Best Customer Experience in Banking Blends Digital with Human Touch

Even when they have the latest mobile banking app and a fresh website at their fingertips, sometimes consumers want their banks and credit unions to be a human face. Providing opportunities to talk to real people is a beginning. But it's even better when real people reach out to consumers.

People frequently beef that you can order almost anything in the world on Amazon, but you can’t have a conversation with a real human being at the ecommerce giant. The inability to easily talk to a person is a flaw shared by many financial institutions’ websites, according to Alyson Clarke, Principal Analyst at Forrester.

“You can’t find a phone number anywhere,” says Clarke of the typical financial institution site. “The avenue of help is hidden. It’s kind of gone away.” Too often, the push is towards self-service.

This is important because for both full-service and online-only banking institutions the ability to make an emotional connection with an employee is critical for maintaining an ongoing relationship, according to a research report by Clarke and August du Pont, Researcher at Forrester.

But Amazon does something many financial institutions haven’t mastered, or do at all: solid chat.

Clarke is not one of those analysts who think everything Amazon does is wonderful. She points out that its personalization engine isn’t what it once was — often what it recommends these days is more of the same goods you’ve bought before.

Alyson Clarke Forrester hogwash quote

But one thing she thinks Amazon has gotten right is consumer service chat. She’s frequently used Amazon’s chat herself when she’s had issues with an order.

“And I walk away from those engagements thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this company’,” says Clarke.

It’s not the technology that’s impressed her — lots of companies have better-than-average technology. What keeps her coming back is that the Amazon employees have been trained — and empowered — to make things right during that conversation. There’s no “I’ll need to check with my supervisor” or “I’ll have our investigations unit check things out and get back to you.”

Problem, solution, done.

Many financial institutions say they can’t deliver those kind of one-contact solutions, blaming it on the regulated nature of banks and credit unions and on complexity.

“I call ‘hogwash’ on that,” says Clarke.

Why Customer Experience Really Lags and Where It Soars

The true problem lies in factors like clunky systems that don’t allow one-stop resolution and financial institutions that aren’t willing to authorize their people to resolve problems on the fly.

This makes no sense, however, because what banks and credit unions provide to consumers usually means far more to them than what they’ve bought online.

Clarke says if you receive a pair of socks in the wrong color, you shrug and send them back for the right ones. But a screw-up with a banking account can have major repercussions.

What’s even more compelling for Clarke: The top institutions in the firm’s research, “The U.S. Customer Experience Index,” do make such resolutions work.

For the fourth year in a row, Navy Federal Credit Union topped the customer experience ratings among full-service institutions, which Forrester calls “multi-channel” institutions. USAA, also for the fourth year in a row, ranked first among online-only banks, which Forrester calls “direct banks.” The ratings were based on a broad consumer survey.

Customer Experience Ratings at Full-Service Banks Ranked

2019 2018 Brand Performance 2019
1 1 Navy Federal Credit Union 82.9
2 7 TD Bank 78.8
3 3 Regions Bank 77.6
4 2 Huntington National Bank 76.7
5 4 PNC Bank 76.0
6 6 Citizens Bank 75.1
7 8 BB&T 74.9
8 5 SunTrust Banks 74.6
9 13 Fifth Third Bank 74.6
Industry average 74.1
10 11 U.S. Bank 73.5
11 12 Capital One Bank 73.3
12 9 Chase 73.0
13 15 KeyBank 72.3
14 18 Bank of the West 72.1
15 10 M&T Bank 71.7
16 14 Wells Fargo 70.3
17 16 Citibank 69.4
18 17 Bank of America 68.4

Key: Very poor (0-54) Poor (55-64) OK (65-74) Good (75-84) Excellent (85-100)
Source: Forrester

Clarke credits the two institutions’ ongoing top rankings to having a customer-service culture, and notes that the largest U.S. banking organizations, which fall at the bottom of the ranking for multichannel banking, have trouble with cultural issues.

“They tend to have a sales driven, risk-focused culture,” explains Clarke, “and they don’t do a lot for the customer.” By contrast, she says, Navy Federal and USAA orient their organizations to service.

The credit union, for example, tackled the federal government employee furlough that straddled 2018-2019 with a gutsy move. Navy Federal reached out with an offer for 0% no-credit-check loans to tide over members who weren’t getting paid due to the federal shutdown.

