Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Interaction’

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)

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The digital transformation of retail banking is clearly apparent by now. The way consumers manage their banking accounts (e.g., deposits, savings, investments) and run their finances keeps changing by relying on digital channels and tools to perform more and more account operations.  Most dramatically in recent years, the organisation, design and function of retail bank branches is going through re-conception and change.

Two fundamental dimensions of this transformation may be detected:

(A) Away from a branch: Account operations are shifted to digital channels of direct banking detached from bank branches. That is, banking operations are performed more frequently without requiring customers to visit a branch (e.g., using an online web-based account-management platform or a mobile app), and furthermore without interacting with human bank representatives (e.g.,  talking by phone with a representative at a bank’s call centre).

(B) At a branch: The physical environment of a bank’s retail branch is transforming by re-allocating space, facilities and human versus digital resources at the branch between banking activities. This means distinguishing between banking activities that are performed in self-service by the customers using digital working-stations or ‘kiosks’, and activities that involve human bank professionals. The transformation is affecting the site of a branch all around, within the branch and areas next to it. A salient implication of this process is the elimination of human tellers within a branch; many of the ordinary account operations will be performed with minimal or no interaction with a bank representative within a branch or in adjacent areas. Interaction with human bank professionals will be mostly reserved to consultation and for purchasing more complicated bank services (e.g., loans) or financial products (e.g., investments).

Obviously those changes are not wholly new — customers are familiar with and use various self-service, direct digital channels, as they add-up, for different lengths of time (e.g., ATMs, enhanced digital information kiosks , websites, mobile apps). The current change is in acceleration and extent of utilisation of digital technologies: the frequency in which customers are using them; the degree of customers’ freedom in choosing between digital and human modes of service for any particular activity; the types of services or products that will be diverted to digital platforms (e.g., certain loans will be arranged without meeting a bank advisor in person, perhaps by video conference); and re-shaping the environment and activity in banks’ branches.

The article explores the digital transformation by reference to the five main banks in Israel. It will especially discuss how banks balance between the human and digital factors in serving their customers. Some additional aspects of the transformation will be explained in the course of this review.

To remove any doubt, it must be emphasised that all five banks are engaged in implementing digital self-service platforms and facilities in serving their customers and offering them financial products (in addition to the now ‘classic’ direct banking by call centres). They differ, however, in how they propose and plan to balance between their digital and human channels and modes of service.

The two leading banks in Israel (Bank HaPoalim [‘workers’] and Bank Leumi [‘national’]) seem to take the transition to digital banking the most seriously and most extensively. These banks compete neck and neck for many years, swapping between them the first and second market positions occasionally, yet both are distinctively greater in scale and market dominance than the three other main banks. Both banks appear to follow more closely on the vision of digital banking transformation conveyed last year by Dr. Hedva Ber, Banking Supervisor at the central Bank of Israel, and her projection of how this ‘digital revolution’ should proceed. Nonetheless, these two banks differ on some issues in their approach to implementing the transformation.

Bank HaPoalim is advancing an initiative to establish digital-reliant branches — five branches already exist, two of them in the Tel-Aviv area. Customers utilise tablets (iPads) or larger screens on table-tops to perform their needed operations in self-service in principle; they may ask, however, for assistance from a bank representative in the branch. There are no visible desks for personal meetings with banking advisors for consultation. The branch in northern Tel-Aviv, for example, is one large open space with long white desks in the centre, a large screen on the wall, and a sitting area with personal ‘working stations’ on the left side of the branch. It has a look resembling an Apple store, elegant and flashy. One cannot find in this space the traditional partitions where customers can sit for more private and intimate consultations with banking professional advisors. This digital branch is built on site of the old-model branch.

This is a rather radical move that may precede too early the formation of mixed branches recommended and applied in other countries as the core model. Indeed most of the bank’s branches (more than 260 in total) are still more traditional; the bank plans to reduce the number of its branches and replace some of those traditional branches with new digital ones. Yet by doing so the bank could miss an important stage of preparing the public for the change.

