NatWest and RBS are building an army of technology experts — digital specialists and technicians who will show customers how to master online- and mobile banking tools while also raising awareness of other ways in which they can bank.
Dubbed “TechXperts,” these specially trained employees will support customers by setting up, demonstrating and showing them how to make the most of the bank’s digital banking services. There will also be a focus on digital safety and security, with TechXperts teaching people how to protect their accounts and other financial information when using digital channels and devices — a major concern for consumers considering (or already using) online and mobile banking solutions.
One TechXpert is going inside every branch in the network. NatWest, which is a subsidiary of RBS, will get 1,000 specialists, while the parent bank RBS will get 200 — that covers every location they operate in England, Scotland and Wales.
The two banks are investing an estimated £500,000 (a little more than USD $600,000) into training these 1,200 TechXperts — roughly $500 in training costs per employee.
Jane Howard, managing director of branches at Royal Bank of Scotland, says the tech expert initiative represents a fundamental shift in how the bank is approaching its retail strategy. With consumers migrating more and more to mobile channels, the role of branches and the employees who staff them must also evolve.
“Banking is almost unrecognizable from what it was when I started my career in a branch 36 years ago,” Howard said. “While more customers than ever before are taking advantage of the convenience and simplicity of mobile and online banking, some people still need further support.”
“Our TechXperts will help make sure our customers are confident to make the most of the new technology, features and services we are offering them,” continued Howard.
The TechXpert initiative at NatWest and RBS is similar to the “Digital Eagles” program rolled out by Barclays back in 2014, which put iPads in the hands of thousands of frontline employees after receiving digital training. Today, Barclays says it has 12,000 Digital Eagles ready to help boost customers’ “digital confidence”.
In The Digital Age, Everyone Must Be Tech Experts
Beyond the 1,200 specialized TechXperts, another 10,000 NatWest and 1,500 RBS branch employees will also receive training about digital banking tools and features to further ensure that customers are dealing with tech-savvy staff at all times.
This is a smart move. In the Digital Age, everyone at a bank or credit union who works with the public should know their institution’s mobile app like the back of their hand.
But the TechXpert initiative at NatWest and RBS raises an interesting (if not difficult) question: Are employees essentially learning how to make themselves irrelevant? Are they showing customers why face-to-face interactions in branches are no longer necessary? Some employees could argue that their situation feels almost like outsourcing, where soon-to-be-furloughed employees are expected to train their lower-cost replacements. It’s not quite the same thing, but the analogy brings up similar ethical HR issues.
For instance, if the TechXpert program is successful and all the bank’s customers learn how to work comfortably in digital channels, what will be the role and relevance of branches going forward?
After all, NatWest and RBS have already announced a significant reduction in the size of their branch network, which they admit is a direct and immediate reflection of consumers’ shift to digital channels.
In April 2016, they reported that footfall in branches was nearly halved in the previous six years, while the number of people transacting online had grown fourfold.
“We have seen a dramatic shift in the way our customers are choosing to bank, with more using mobile and online over traditional branch counters,” the bank holding company said in a statement. “Simple transactions undertaken in branches at NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland have fallen by 43% since 2010, while online and mobile transactions have increased by more than 400%.”
As a result, NatWest will shutter 128 of its branches, while RBS will close another 30, representing a 14% reduction in the number of locations they operate. The closures affect 770 staffers — 470 jobs lost, with 300 employees moving to new positions (some will actually become part of the TechXpert program). But that’s on top of another 32 branches along with hundreds of jobs — somewhere between 600 to 1,500 people — that have already been cut.
When announcing which specific branches NatWest and RBS intend to close, the PR team tries to assuage anxious customers with predictable reassurances: there are ATMs nearby, we have great online/mobile banking options, and you can still reach us by phone. But they have also said that “digital experts will offer training and support with digital skills, serving the branch until it closes.”
If you were a staffer in the TechXpert program, you might read that and be a bit concerned about your future: “Is my sole purpose to usher more customers out the door until I’m out of a job?”
The Digital ‘Smart Branch’ of The Future
The TechXpert program from NatWest and RBS is just one more example of how branches are changing in the Digital Age.
NAB in Australia unveiled its ‘Smart Store’ branch design back in 2013. The concept blends iPads, touchscreens and self-service technology with “hip-to-hip” conversations. All staff are equipped with iPads that receive notifications whenever a customer enters the store, or when someone starts using one of the “Come Help Me” app on iPads located around the branch. The interactive app allows customers to book appointments with bankers, shop for various financial products, and navigate their way around the store. Staff can saddle up with consumers at a large touchscreen for side-by-side tech demos and conversations. There’s also a “Demo Bar” where NAB employees walk customers through the bank’s online- and mobile tools.
In 2015, BMO in Canada rolled out its first-ever ‘Smart Branch,’ which combines a number of digital features: video tellers, “smart ATMs” that work with mobile phones, video conferencing with mortgage and retirement experts, and bankers armed with tablets who can help customers with financial and technological questions.
Nearly every branch The Financial Brand sees these days is migrating this direction: smaller footprint, fewer FTEs and more tech… a lot more tech. Take a look for yourself.