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The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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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.

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)

Notes:

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.

 

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