Bank Leumi is going in a somewhat different direction, encouraging its customers to utilise mostly its direct channels that do not involve coming to one of its branches. At the branches, the bank is in major progress to eliminate all its counters of human tellers; customers are referred to enhanced information kiosks (‘Leumi Digital’) that also allow for some account operations, and to ATM machines. These stations are located in a separate interim lobby area before entering the main hall of the branch, which is dedicated only to personal sittings with banking advisors. The bank is working overall to reduce the number of its branches (currently about 250).

The bank is taking a positive move in the right direction, and yet it is not complete because the bank does not truly mix digital with human service resources in the branch. What Bank Leumi is doing is more of a re-arrangement than genuine re-modelling. Indeed it eliminates the function of human tellers, but it does not integrate the digital and human modes of service in a hybrid model and design.

Many bank branches in the country have three ‘service areas’: (a) A couple of ATMs and digital kiosks outside the branch (i.e., on street front); (b) A few ATMs and digital kiosks in a protected lobby area that customers may enter and use also outside working hours of the branch; (c) A main hall of the branch where customers can receive service or consult more privately with bank representatives and professional advisors. Some branches may have a ground floor for assistance usually with the more basic functions and a second floor for consulting on more complex issues. Bank HaPoalim created a new branch version primarily reliant on advanced digital facilities; Bank Leumi eliminated human service for basic teller functions but keeps the digital facilities outside the branch per se — it does not welcome customers using those stations to enter inside the branch.

However, the intention of a new model being developed for bank branches is to entail a combination of digital and human modes of service working next to each other. In a common hall customers can use one of the digital working stations or sit with an advisor on any specific issue more complex and financially significant. A customer may use the digital station while standing or sitting on a couch, read materials on products and perform operations. He or she may also watch instructive videos on a large screen. It should be a much more convenient and pleasant setting than using the information kiosk machine. A bank representative should be available for guidance and assistance with the digital self-service stations. But when more serious consultation becomes necessary the customer can approach one of the expert advisors sitting in partitioned meeting corners. Digital and human channels are thus in immediate access close to each other.

  • Best examples of layout, design and organisation of the new form of bank branches around the world can be found in the website of The Financial Brand: Branch Design (also see their latest Design Showcase from Fall 2016). Give special notice to the mixture of self-service stations and private zones for consultation with bank experts-advisors within the branch.

Banks may build in addition to mixed primary branches also secondary smaller digital branches (e.g., in shopping malls) to provide a convenient, quiet and pleasant place for customers to work on their bank accounts vis-à-vis using a bank’s app on their smartphones. Being similar to the model of the new “Poalim Digital” branches, they are not supposed to come in place of a cross-mode primary branch. Likewise, offering working stations in a lobby, to be used almost any hour, adjacent to the branch is not supposed to be in place of a self-service digital zone within the branch with a human assistant  (formerly a teller) ready to guide if needed. Bank Leumi should not confuse the two types of self-service by digital means. Moreover, the bank must have a digital zone integrated in the overall design of the branch that will be welcoming, visually pleasant, convenient and friendly.

Two of the smaller main banks (Bank Discount and Bank Benleumi [‘international’]) maintain at large the traditional branch format and offer in parallel a variety of digital channels with their facilities (e.g., information  kiosks) and applications (e.g., website, mobile app). They do not make yet any clear or particular stand on the balance they see fit between the digital and human modes of service. Hence, while they make sure to be up-to-date on the technological front of digital direct banking services, there is no apparent major move beyond that which would reflect a more strategic approach to a desirable human-digital balance.

But then there is Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot that has chosen to take a more distinct approach to the digital-human balance by assigning greater weight to the human factor — more precisely, committing not to sacrifice human interaction in favour of digital channels. The bank may have thus found an important dimension to differentiate its brand from the competing banks.

