Chatbots and Cafés: How Capital One Balances Digital, Physical Banking

Neither the pandemic's restrictions nor the popularity of its own chatbot cooled Capital One on its innovative café facilities. In fact, the bank plans to increase the number of these 'un-branch' hangout spaces, even while trimming its traditional branch network. Two of the bank's top consumer banking design executives offer insights on the human+digital strategy.

As Starbucks found out, it’s tough to promote a casual hangout ambiance during a global pandemic when nobody wants to congregate. All financial institutions faced challenges with in-person banking during the Covid lockdown period, but Capital One Bank faced a special predicament with its 45 uber-cool Capital One Cafés.

With their home-casual, coffee-bar ambiance — where customer and non-customers alike come to work, sip coffee, eat pastries and, if they want to, talk to an “ambassador” or a financial coach — these cafés had to be pretty much put under wraps. Some were not open at all. Others shifted to a “grab and go” set up, much like any coffee bar, with limits on how many people could be in the space.

Yet the $479 billion retail banking giant never lost faith in the café concept. Even while it closed more than half of its traditional branches over the past ten years, it plans to open “a handful” more cafés in 2021, according to Elena Limbert, VP of Retail Experience Design for Cafés and Branches at Capital One.

Making this commitment to café branches more remarkable is that Capital One has been equally committed to being a banking technology leader, especially in the use of artificial intelligence. Today, the bank is a software powerhouse with a technology staff of nearly 11,000, 85% of whom are software engineers, according to Forbes.

That kind of tech muscle led to Eno, Capital One’s popular AI-powered chatbot, along with many other digital tools. As Forrester analyst Peter Wannamacher said in an earlier article, Capital One’s fraud alerts, many of them delivered via Eno, are the best in banking in the U.S.

Capital One’s human-plus-digital strategy, exemplifies a growing trend in U.S. banking. Jason Ferrell, VP of Design for Capital One’s Consumer Bank, calls the trend “hybridization,” the melding of in-person and digital banking.

“Historically channels were thought of as separate – people might engage with digital in one context and in-person in another. The expectation now is that they are all blended and have to work together harmoniously.”

— Jason Ferrell, Capital One

Ferrell and Limbert both spoke with The Financial Brand about Capital One’s consumer banking strategy.

Read More: Why Bankers Won’t Ditch Branches, Despite Digital’s Explosive Growth

Design Key to Both Digital and In-Person Experience

Both executives have “design” in their title, which reflects a long-term focus of Capital One. The bank acquired consulting design firm Adaptive Path in 2014 to help it incorporate “design thinking.”

Broadly the concept applies the principles of design to the way people interact with the world. Developing a deep understanding of the people for whom you’re designing products and services, is key to design thinking, which is about much more than “packaging.”

Ferrell’s team is responsible for applying design thinking to the credit card business and retail banking, while Limbert’s team is focused on the physical design of the bank’s branches and cafés.

“There are few things in life more emotional for people than money,” Ferrell states. “But banking historically has been transactional.” That disconnect, he says, is where his group operates, being responsible primarily for creating superior digital experiences.

“All that begins with understanding the customer context that we’re designing the experience for,” Ferrell observes. For example, when the bank suspects a customer’s identity may have been stolen, Eno proactively sends out a text message. That initial message has to be worded carefully to “grab attention but not incite fear,” says Ferrell. If it turns out there is a problem, the messaging shifts to giving the consumer peace of mind that “the ball’s in our court and we’ll take it from here.”

The experience also includes email confirmations with all the information and communication available to call center and branch personnel in the event there is human interaction.

“We operate with the belief that in this day and age customers just expect that they can do anything they need to do or want to do anywhere on their terms, not ours,” the banker states. “Those sort of seamless integrations don’t happen by accident.”

