Retail banking is built on trust; it is at the core of the ‘public license’ to manage the accounts of customers. Think of phrases such as “People trust the bank with their money” or “We entrust our income in the hands of a banker”. Consumers often have a lot at stake held in the bank: their livelihoods and their hopes to use the funds accumulated to improve their quality of life in the future. They expect to have access to money in their accounts readily, before seeking more money via credit and loans from the bank. Banks are additionally expected to offer account holders means to make financial profit on their money. Since the financial crisis of 2008, depletion of consumer trust in the banking system has been troubling many countries. A question still hangs, as it was valid five years ago: How should banks regain consumer trust and improve their relationships with customers?
Digital banking and financial services are proliferating, and not from yesteryear. For example, consumers can view account information and perform by ‘self-service’ a selection of banking operations in their accounts on the Internet; practise of these activities is gradually spreading from desktop and laptop computers to mobile devices. Yet, digital financial services or features are also provided by a variety of non-banking companies, non-profit organizations and institutions, most notably in the area of digital ‘remote’ payment, whether via a debit/credit card or a third-party utility (e.g., PayPal). The features are becoming increasingly available through mobile apps. Undoubtedly, applying digital banking services remotely and independently can smooth and facilitate for consumers everyday account follow-up and operations, save them time and increase efficiency in managing their accounts. But digital banking may prove as the opposite course of action than needed to help banks regain and rebuild their customers’ trust in them — it risks instead to increase the distance between banks and customers. For instance, is reliance on digital banking appropriate in managing an investment portfolio?
Complicating matters, many of the digital service tools are developed by financial technology (fintech) companies for execution online or in mobile apps. They are leading the field in developing those tools, and said to be leaving most banks lagging behind. The fintech companies allow retailers to offer shoppers different options for digital payment, and even running some form of current or expense accounts with them; investment houses and financial consultants can employ advanced tools to better update and communicate with their customers; other fintech’s work includes applications for assisting consumers to manage their personal finances and portals for mediating peer-to-peer loans.
At a conference of the central Bank of Israel, titled “The Technology Changes the Face of Banking” (3/3/16, Hebrew), the Banking Supervisor, Dr. Hedva Ber, embraced the expansion of digital banking, in vision and in action. She encouraged increased communication between banks and customers by digital means, guided by rules of conduct set by her department. Consumers less accustomed to using digital services will have to be accommodated to help them adjust through the process (e.g., by operating limited or temporary ‘pop-up’ branches where ‘fixed’ branches are to close down). But eventually a broad transition will take place and the intention is to include all parts of the population in the transformation of retail banking. The key instrument to achieve that goal will be digital education of banking customers, joined by enforcing a principle of customers’ ownership of their personal information and creating a ‘credit profile’ for each customer. There is also a plan to advance the establishment of a fully digital ‘branchless’ bank. Dr. Ber further talked in favour of computer-automated (AI) reply to customers on the phone.
This transition is likely to result in a significant reduction in the number of employees (mainly engaged in back office processes). The Supervisor projected that the digital transformation of banking will lead to better control of the customer over his or her financial situation, greater transparency, expansion of banks’ baskets of products and services, and foremost will contribute to increased efficiency. Several references to ‘efficiency’ were actually noticed in the presentation, but none regarding ‘trust’.
An initial requisite for trust is competence: the fundamental ability of the organisation to perform the tasks it took upon itself. The building blocks of the expected competence are knowledge, skills and resources. Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001) used the definition: “The willingness of the average consumer to rely on the ability of the brand to perform its stated function” (p. 82). The researchers studied the effect of brand trust and affect on brand performance, mediated through loyalty. In their view, brand trust is an involving process, deliberate and well thought out whereas brand affect is developed more spontaneously, immediate and less carefully reasoned. They find that trust and affect each contribute to purchase (behavioural) and attitudinal brand loyalty, whereupon purchase loyalty is positively related to market share and attitudinal loyalty contributes to higher price premiums. In particular, brand trust and commitment are both important for developing a valued customer relationship (1).