The bank is aiming to solidify its position as the third largest bank in Israel, climbing one position up by pushing back Bank Discount. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot currently operates about 150 branches, and contrary to the leading banks it plans to increase this number towards 200 branches. In September 2016 the bank launched an advertising campaign, emphasising human touch, with a tagline (translated from Hebrew):

  • “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity.”

It purports to persuade prospect banking customers (as well as its own current customers), who still seek and prefer human interaction, that at this bank customers will continue to be able to find a human representative to talk to. Billboard ad posters, displayed until recently, proposed that the bank will cater to consumers’ concerns as they complain to their banks as follows (exemplar statements translated from Hebrew):

  • “Is it no longer possible to talk with a human in this bank?”
  • “Enough with apps, give me a human” [to talk to] — the ad “answers” that if you want to talk to a human, call a specific number.
  • “You closed the branch on [X] street. Is only the ATM left now? What is happening with you?” (the original Hebrew phrase plays on dual meaning in using the word ‘closed’)

The bank implicitly commits to maintain human reference for customers on banking issues that matter more or less. Indeed the bank does not fall behind in offering a variety of digital facilities, applications and tools for customers to manage their accounts. Yet the bank steps forward to assure customers that addressing a human representative at the bank will not be sacrificed in favour of the digital direct channels. For instance, the bank offers customers the possibility to talk by phone not only with a human representative at the call centre but also with one’s personal banker (account manager) or advisor at the branch where the account is held, reached through a direct (seamless) phone extension.

Without undermining their commitment for human reference, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may still modify the way it delivers certain services (e.g., teller-type) with human assistance at a branch. A new model may involve a zone equipped with digital self-service stations but supported with stronger human presence or qualifications of bank assistants for customers than what may be offered in other banks. The human resources dedicated to fulfill these positions and the tasks assigned to them should be planned anew.

Of course promises have to be tested in the reality of customer service at the bank. The bank has to prove it can deliver on its commitment to make human representatives available to customers when necessary. A critical reason banking customers turn to direct digital channels is being dissatisfied with either the long time customers feel they have to wait to reach a human representative or the level of assistance they get (e.g., professional, efficient, courteous). Nevertheless, there always remain the more complex and significant issues in which customers may need more serious consultation and human guidance in making a decision and completing a procedure (and sometimes being able to negotiate terms), help they cannot receive adequately through a self-service digital channel. Trust in customer-bank relationships is also dependent on that.

With regard to the advertising campaign of Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, an imminent question arises: Is the message delivered in this campaign backed by a more profound vision and strategic plan? In other words, one would want to know that the campaign stands on solid ground and is not only a marketing communication idea hanging-in-the-air. A second part of this article, soon to come, will address this question, and will also examine what strategic position and attitude take the other four banks on balancing between digital and human resources and modes of service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Read Full Post »

Touch-screens are becoming the norm of display and interaction on mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets — devices with screen sizes in the range of 4” to 10”. Maximal area of the device’s face is dedicated to the screen, leaving a thin surrounding frame with enough space primarily for the physical ‘On’ button (e.g., awakening the screen, returning to the ‘Home’ display). Most controls for operating a smartphone or tablet and their applications are now virtual, represented as visual icons, symbols and keystrokes on the screen. Users can interact with the device (even for dialing a phone number) by pointing, swiping and similar hand (finger) gestures applied to the screen’s display. It all sounds and feels great, and mostly functions alright, but not all is bright — there is still much room for improvement and better fine-tuning.

The focal devices of this article are smartphones with screens normally between 4” and 5.4” and tablets that carry mostly screens in size of 7” to 10” (extra-size smartphones, also-known-as ‘phablets’, embody a screen larger than 5.4”). They essentially enlarge the real-estate of the screen by doing away with physical controls on the device (buttons and keypads). Operation of the device and interaction with its applications is delegated almost wholly to the touch of virtual controls and other finger-gestures.

