Remaking the Relevance of Bank Branches in the Digital Age

Digital transformation isn’t about going digital only. By refocusing the branch experience on scenarios where face-to-face interaction is a plus, and going digital with everything else, banks and credit unions can stop branches' descent to irrelevance and help differentiate themselves from branchless competitors.

Even while a growing number of banking leaders recognize data-driven customer experiences as crucial to their long-term success, many continue to view digital experiences as secondary to their traditional brick-and-mortar business.

Less than 30%, for example, say they’re making any significant investment in digital skills and education among branch staff, a 2018 Adobe survey found. That approach will simply continue setting their brick-and-mortar businesses on a descent toward irrelevance in the face of more agile digital-first disruptors.

Is there any place left for brick-and-mortar bank branches in the digital-first financial world? The answer is a resounding “yes” — but in-person banking is taking on a vastly different shape from anything we’ve seen before.

Digital Groundswell Will Not Reverse

Almost every financial service traditionally handled at a bank branch can now be handled digitally, and a growing number of customers prefer it that way. Instead of visiting a brick-and-mortar location to open a new account, make a deposit, or apply for a loan, most customers now manage their accounts via mobile apps, and initiate loan applications through their bank’s website, and the numbers are growing.

In fact, an Accenture survey found that 78% of younger customers would gladly bank with a big tech firm such as Amazon or Google, if that company offered more seamless digital services than their current banking provider.

It’s not as if banks and credit unions are only losing in this shift to digital. According to a Forrester study commissioned by Adobe, digitizing enrollment processes can save organizations two hours per form, freeing banks to focus on more impactful interactions. And not everything has to be changed at once to see a benefit. Digitizing even a single loan application pipeline can greatly accelerate approvals as well as significantly reduce costs.

It’s for this reason that two out of five (41%) bank and credit union executives rank “personalized real-time digital experiences” as their top priority over the next three years. But as crucial as digital-first experiences have become in the competitive landscape, certain situations still call for a face-to-face personal touch. And it’s in those scenarios that traditional financial institutions can most effectively differentiate themselves from their digital competition. Those personal interactions, however, can be, and need to be, enhanced by modern digital support and the training to go with it, which, as noted, is significantly lacking.

Read More: Customer Experience Dominates the Branch vs. Digital Banking Debate

Digital is Crucial, but Face-to-Face Must Also Remain

Few banking executives would disagree that every time a consumer has to print a digital form, physically sign and mail it, their experience is disrupted—and they may even drop out without completing the application. The same goes for internal processes: Every stack of paper that has to be printed, signed, and sent in an interoffice envelope represents a disruption in a process that could be handled much more seamlessly in the digital world.

But shoehorning every part of the banking experience into an all-digital pipeline isn’t the answer, either. Some consumers still want to talk to an expert face to face before completing their application, but grow frustrated if the digital process offers no opportunity to speak with an actual human being.

“Digital transformation isn’t about going ‘all digital,’ so much as it is about eliminating outdated processes that disrupt the overall experience.”
— Craig Peasley, Adobe

Take, for instance, a complex financial product like a mortgage refinance. Even if you fully digitize the application process, many applicants may still feel intimidated by the sheer complexity of the transaction. This is precisely where a brick-and-mortar branch can demonstrate its value. By offering a face-to-face consultation at just the right stage of the process, your employees can bolster applicants’ confidence, and help them across the finish line. Being able to make an appointment digitally makes the process less hit or miss.

Customer support is another example of a situation in which face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) contact results in much greater customer satisfaction than a digital-only experience. When a customer encounters a problem with their account, the prospect of navigating a robotic phone menu or an online chat is far more frustrating than the simple expedient of calling a direct-to-human number, speaking with someone who grasps the problem, and getting it fixed immediately.

Read More: Don’t Abandon Branches to Favor Digital Banking Channels

Return of the Personal Banker

A great deal is spoken and written about how disruptive paper can be to a digital experience. But digital tools are only as effective as the overall experience they support. In other words, digital transformation isn’t necessarily about going “all digital,” so much as it is about eliminating outdated processes that disrupt the seamlessness of the overall experience. In fact digitizing a flawed process can make things worse.

One of the great benefits of digital technologies is that they provide a range of opportunities for staff at bank and credit union branches to reclaim the role of the personal banker, empowered by real-time data about every customer, as well as the world’s financial markets.

It wasn’t so long ago that may people knew the name of a banker they could call —the person they reached out to when they wanted to open an additional account, move money, apply for a loan, or get advice on an investment. Today, however, only investment firms and private-banking units catering to high-income clients maintain this level of contact and service, while the majority of brick-and-mortar banks relegate their customers interactions to a diminishing number of tellers — or to digital apps.

Imagine a near future in which every brick-and-mortar branch serves as a hub for face-to-face interactions with personal bankers — specialists assigned to specific customers. Empowered by a world of real-time data and digital tools, these personal bankers could perform their roles more effectively, efficiently, and accurately than the bankers of yesteryear, building lifelong relationships of trust that keep customers coming through the doors.

This article was originally published on . All content © 2024 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.