tracking journeys, Medallia’s Diane O’Hara thinks institutions must become adept at making adjustments on the fly in recognition that everything is linked in the consumer’s mind. Maintaining something that’s clunky or simply inoperable on the digital side, for example, is not going to remain an isolated problem. People will default to call centers when digital doesn’t work, raising call volumes and cost. Some tech-savvy institutions have spoken of moving away from thinking in terms of versions of technology — 2.0, 3.0, etc. — to continual, iterative development and refinement.

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2. The line between employee experience and customer experience will blur further in 2021.

O’Hara points out that as the physical and digital faces of banking continue to evolve and blend, employees remain at the heart of the customer relationship. If they don’t understand what the bank is doing or find new features difficult to deal with, it’s a cinch they won’t be able to help customers work with the changes.

In some of the “thin branches” that large banks have been opening, training customers in how to use digital channels is a key duty of the human branch staff.

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3. ITMs, if used properly, will help optimize branch networks.

As digital becomes a bigger part of the picture for consumers and as the role of branches continues to be in flux. Interactive teller machines (ITMs) present themselves as a solution on multiple levels, suggests Adrenaline’s Gina Bleedorn.

ITMs offer the functionality of an ATM with live human available.

“You are piping in ‘physical’ service,” Bleedorn explains.

That is the ideal use of ITMs, she maintains. She says adding ITMs to a staffed office offers only the perception of a lesser customer experience to consumers who wind up with a person on a screen versus a person in front of them. (The presumption being that for that purpose, they wanted a personal interaction.) It creates a “tourist class” image.

Bleedorn thinks ITMs should instead be used to improve the optimization of branch networks and ideally not even be placed in full-service offices. If a financial institution is thinning out branches, a former full-service location can be turned into an ITM branch, maintaining human presence but cutting costs. This is part of the “thin branch” concept mentioned above. Freestanding ITM locations can be built where a branch might once have gone up.

Financial institutions can assign tellers to be “ITM floaters,” connecting to those locations that need a teller at that time and hour. Increasingly the type of banker on the screen will also change, Bleedorn says, with ITM-based universal bankers becoming a viable alternative for many consumers who still prefer more human in their banking mix.

O’Hara states that anything digital that institutions want their customers to adopt has to have a positive benefit for them. If the experience is positive, then they will in time prefer the digital option.

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4. Mobile phones will drive more and more banking driven by consumers’ desire for contactless service.

Bhawalkar expects mobile devices to increasingly become the interface for people using ATMs, for example. People worried about catching something from touchscreens, buttons and other shared surfaces of ATMs will prefer to use their smartphone’s keypads as their interface. (Those accessing cash will still have to touch that, of course.)

“Voice technology and even gesture technology — where artificial intelligence deduces commands from human gestures — may see increased uptake in 2021.”

It’s conceivable that smartphones will become consumers’ interface to much of the retail payments world, according to Bhawalkar, between the ATMs and mobile payments. She notes the contradictions that currently exist, such as one mega retail chain’s provision of curbside delivery that requires touching buttons on a keypad to complete transactions.

In the same vein, Bhawalkar thinks that voice technology and even gesture technology — where artificial intelligence deduces commands from human gestures — may see increased uptake in 2021 to accommodate consumer worries.

Bhawalkar adds that as such trends play out, financial institutions with dedicated customer experience teams will need to increase the number of staffers who have such specialized knowledge. More work needs to be done to make these technologies practical. Both Google and Amazon have established standards for voice experiences, for example, but she says that they have yet to create a great customer experience in banking, due in part to so much specialized terminology. But she believes this will improve.

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5. Telehealth trend suggests that banking consultations by video could become more acceptable.

Before the pandemic the medical industry’s discussions concerned how to get people to try telehealth — consulting your doctor over a video connection. Introduce the ingredients of lockdowns, fear of catching the coronavirus and avoidance of medical facilities and suddenly telehealth is booming.

“76% of consumers have some degree of interest in using telehealth going forward.”

In fall 2020 a McKinsey paper found huge increases in interest and usage. One measure: 11% of consumers were interested in telehealth in 2019; now 76% of consumers have some degree of interest in using telehealth going forward.

If people are willing to trust their physical health to a doctor on the other end of what’s essentially a private Zoom or FaceTime call, then talking about banking needs from retirement accounts to commercial loans ought to be easy, right?

So far the take-up hasn’t been strong. Bleedorn thinks the weakness lies not in video technology nor in acceptance of it, but in a simpler element: appointments.

She believes that improving appointment setting software and most specifically its interface with video consultation platforms would accelerate the adoption of this technique.

O’Hara says another sign that “telebanking” could catch on is the move to willingness of consumers to buy bigger items like cars through ecommerce, powered by video and virtual reality technology. Consumers can buy a Tesla over the web now and Carvana for several years has been selling used cars using 360 degree inside and outside photography, delivery and a satisfaction guarantee.

It’s true that some digital advocates will see telebanking as merely putting an old process on a screen. But that may be what many consumers would prefer to move to, rather than dealing with chatbots.

6. The last development is not so much a single thing but more of an attitude shift. Inclusion will influence more and more efforts.

Bhawalkar believes that every aspect of customer experience will be subject to fresh thinking as concerns about corporate values permeate many aspects of banking operations. At present the events of 2020 have caused more internal reexamination from this perspective, but Bhawalkar thinks the shift will increasingly be visible from outside banks and credit unions.

One example that’s already hit the street, she says, is the Citibank True Name card, which allows people to put the name they go by and identify with on their credit cards, instead of being restricted to their legal name.

Citi announced that it is offering transgender and non-binary people the ability to use their chosen name on eligible credit cards. This launch, done in conjunction with Mastercard, provides eligible U.S. branded credit card customers with the option to use their self-identified chosen first name on credit cards. The bank reports that it has already received major feedback that it has eliminated a significant pain point in these customers’ lives.

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