This new form of handheld computer-type devices provides a highly advanced class of viewing verbal and pictorial content and interacting with them through manual gestures. Touch-screens were available already in the turn of the century with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The touch-screens of smartphones and tablets are yet empowered in several important aspects: (1) they can be operated with the touch of fingers without need for a pen or stylus; (2) the screens are larger; and (3) the images are in much higher quality. The differences do not end here, if only to mention the communication abilities of the more recent mobile devices. Smartphones in particular can be said to converge a phone and a PDA in a single device, but with some additional capabilities that neither mobile phones nor PDAs have had in earlier times.

The first critical problem to address with touch-screen mobile devices concerns writing. A user is likely to encounter difficulties frequently when writing text with a virtual keyboard — it is rather easy to miss target character keystrokes. The difficulty is not simply in typing text but in getting the words spelled correctly, and overall avoiding character typing errors. The difficulty to produce a text without errors is likely to turn out more acute and agitating with smartphones and the smaller tablets (i.e., 7-8”). It may also cause users to leave spaces in the wrong places, and inversely to concatenate words. Correcting errors can be furthermore annoying when the user cannot find the direction arrows or point his or her finger to stand at the right position of correction; going backspace is not useful if one already moved to another line when the earlier error is noticed or any other correction of text is demanded.

Mobile devices foster writing correspondence texts (e.g., e-mails, chatting, social media updates and comments) even faster than with other modes, specially when users are in motion.  People tend to write correspondence as such more quickly and haphazardly, taking less care to avoid mistakes, and textproofing before sending is usually not in high priority or time-affordable. The result is that producing a well-thought and error-free text message on a touch-screen with a virtual keyboard may be an irritating mission (e.g., either abort message or send it with some errors).

  • Writing alphanumeric text with a 12-key physical pad is hardly convenient, and is usually time-consuming. In that sense QWERTY-type keyboards, physical or virtual, are better. There is yet an important difference to notice: The keys on a physical keyboard (e.g.,  Nokia E5 that followed on the original Blackberry phones) can be quite small but they feel like separated bumpers (i.e., giving the user a tactile feedback where the finger rests) whereas a virtual keyboard is completely flat and smooth. The cost of the physical keyboard is of course the smaller screen.

Mistyping is mostly associated with failure to accurately ‘hit’ the intended character keystroke with one’s index finger, and often enough with the thumb (e.g., when in motion and only one hand is free to hold the device and write). That is because virtual character keys tend to be too small for our fingers used for texting (less so on 10” tablet screens). The kind of errors that may result are typing the wrong character, typing the same character inadvertently twice, or  not typing the designated character. Apparently, failing to execute selected actions also occurs with images, such as when having to press virtual buttons or activating icon and text hyperlinks. These controls could be related to the device and its utilities or embedded in websites and imported apps. These issues are well-explained by Steven Hoober in an article in UXMatters (“Common Misconceptions About Touch”, 18 March 2013). Hoober makes an important distinction between seeing clearly text and icon targets and touching them effectively, and he recommends target sizes for them (in measures of points and millimeters).

Hoober refers to an additional sensitive and critical consideration in preventing users from taking accidentally the wrong action: he calls this ‘preventing interference errors’. He clearly suggests to avoid placing controls for actions with opposite consequences too near each other lest trying to touch-press one control could result in adversely activating the other unwanted control. This applies especially to actions associated with catastrophic results or outcomes that are difficult to undo. For instance, he recommends separating sufficiently the locations of controls for Send and Delete actions (Hoober recommends a distance of at least 8mms and preferably 10mms between centres of the controls [the target point of finger contact]).

Touch-screen devices benefit indeed from a larger screen real-estate for image display. But there is nonetheless competition on that real-estate for the content of display, and competition can be quite tough especially on devices with screens smaller than 7” in size. The competition is prominently between images of controls and the content of device utilities, webpages and apps. It applies primarily to the interface of a virtual keyboard that requires a relatively large space (in some cases up to 50% of screen area). However, there could be other controls needed for operating the device and specific utilities, websites or apps (e.g., designers may have to give up on some pictorial imagery in order to allow enough space for action controls like “Add to Basket”).