With respect to retail banking, the key competence asked of banks is to protect the money of their customers; it is about safekeeping, or the customer’s feeling that his or her money is ‘kept in good hands’. That kind of attitude may be hard to foster if all contacts the customer has with the bank are indirect through computers. Trust is built between people, therefore customers should be able to meet at the very least a few representatives of the bank that will instill in them the notion that someone cares about them and is taking good care of their money. Such a representative could be an adviser or ‘advocate’ for the customer in the bank.
Taking good care of the customer’s money includes warning him when taking excessive investment risks, as the bank should act responsibly in its own risk management.
Another vital requisite for trust maintains that the organisation (bank) should be acting in the interest of its customers and not just in its self-interest. For example, it means that the bank creates and offers saving programmes that are fair and beneficial to the customer, protecting her money with a plus of a reasonable interest rate (as opposed to reducing cost by paying too low rates). The risk for self-interest of the bank may be more pronounced in offering so-called ‘structured products’ of investment that oftentimes use complex rules, obscuring from the investor in whose interest the product will work best. Peppers and Rogers offer the concept of a ‘trusted agent’: in a relationship wherein the customer trusts the enterprise to act in his own interest, “the customer perceives the enterprise to be his trusted agent, making recommendations and giving advice that furthers the customer’s interest, even when it occasionally conflicts with the enterprise’s self-interest, at least in the short-term” (p. 78). Although relationships can exist without trust, it should be obvious that they can become stronger, and grow in value, only when built on trust — trust-based relationships evoke greater dedication (2).
We can see how the position of a ‘customer advocate’ relates to fulfilling this requisite, ensuring that the bank is acting in the customer’s interest.
Credibility and reliability are additional important antecedents to trust. Credibility would manifest in the bank’s practice to provide correct information about products and services it offers or delivers, that it is able to provide them, and stands behind them. Furthermore, in the current state of customer relationship management, offering a financial product would be more credible if selected to be more suitable for a specific customer, based for example on his current bank assets and risk attitude. That is, the offer would be more credible if based on knowledge of the customer to fit him better. Reliability concerns more specifically aspects of the accuracy of information and execution of instructions in time as intended (i.e., predictability). Objectives of credibility and reliability can be achieved in offerings made through platforms of online or mobile digital banking, but trust is reliant on more than these two criteria alone.
Charles Green (President of Trusted Advisors Associated, 2004) formulated that credibility, reliability and intimacy enhance customer trust whereas self-orientation diminishes trust in the company (a discount factor). Green describes intimacy as follows: “Intimacy has to do with perceived safety: ‘I can trust talking with him about…'”. He associates intimacy with security and integrity (3). The aspect of intimacy is noteworthy because in banking it corresponds most closely to the kind of delicate affairs that may arise in bank-customer relationships about one’s finances. It is about the level of confidence a customer can put in the bank, based on integrity and consideration he or she can find during any dealings with it and its employees. It is hard to talk about intimacy in human-computer interactions. Integrity also is reflected in conduct of human bank representatives, much less through digital interactions.
Intimacy should not be confused with personalisation that can be achieved with analytics-based digital tools (e.g., a ‘Digital First’ strategy that puts most weight on digital channels, as suggested by Accenture). It is wrong to equate computer-based personalisation with intimacy while talking with another person. Talking with an expert adviser on more complex financial services is especially not equivalent to automated customization, though analytic tools may help the adviser in making her recommendations. Demitry Estrin (Vision Critical) addresses the eroding banks’ relationships with customers who are blaming banks for treating people as numbers. He explains: “Nothing would address the problem better than face-to-face encounter, but these are increasingly rare. In fact, the problem is self-perpetuating: the less people interact with financial services professionals, the less they value them, and the companies they work for.”
Customers are looking to combine interactions in different modes (e.g., mobile, online, phone, face-to-face), but those human and digital interactions have to be streamlined and information exchanged in them should be coordinated within the bank. In a white paper of IBM on “Rebuilding Customer Trust in Retail Banking” (Sept. 2012), the technology and consulting company claims yet that banks managed to create more competition than co-ordination between channels with their working methods (e.g., rewards, targets, metrics). Banks have taken different measures that seem to make customers feel they are treated more conveniently and friendly, efficiently, even fairly, but not necessarily feeling that the bank thinks of each like a person. In that respect, consumers see banks as falling behind other companies they interact with in digital platforms.