Customer Experience at Direct Banks Ranked

2019 2018 Brand Performance 2019
1 1 USAA 81
2 2 Ally Bank 75.7
3 6 Discover Bank 75.5
4 3 Fidelity Investments 74.2
5 5 Charles Schwab Bank 74.2
Industry average 73.5
6 4 Capital One 360 72.8
7 7 American Express Bank 72.7
8 10 Marcus By Goldman Sachs 71.9
9 9 Synchrony Bank 69.6
10 8 State Farm Bank 67.4

Key: Very poor (0-54) Poor (55-64) OK (65-74) Good (75-84) Excellent (85-100)
Source: Forrester

“They did that without even being asked,” says Clarke. “That’s the sign of an organization that focuses on the customer, not just the bottom line.”

USAA’s systems alert its staff to patterns that indicate a significant life event. For its heavily military consumer base, that can mean a move to another assignment or deployment to a war zone. After the staff reaches out, and determines what’s going on, it can tailor content sent to those consumers.

This is big data done right, says Clarke.

In the report Forrester speaks highly of USAA’s approach to humanizing the customer experience. “The firm has experience owners, not product owners,” the report states, “who live and own the product and all touchpoints from a holistic view. And designers are at the center of every initiative.”

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The Brightest Tech Array Won’t Impress Without Emotion

In the rankings above, some institutions held pace with their ratings in the firm’s 2018 report, while some showed tremendous improvement and others dropped significantly. Clarke has formed the overall impression that while there has been improvement, and standouts among the groups, progress hasn’t been sufficient yet.

“It’s not that bankers aren’t improving things,” says Clarke. “It’s just that they aren’t pedaling fast enough.”

As the state of the art in digital banking gets more and more technically superior, Clarke continues, there is a tendency to think that that is sufficient. She disagrees, pointing out that increasingly U.S. institutions serve a “do it for me” society that expects the very best technology for starters.
What’s offered, Clarke continues, tends to be “very generic and clinical.” Most larger institutions have a very polished, professional look to their website and their mobile apps, but that can actually come across as cold and impersonal. But this can be surmounted.

TD Bank, ranking just behind leader Navy Federal among the multichannel players, jumped up by five places for the year. This was its best showing ever in the Forrester rankings.

The bank got slammed by consumers in the previous study because it had experienced a series of outages. But recovering from that was not the only factor. The Forrester report points out that in early 2019 TD Bank ditched a slogan, “America’s Most Convenient Bank,” that actually was from a bank it had acquired. That line was becoming creaky.

So TD Bank changed its theme to “Unexpectedly Human.”

“More than just a slogan,” the report states, “the firm’s brand campaign focuses on connecting with customers at a local level and the desire of employees to go above and beyond for their community and their customers. And the bank appears to be delivering on its message: TD has the second-highest score for customer service across all banks.”

Another institution, the direct player Discover Bank, moved up three places, in part because technology such as artificial intelligence was adopted by a new CEO to personalize the bank’s service.

The report also notes that Marcus by Goldman Sachs improved by two places. Forrester points out that Marcus has fallen short on customer experience in the past, but that new initiatives have created more personal connections.

“Marcus hasn’t completely transformed its experience — or even launched a mobile app — but it did have a statistically significant improvement in its score this year,” say Forrester.

Recipe for People Connections Is Actually Simple

While technology helps, ultimately putting human emotion into banking requires … humans.

The Forrester report stresses that when people have something beyond the transactional need, they crave human contact. For consumers banking with multi-channel institutions, this still, often, means working with branch staff.

“Meeting with a banker in person can be the best way to get help,” the report states. The immediate give and take of a face-to-face conversation makes a difference.

Direct banks don’t have offices and thus there’s no physical meeting place, but telephone or chat consultation can take the place of that for consumers who have selected an online institution.

“As with the customers of multichannel banks, speaking with a person evoked the greatest amount of positive sentiment from direct banks’ customers — even though these customers have chosen a bank that operates without branches,” the report says.

This is interesting because commercials for Ally Bank, which ranked just a bit behind USAA as #2 direct bank, always end with an overhead shot of a diverse group of cheerful Millennial-aged employees. A young woman in the center of the crowd starts out closing the commercial, but her mobile phone rings. She excuses herself to take a consumer’s call with a finger wave and an “Ally Bank, this is Pamela. How may I help you?”

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