As branch banking declines and retail banks move towards a true omnichannel approach, they will need to ensure the customer experience is seamless no matter what platforms they are using. Abi Millar hears from Simon Separghan, director of global contact centres and digital channels at Barclays Bank, as he explains how it is addressing this challenge.
In December 2014, Barclays became the first UK bank to introduce video banking. In what was dubbed ‘a watershed moment’, it enabled customers to have a face-to-face conversation with an adviser, from any location and at any time of day. First piloted on the bank’s premier customers – and later its mortgage, business and wealth customers – the service was rolled out to all retail banking clients earlier this year.
The move was widely welcomed. Seen by many as a glimpse into the future of banking, it is becoming progressively more popular. According to Bloomberg, the bank plans to have 110 dedicated video banking advisers by the end of 2016.
Of course, for those concerned with the decline of the branch, the new service offers little in the way of consolation. As of 2015, there were just 1,362 Barclays branches in the UK, down from 2,000 a decade previously. It’s easy to see how innovations of this kind might feed into a rather anguished narrative, in which human contact is replaced with high-tech alternatives and penurious banks gradually strip away their personal touch.
The problems caused by branch closures are real, particularly for older people in rural communities. However, as Barclays’ Simon Separghan explains, it would be a mistake to suggest newer channels are supplanting older ones. Rather, there is a growing movement towards omnichannel banking – in essence, allowing customers to engage with their bank in as many different ways as they like.
“It isn’t about making sure we can provide one channel over another, or have channels compete with each other – it’s about making sure we can provide service to customers on their own terms,” he says. “That’s something we’ve worked really hard to do over the past couple of years and not just in a way that drives customers from one channel to another, but to make sure all our channels have the same level of empowerment, functionality and service availability.”
In his role as director of global contact centres and digital channels, Separghan leads a team of 3,500 people handling more than 55 million interactions a year. As well as video banking, Barclays’ customer services representatives work across telephony, web chat, social media and secure messaging.
“Over the past three or four years, we’ve actively pursued a strategy of ensuring that we have a range of channels designed to suit what customers want to do at particular times of day or in particular situations. It’s about providing a range of solutions that customers are comfortable with, whether it be the branch network, traditional contact centres or newer innovations,” he says.
Change the channel?
Omnichannel banking has become something of a buzzword in recent years. In a survey conducted by Forrester Research, 41% of financial services professionals chose omnichannel banking as one of their top five focal points for business transformation in 2014, up from 31% in 2012.
There is still some confusion, however, about what the term actually means. Although sometimes used interchangeably with ‘multichannel banking’, omnichannel actually goes one step further – multichannel simply means providing services across multiple channels, whereas omnichannel means providing a cohesive customer experience from one platform to the next.
Until fairly recently, multichannel strategies were the norm. As new touchpoints such as online and mobile emerged, these new services were typically bolted on to the bank’s legacy systems, with each one operating in isolation.
Unfortunately, multiplying the channels often meant multiplying the customer’s frustration. In the absence of a truly joined-up approach, a customer might find themselves being offered an unwanted loan in their branch and then once again over the phone. Information they had relayed through one channel wasn’t necessarily being communicated to different customer services teams.
Omnichannel banking aims to eradicate this issue by taking a fresh look at how customers actually go about their lives. If a banking user performs some interactions on their smartphone and others on their laptop – sometimes switching devices before completing an activity – there is no use acting as though these points of contact are entirely separate and discreet. Rather, the experience should be seamless; taking a single overarching customer view.
“Customers are using a wide variety of different channels and, in many respects, they’re using those different channels at the same time, or moving between those channels very quickly and intuitively,” says Separghan. “A customer might be at the ATM, checking their online account and talking to us at the contact centre at the same time, so all these technologies need to talk together instantly.”
Break out of the silo
For most retail banks, this poses a significant challenge. It means moving beyond a traditional, silo-bound approach, investing in the appropriate tech and possibly re-envisioning their entire service model.
“One of the biggest pieces is ensuring that we invest in the infrastructure and architecture platforms, and that we work very hard with suppliers to make sure we can all come together to provide a seamless end-to-end experience,” says Separghan. “Ultimately, what that means is that our system has to have a level of connectivity. If you’re a front-line colleague, you have to be able to join the dots, and our systems need to make that as easy as possible, because if it’s easy for colleagues it’ll be easy for customers.”
Over the past couple of years, Barclays has worked hard to standardise its technology platforms. Today, the underlying infrastructure is exactly the same whether you’re visiting a branch, calling a contact centre or talking to an adviser online.
“This means if a customer is tweeting us, for example, we can pick up that tweet through our 24/7 social-media team,” explains Separghan. “We can look after that customer by sending them a secure link to have a private conversation with one of our personal video bankers, or to book an appointment for them directly in the branch network if it’s not too time critical. Technology has helped immensely and we are definitely seeing that investment coming to fruition.”
Barclays has also shaken up its in-house processes, making sure its various customer services teams see themselves as part of an integrated whole.
“We don’t fragment our leadership teams within the organisation, because that can lead to a poor experience for customers,” continues Separghan. “We’re also continually trying to empower our front-line colleagues so that they have the best and most up-to-date systems, and the support of the whole organisation behind them.”
Is it time to transform?
This kind of transformation is, of course, easier said than done, and Separghan concedes the bank still has further to go. However, he is positive about the changes that have been made so far and optimistic about the potential that lies ahead.
Ultimately, Barclays aims to offer exactly the same level of service across all its touchpoints. This means the customer will be able to pick and choose how they engage with their bank – and the decision will be driven not by the nature of their request but by the channels they prefer to use.
In this light, the move away from branch banking is less about a top-down imposition and more about a customer-led shift. Branches are simply attracting lower footfall than they were before.
“The look and feel and shape of what we’re doing does have to change because customers are telling us they want to do something different,” Separghan explains.
On a similar note, the introduction of video banking came about in response to a consumer trend. With many people using FaceTime and Skype in their day-to-day lives, video banking is a natural next step. So far, customer satisfaction scores have been high – following their initial video banking conversation, around 50–60% of Barclays’ customers say they would much prefer this mode of communication going forward.
All this said, if banks truly are intent on following where the customer leads, they will need to be prepared for what is, at times, a rocky road.
“When we think back to a few years ago, customers were happy to wait in a queue for a couple of minutes to talk to one of our teams in a branch or on the phone,” recalls Separghan. “Nowadays, if customers are waiting more than 20 or 30 seconds their patience runs out, so the demands they are placing on service providers are considerable. Digital adoption is growing exponentially, so customers will expect a level of automation along with a level of knowledge from the organisation about what they want to do.”
As he points out, this isn’t about making large one-off investments in technology – it’s about continuously reassessing customer outcomes and the changing nature of their demands.
“We will need to make sure we can provide exactly what the customer wants,” he says. “Whether that’s digital powered by human contact or self service and automation, we’re very much in the customer’s hands.”