5 Ways to Craft a Digital ‘Hello’ Kickstarting Banking Relationships

Banks and credit unions that follow customer-centric principles will develop modern application and onboarding experiences that resonate with changing demands, support current needs, respect consumers' time and convert at record rates.

The shift to digital can feel overwhelming. Comprehensive strategies cover everything from tech infrastructure to culture, and it can be challenging to know where to start.

When working with our lender partners to tackle digital change, we commonly reframe away from monolithic movement and focus specifically on a goal we can all agree on: Whatever we do, we want to ensure we are serving consumers in the best way possible.

Reframing the discussion on consumers not only helps ensure we are working toward an outcome we all agree is positive, but it helps narrow the scope of actions.

Over many of these conversations, we have found that starting with the application and onboarding process frequently offers the largest return on mental investment. Why?

Quite simply, getting the “hello” right sets the tone for the remainder of the relationship you build with your customers. Lifelong relationships are an ideal that transcends lending. They are notoriously difficult to cultivate, but not impossible, and offer exponential growth in benefit for all parties.

Devoting resources toward an application experience that warmly welcomes new applicants and confidently re-greets return customers pays dividends: It is the friendly handshake that we miss out on in an increasingly digital and distanced world.

Here, we explore some findings from a recent investigation we conducted on digital application experiences and then focus on five customer-centric principles that help deliver an introduction that can lead to a lifetime of success.

A Mid-Pandemic Status Check

Even before the pandemic, digital application and onboarding experiences had become the norm. According to a Celent study conducted in late 2019, around 60% of larger financial institutions offered a mobile account opening solution or had one on the way. Likewise, between 70% and 80% of these institutions provided or would soon provide digital loan origination services.

As a result of the coronavirus (and the social distancing measures that resulted), a spike in consumer demand for digital services has spurred an acceleration of this ongoing trend. Like many other examples of moving quickly, the risk is in sacrificing quality in favor of speed.

To get a glimpse into the current state of things several months into the pandemic, our team investigated the digital account opening and loan origination offerings provided by a representative sample of financial institutions. What we found indicates a strong step in the right direction with a few clear opportunities for improvement.

90% of the institutions surveyed offered a quick, easy pathway to the deposit account application process. We were encouraged by the thought that consumers would have an obvious opportunity to fulfill their current need for digital self-service.

Once the application process began, however, we noticed a few issues that might hamper the experience. For example, only a quarter of the applications we examined were well-optimized for mobile. Given that nearly half of consumers are using mobile banking tools, according to Forrester, getting this right is imperative. Digital development strategies need to support cross-device functionality, aiming for consistency in excellence while taking advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by certain channels.

Interestingly, banks and credit unions did not differ significantly in their overall score across the application experience. We interpreted this in two ways.

First, we are encouraged that financial providers of all forms are taking customer friendliness into account as they develop their digital offerings, as evidenced by the generally high overall scores.

Second, we note that steps toward differentiation will become increasingly important, especially for organizations that build their brand around the customer experience.

As banks and credit unions of all shapes and sizes continue down their path of accelerated digital development, we have identified five customer-centric principles that support delightful application experiences — and convert.

A Hello That Converts Is a Hello to Remember

According to McKinsey, “Most consumers already seek information on financial products on digital channels, but few institutions are highly effective at converting these inquiries into digital sales.” An Aite survey of lending executives uncovered that overall application completion rates range between 30% to 70%, with auto loan and personal loan applications coming in at a somewhat shocking 26%.

Based on our experience and the research we conducted, many of the “conversion” issues that financial institutions face can actually be better understood by reframing them as customer-centricity gaps. Rather than focusing on the problem (people are not converting), institutions can focus on something less anxiety-inducing (what do we know about the way people shop, and more broadly, engage digitally). The five principles outlined below are a helpful place to begin the conversation, and they also happen to be the principles that underpin the Blend application experience.

Principle 1: Support customers wherever they are
“Digital” carries with it a promise of equality in experience, but too often digital applications are more optimized for one channel over another. I’m certainly not alone in my use of several devices throughout the day, depending on where I am, what I’m doing, or what I happen to prefer at the moment. The Aite survey referenced above suggests that device preferences can even differ between seemingly closely aligned steps of the onboarding process, such as account selection and account opening.

“The cultural cachet of ‘omnichannel’ ebbs and flows over the years, but the underlying principle — experiences should be device agnostic — is a timeless truth.”
— Ian Hopping, Blend

The cultural cachet of “omnichannel” ebbs and flows over the years, but I’m a firm believer that the underlying principle — experiences should be device agnostic — is a timeless truth. Lenders can look to implement applications that are designed from the ground up to be simple and user friendly on any device, and for extra points, add specific functionality that better aligns with certain devices (e.g. click-to-call buttons or talk-to-text input on mobile versions of applications).

Principle 2: Respect customers’ time and attention
We’re all busy! And whether we want to admit it, we’re all at least slightly prone to distraction. Providing an application experience that is quick and simple not only maximizes the likelihood of completion, but it also signals to customers that they can expect a frictionless relationship with you in the future.

Applications that respect customers’ time and attention can include intelligent workflows that skip unnecessary steps and automate tasks in order to minimize time to completion.

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Principle 3: Make customers feel known
One of the most frustrating experiences I can think of is when I know a company has information about me, but I am forced to re-provide it for them. Even more frustrating is when this happens within the same application experience! Imagine needing to re-introduce yourself to the dentist after she cleaned each tooth.

There are a number of features that maximize the feeling of being known, such as abridged applications for prequalified customers, fields pre-filled with data previously provided by the customer (either in the application or as part of another engagement with the institution), geolocation tools and other context-dependent support or a verification tool to highlight typos and other mistakes.

Principle 4: Align processes with the stop-and-start realities of daily life
Not only are we easily distracted (see principle 2), life itself impacts the way that applications get completed. These days in particular, with social distancing mandates creating “workplaces” that feature curious children, impatient pets and any number of other distractions, we’re all desperate for a little help. An application experience that explicitly communicates “It’s OK! We’re here for you when you’re ready” can make the difference between a new customer and just another abandoned task.

Celent analyst Bob Meara goes as far as to say that “Support for channel switching’
mid-process (a.k.a. “save and resume”)” is a must-have, even “for simple applications such as DDA/savings.” Surprisingly, our research found that only 43% of credit unions and 28% of banks studied offered the ability to actively save an application and return later. In addition to this baseline feature, lenders can look to add auto-save functionality for those more unexpected interruptions.

Principle 5: Provide a guiding hand, digital or otherwise
Life is complicated and stressful — the application experience doesn’t need to be. In fact, when created with empathetic support at their core, applications can provide the boost of effortless task completion that can make someone’s day. A shift to digital does not equal a shift to the impersonal.

Features that predict and proactively offer support for common questions are an automated support system. Backing this up with an ever-present, easy-to-find help button offers the human touch that we all need from time to time. Some applications even offer guided co-piloting, closing the digital distance between an applicant and your institution.

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