The paper of IBM optimistically argues: “Fortunately, trust and digital communication channels can be and are best built together.” It is true but just to a limited extent. It is possible to maintain a certain degree of trust to allow for digital communication to succeed, but trust can grow only so far. Digital banking can provide efficiency, convenience, reliability, even credibility, but that is not enough for building a high level of trust that breeds commitment and dedication. It is doubtful if digital banking can remedy the deeper problems of trust in banks. Perhaps the answer is better found in a combination of human and digital modes of delivering banking services for fostering trust.
Digital banking, particularly communication via Internet, raises additional issues of protecting data from cyber-attacks and securing customer data privacy. Acting on those matters to reduce threats is vital to building trust, yet it would not ease the original causes of declining trust that are not digital-related.
Even within a bank branch, the scene can change — a new model is emerging, presenting a novel form of combined digital self-service and human service. Most likely, future branches will no longer have human tellers; otherwise, however, digital and human services will be intertwined in new design concepts. In the upcoming future, a customer may find in a branch central arena with personal working posts equipped with self-service terminals where each can view account information and perform various operations; the customer will be able to proceed to talk with ‘advisers’ sitting in the periphery and settle more complex issues such as loans or investments (e.g., RBC-Royal Bank of Canada, HSBC-flagship branch in Singapore). At RBC, customers may sit comfortably to read materials (print, online) or watch instructive videos on a large screen about financial products and related topics, thus he or she may prepare before talking with an adviser. BMO Harris Bank is experimenting with ‘video tellers’ for assisting customers; representatives in stand-by, holding tablets, are available to help with any difficulty. There is also a trend to change the visual design of branches to make them look and feel more like shops: less formal, more friendly and rejoicing in colour and form.
For more examples see The Financial Brand’s showcases: “10 Branches to Wow the Digital Banking Consumer” (June ’15); “2016 Retail Bank Design Showcase” (March ’16).
Customers are seeking a combination of user-friendly digital tools and human expert advisory on more complex issues. To that end, Mike Baxter and Darrell Rigby advocate a combined ‘digical’ approach: a mashup of digital technologies and physical facilities (“Rethinking the Bank Branch in a Digital World“, HBR, 15 Sept. ’14). The authors argue that combined technological and human services can be implemented on-site within a branch — as illustrated above. They note that financial products and services are often complicated, and security and trust are paramount. Baxter and Rigby conclude: “Physical banking is evolving rapidly, but not disappearing. Branches may be fewer in number, but they will be more useful and efficient, and banks without branches are likely to find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”
Human banking and digital banking are like two arms of the retail bank. Banks have to provide digital ‘self-service’ tools to allow customers manage their accounts of different kinds more conveniently and efficiently, at an acceptable level of reliability; banks gain from this as well in efficiency and cost reduction. Digitization of banking services extends from the long-running ATMs to more advanced information ‘kiosk’ terminals and remote online and mobile banking utilities. However, digital banking is becoming a necessity, not a basis for competitive advantage for banks. If it were all about digital services, customers would find it even easier to look for more friendly and useful financial services from non-banking companies, and their commitment to retail banks could decline further.
Retail banks need the ‘human arm’ to differentiate themselves from external competition and to develop excellence in competition with other banks. It is also essential to regain and foster trust, tighten and strengthen banks’ relationships with their customers. In branches, it will be a question of creating a friendly atmosphere and balancing in a useful way between digital utilities and the assistance and expertise of human personnel.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
1. The Chain of Effects from Brand Trust and Brand Affect to Brand Performance: The Role of Brand Loyalty; Arjun Chaudhuri and Morris B. Holbrook, 2001; Journal of Marketing, 65 (2), pp. 81-93.
2. Customer Relationships: Basic Building Blocks of IDIC and Trust (Ch. 3), Managing Customer Relationships: A Strategic Framework; Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, 2004; John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
3. The Trust Equation: Generating Customer Trust; Charles H. Green; in (2), pp. 72-77.