The human face of digital banking

9 December 2013

As banks embrace the digital age and, in some cases, become its pioneers, there is a need to carefully balance the speed and service digital channels provide with the understanding of customers’ requirements. Future Banking speaks to Nationwide’s head of digital innovation, Daryl Wilkinson, about how banks can walk the right path.

Banking is an industry that has been working hard to regain the trust of customers since the financial crisis that began in 2008. At the same time, it is embracing the many opportunities that digital channels offer to improve customer services. With the added burden of complying with a more stringent regulatory regime, banks are fighting on many fronts.

For Daryl Wilkinson, head of digital innovation at Nationwide, it is imperative that banks win all of these battles, which means knowing what customers want and delivering it across multiple channels.

"The battle for trust is one of the biggest challenges in financial services today."

"The battle for trust is one of the biggest challenges in financial services today. Every bank is competing to demonstrate that it is trustworthy and warrants you depositing money with them. But, there is also the challenge of regulation and the cost of remaining compliant vs the prioritisation of innovation. Typically, in a difficult economic climate, such as there is in the UK at the moment, prioritising innovation is not always the easiest thing to do," says Wilkinson.

One of the challenges is to understand what innovation means. For some it means a paradigm shift to fully digital banks, but Wilkinson believes that digital services are only one part of what a bank must offer.

The role of the branch

"Everyone wants to talk about the death of the branch the same way they used to talk about the death of the cheque. The branch has a place in what we call the omnichannel environment. The role of the branch is vital, as it is going to be about advice and convenience. The challenge with the branch, like any channel, is to integrate it into one cohesive customer experience. It is not about one channel vs another, it is about understanding what customers' needs are and ensuring we have a holistic approach to serving those needs," he says.

"When you're out and about in town, you might pop into a branch. When you have an important decision to make, you will probably do that in a branch. And no one is about to apply for a mortgage through their mobile phone, even though you probably could, technically."

"The real challenge is to present a coherent set of services across all channels."

Automation will nevertheless play a vital role in defining the way banks operate, but the real challenge is to present a coherent set of services across all channels, so that customers can choose how they bank.

"Nationwide and any other savvy organisation will be guided by customers. It is about choice. Some customers will choose to do things themselves online, and we need to make it easy for them to do so, but others still prefer to speak to a person. We don't have any plans in Nationwide to automate all of our customer interactions but, like any good organisation, we respond to customer demand. If customers choose to serve themselves, we should offer that capability, but if they don't then they should have the alternative," Wilkinson explains.

"I'm someone who prefers to get things done quickly, so automation is appealing to me, but others are different," he adds.

The omnichannel environment

Banks are keen to tackle the many challenges of the omnichannel environment, but the most successful are those that understand the different channels from the perspective of the customer. After all, each channel has its own strengths and weaknesses.

"There is a lot of conversation about how organisations should respond, and some are more successful than others, but the thing we should note is that customers don't talk about omnichannel or multichannel. What customers want is to get their banking done quickly, conveniently and accurately. Where there is a need for greater thought, when there is more value in the decision they are taking, they want to be certain that they are given good advice in the most appropriate form for them," says Wilkinson.

"What banks need to realise is that, today, we have a proliferation of devices and means to talk to customers. They should take a step back from being too technical and realise that people want to bank when they want to bank, and they probably don't think about it as much as we do. So, yes we need to integrate; the biggest challenge will be IT systems and getting them to talk to one another, but we need to be mindful of the conversations and transactions that are going on in different channels. One shouldn't be providing advice for a life-changing decision over Twitter, for example," he adds.

"Banks, like any other organisation that is responsible for your money, need to be transparent about their actions."

Though it is suited to some types of customer conversation more than others, social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook can be of great value to banks, providing that they know what their customers want from them.

"I don't broadcast my life online, but I know people who do. Organisations need to understand what their role is in people's lives, with careful consideration around social media. Because someone advertises the key events of their life online doesn't always mean they are comfortable with someone responding to that in a commercial way. I liken it to someone trying to sell you something in a social situation, such as having coffee with friends. It is the same in the online world, which is a social atmosphere; it could be a bit Big Brother for some people or a value-add for others," believes Wilkinson.

"I'm happy to be contacted by organisation I have a relationship with for normal calendar events, but more than that could be intrusive. But, again, it is about choice and it is a difficult challenge to figure out whether customers would appreciate that kind of contact or not."

Humanising your brand

Rather than being a sales channel, Wilkinson sees a different and, perhaps, more important role for social media.

"Social media is the humanisation of your brand. It is projecting the personality in the online space, and we shouldn't dive in and start advising people or selling to them. It is the expression of who we are. It is about culture and personality radiating through the online experience. Customers who choose to have access to advice online can be served in other ways, such as a videoconference with a trained mortgage adviser," he remarks.

The backlash against outsourced customer service centres serves to remind banks that customers are people, and need to be treated as such.

"I've experienced poor customer service from organisations that have outsourced it, so I'm not a fan of it when executed poorly. For Nationwide, this is not something that we would choose to do. Owning a customer relationship or, more to the point, the responsibility of ensuring that it is a great customer relationship, is at the heart of what we do. We are accountable for the quality of customer interactions. Nationwide has no plans to outsource customer interaction and it would not fit well with our brand," says Wilkinson.

Customer service and transparency

Quality of service is important in the battle for trust, but another weapon is transparency, which Wilkinson feels is a priority for the industry.

"My view is that banks, like any other organisation that is responsible for your money, need to be transparent about their actions and value to the customer. I don't believe in hiding fees away and I think transparency is key. At Nationwide, we have online talkbacks and we speak to customers at our AGM, so transparency is at the heart of what we do," he adds.

It is clear that understanding customers' needs is the key to winning battles on many fronts. It allows banks to hone their services, build trust and differentiate themselves from their competitors.

"If there is one thing to focus on, I would say talk to the customer. We do extensive customer research on industry trends and what is influencing customer behaviour. We also do acute studies that involve one-on-one conversations about the applications and service we deploy," says Wilkinson.

"Listen to your customers and make sure you have that voice from the beginning of a strategy all the way through the life cycle to a live service, and use feedback mechanisms to ensure you stay current, relevant and responsive to customer needs. It is clichéd to speak like that but, for me, that would be the number-one issue."

Head of digital innovation Daryl Wilkinson leads Nationwide’s new group digital development team.