With the move to digital banking platforms, some quarters have accused banks of abandoning the personal service in the process. Rod James speaks to Mona Jantzi and Ian Bromwich of Barclaycard to find out whether there’s any truth to this and how banks can build that personal connection in the fast-paced digital environment.
People of a certain age, in many countries, can often be heard lamenting the decline of the bank branch. The polite but firm bank manager who understands your financial affairs inside out, and can offer products tailored to your situation, or the cashiers who know you (and maybe your extended family) by name. The personalised touch, these people declare, has been replaced by expensive phone calls to distant call centres.
Some fear that the inexorable move towards digital is further encouraging this drift. As things stand, at least there is someone at the bank you can speak to if you need help. But what if that is replaced completely, turning a person-to-person conversation into a transaction between a human and a faceless corporation?
In truth, it will be a long time until digital channels completely replace existing avenues (if they ever do); the creation of an 'omnichannel' customer service, where customers can move swiftly between different channels of engagement, is a more desirable goal over the longer term. If harnessed the right way, however, digital banking could become a concept that, while vastly different to the old branch model, will be able to connect with customers on a similarly personal level.
"The move to digitisation and to mobile is making customers lives quite a bit easier because it allows them to do what they want when they want quickly and seamlessly," says Mona Jantzi, managing director, existing customer management UK cards at Barclaycard, which has doubled down on its digital strategy in the past two years. "That said, we see some truth in the concern about personalisation with respect to customers. It's really critical that our digital services are intuitive for customers and designed around how they need to see information, how they think about things and to make sure they can get answers easily if they need them. And if they do need additional help, that there's a way to meets their needs."
In 2013, the credit card arm of Barclays Bank found that a significant number of customers were struggling to find the information they needed on the company website. While it was possible for customers to contact the bank through Facebook and Twitter, the Barclaycard employee often did not have the right information to answer the query. All they could do was advise the customer to follow up by email, which only 30% did.
The company started to approach personalisation in a more focused manner. It restructured and relaunched its website in early 2015, the new layout contributing to a 10% year-on-year decrease in the number of site-related phone queries received. At the same time, the company reshuffled its social media set-up to allow the whole exchange to be carried out on a single platform, through private messaging, without the need for email.
"As a result of our changes, overall, negative feedback has fallen by 9% over the past year and, in turn, we've seen positive feedback rise by 27% to reach 67% over the same period," the company trumpeted in an H1 2015 update.
Keep the customer satisfied
These improvements were the result of a heightened effort to understand customer needs and preferences, which saw Barclaycard employ a mix of old-fashioned and more technologically advanced methods. It conducts surveys, holds focus groups and carries out one-to-one sessions with customers in which they walk through things like app flow and website navigation to find out what's working and what isn't.
This level of consultation doesn't stop at the point of coming to market but continues into the operational phase. Popular platforms like Facebook, Google and smartphones invariably influence the way people think about what is and isn't intuitive, which in turn impacts Barclaycard's approach to digital design.
On top of these long-used marketing tools there is an analytics team that is continually looking for new data sources to monitor. An obvious starting point is examining customer behaviour on the Barclaycard website; for example, trying to figure out why a customer researches a particular product but fails to follow through with a purchase.
If your analytics reveal that a lot of customers lose interest at the same point, perhaps there is a problem with your product or the way it is marketed? Analytics are also used to analyse verbatim comments from surveys and to extract feedback from social media to try to identify areas of improvement, no matter how small.
"We are always making small changes to the website just to enhance that intuitiveness," says Jantzi. "We obsess over things like readability, how to present information, navigation... We do a combination of testing ideas and things we think [customers] may want and actually asking them what they want, so as we are developing new capabilities we can be sensitive to their needs."
The need to personalise digital services is a must in a world in which customer expectations have skyrocketed. Social media is integral to this as it has blurred the line between business and pleasure, making it as easy to ask a question of your bank as it is to read an article or share a cat video. Social platforms also allow customers to very publicly express displeasure if their query is handled in a less than optimum fashion, representing a serious reputational risk to banks. Underpinning all of this is the fact that the world has sped up. People are no longer willing to wait two or three hours for a response to a query, and when it comes to apps and websites, milliseconds can make all the difference.
"One of the things we are really focused on is how quickly the site and the app are rendering," says Ian Bromwich, Barclaycard's managing director digital and design. "It's a huge consideration when anything is being designed. And we find that customers treat mobile differently to the internet. They tend to log on and check the mobile channels more frequently than they do on the website. So we are seeing different demands on the system and the increased traffic from the digital channels, and customers expecting to be able to access and service their accounts instantly, which is what we are supporting."
The growing impatience of customers can also be seen in their attitudes towards security checks. While most would accept that security is vital, many see having to remember codes and passwords, and having to present them on a frequent basis, as being an annoying drain on productivity.
"One thing I'm quite proud of is that customers in the mobile app can call in if they have a particular question and they don't have to go through security like they would if they went through customer service," says Jantzi. "It's a seamless experience. And things like reaching out across all channels, we are constantly working on being faster and more fluid. We are now actively using email rather than mail [though they will still respond by mail, she emphasises]. The bar keeps getting higher and higher."
Change of the guard
The need for speed and the technological demands of things like big data analytics puts a heavy strain on financial institutions. To deal with this, 70% of Barclaycard's high volume test and development work is done in India, with the 30% of staff left in the UK focused more on customer experience and design. New technologies also change the make-up of the workforce, with in-house software developers making up a growing proportion of the technical staff.
The move away from the traditional legacy hardware and software systems towards cloud-based software-as-a-service is sure to accelerate this change, making the traditional 'IT guy' an increasingly rare figure. Security concerns mean that the financial services sector is likely to hold out a little longer than others when it comes to making the move to the cloud, though Barclaycard has begun deploying it internally on a small scale.
"On things like cloud, we are trialling it in certain areas, but given the reservations around customer data sitting outside of Barclaycard's infrastructure, we are treading cautiously in that space," says Bromwich. "We are applying cloud techniques to our internal infrastructure so we can get things like cheaper provisioning and dev ops - doing cloud internally versus putting everything on to Amazon web services or anything like that."
Bank branches, and the personalised service they represent, are in decline. But the move from the call centre to the computer seems to have shifted power back towards the customer, who can demand good, personalised service in a way that they couldn't before. It means that for banks, improving customer service is a never-ending process of research, execution and evaluation.
"Historically, IT projects had a start and an end with milestones in the middle," says Bromwich. "With digital, it's a continual learning exercise around how customer behaviour is changing. You create a feature, deploy it into production, understand what works and what doesn't work, you get feedback from social media and the analytics teams, and then you go back through that 360° cycle."