Read More: Rethinking Branch Networks Without Killing Growth

The Antithesis of a Typical Branch

The Capital One Cafés grew out of a concept pioneered by ING Direct, an online bank launched in 2000 in the U.S. The ING cafés, with their predominantly Orange theme, were created as a physical touchpoint for the bank’s online customers.

When Capital One acquired ING Direct, it didn’t ditch the café concept. Instead, it embraced it and opened many more as a way to appeal to Millennials, who were less inclined to use traditional branches. Capital One changed the look of cafés with the use of exposed ceilings, natural wood textures, modern tables and comfortable chairs.

Anything but Banking as Usual:

The Capital One Cafés are part co-working space, part coffee and pastry bar, part financial education center. The whole experience is deliberately very un-branch-like.

Capital one cafe Georgetown exterior

Capital one cafe Georgetown it's possible

Capital One Cafe

The Capital One Cafés have dozens of charging stations, free Wi-Fi, and offer Peet’s Coffee. The coffee isn’t free, but Capital One cardholders get 50% off the price. Anyone can come in to use the facilities and stay for however long they wish. The Ambassadors are available to help — assisting with opening accounts and answering questions about mobile banking, for example — but they don’t bring up banking unless asked to.

In addition to open work spaces, the cafés have private “nooks” with doors where consumers can meet with Ambassadors or financial coaches.

“We are trying to create a welcoming and comforting environment,” Limbert explains. “A phrase we use internally to help put staff in the mindset of what we’re trying to evoke is, ‘Almost an extension of your home’.”

Capital One Cafe branch Peets Coffee

Capital One Cafe Peets Coffee

Pandemic Impact on Café Branches

Everything just described ran afoul of pandemic restrictions, and the bank had to adopt a hybrid model with limited seating, and just one Ambassador onsite. Also, Limbert says the bank had a “pretty robust calendar of in-café events and programming, which all had to be suspended.”

Despite all of this, Capital One is proceeding with plans for opening new cafés, as noted above.

“I think what we’re seeing trending out of this pandemic is that there’s thirst and a great need for human interaction,” Limbert states. “We’re excited about people getting back to a sense of normalcy.”


As Capital One Cafés return to near-normal function, Ferrell expects that one pandemic trend that will reshape the in-person experience is a closer interaction between the technology used by Ambassadors and devices used by consumers. In much the same way that people became accustomed to view menus and order by QR code at restaurants, he expects the tablets and other devices bank staff use in the branches to interact directly with consumers’ devices.

For example, if an Ambassador is using an iPad to access information in one of the bank’s systems, they can send a link directly to a customer’s phone by text or push notification while the two of them are speaking in person.

Entree to the Emerging Gen Z Segment

Millennials may have been the primary target audience when Capital One Cafés first appeared in 2017, and still are, yet Limbert believes that the concept is particularly well suited to the up-and-coming Gen Z, many of whom are now becoming adults and starting their financial lives.

“I think the cafés come in at an interesting time for them,” the banker states. “In addition to digital services, we also offer up a physical space where they can comfortably talk to subject matter experts to help reduce anxiety and guide them in a v user-friendly way, providing them with the right support. My team likes to use the phrase, ‘Where banking meets living,’ to describe this.

“Gen Z needs to start their financial journey on the right path. I think we are perfectly primed with our cafés and digital tools to fulfill the needs that are starting to trend from that customer segment.”

— Elena Limbert, Capital One

While Limbert didn’t have any data to share on the age of typical café users, she did point out that anyone new to digital banking, which could be someone older than a Millennial, “should view the café as a resource to get that shoulder-to-shoulder coaching.”

Bankers may question whether the café concept generates sales the way branches traditionally have.

Lia Dean, now Capital One’s President of Retail Banking and Premium Card Products, told Business Insider in 2017, when she was running the café program, that the cafés aren’t geared toward generating sales.

In addition, Limbert says, “We find a tremendous increase in brand affinity with our cafés.” She says also that the cafés are intended to deepen relationships with consumers.

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