Focusing on the virtual keyboard: when called-upon to write, it pops-up and hides  other content of the display (e.g., e-mail message, shopping webpage) in the lower part of the screen. It may hide content that the user actually needs to see while proceeding in composing a message or responding to content in a website. The smaller the screen, on one hand a larger part of the underlying display is hidden, on the other hand the keystrokes have to be smaller. Unlike with a physical keyboard, the virtual one can at least be dropped out when not in use and called again when needed for writing. But it can be disturbing if every few moments one has to drop out the keyboard and surface it again to resume writing. With larger screens there should still be enough space for text in the e-mail message editor that one can scroll; with screens 7” or less one may be able to see only up to four lines at a time and even that in small type difficult to read (changing zoom may help but also cause trouble — more below).

Virtual keyboards on mobile devices are split into two or three displays due to space limitations (e.g., Latin letters as for English or German [but with some order variations], numeric figures and symbols, and an extra keyboard for non-Latin alphabets as Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic). But in any particular set of keyboard display, some character keys or controls may have to be forsaken for space limitations. As suggested above, it is most annoying when the direction arrows are eliminated (e.g., on a Samsung 7” tablet) because it makes it more difficult to go back and forth across a text while composing and editing it.

Relying on gestures can save space for screen real-estate and help in making interactions fluid and efficient, but working with a touch-screen has limitations. Raluca Budiu of Nielsen & Norman Group (user experience research and usability experts, 19 April 2015) lists some of the main problems that may arise for users: (1) The leading problem concerns typing, and particularly the need to continuously divide attention between the content written and the keypad area; (2) Poor tactile feedback, small keypads and crowded keys make the typing experience more troublesome; (3) The target size of controls or keys has to be considerably larger with touch interface to optimize reaching time and minimise errors compared with a mouse; (4) Since there can be many target areas on a touch-screen (especially of smartphones), it is easy to make accidental touch errors (see Hoober’s ‘interference error’) — some errors can “leave the user disoriented and unsure of what happened”. Budiu notes that respecting the Undo usability heuristic is furthermore important with mobile devices.

References to those main problems could be found in the earlier paragraphs of this article. Two more issues are addressed below:

Scrolling over a touch-screen — Mobile devices do not apply a scrolling bar — the user can scroll by swiping the index finger in a swoosh movement up or down over the touch-screen. The smaller the screen, and if one is in a landscape mode, more scrolling may be needed (shifting left and right is also possible). Trouble may start when the window display is populated by ‘clickable’ tiles or pictures: if the user does not swipe the finger quickly and lightly enough over the image, he or she may activate the underlying link rather than scroll across the window. When that happens, the user may arrive to a different window display, and one has to find the way back. More disturbing, when the content is online and connectivity can be slow on occasion, the user may remain stuck for a long time before being able to return to the desired location of content and resume work.

Zooming and automatic change of size —  Since type on touch-screens of mobile devices can be small and uneasy to read, one can zoom-in to enlarge the display appearance and the text in it. This is usually done by swiping the index and thumb fingers away from each other over the screen (conversely, one can zoom-out to reduce size but see more content by bringing the fingers closer together). But caution: one has to be accurate, and this does not always work so well. One may accidentally “blow” a picture image over the whole screen, for instance. When writing an e-mail message zooming can be helpful as one toggles between writing and reading the composed text. Yet, these devices are smart and sometimes they try to adjust the size for you according to the identified mode of use; sometimes it is appropriate but on occasion it causes trouble and nuisance. In more drastic cases, whilst trying to enlarge the type on a webpage, the system may lock in a loop and continue zooming-in until the user can see nothing coherent and has to start over again.

  • Note that the scrolling and size problems were encountered much more frequently on a Samsung tablet, either 7” or 10”, than on an Apple’s 10” iPad .

People may discover at times that although they were sure they could see exactly where their hand should reach and act, it somehow missed the target. That may happen because perception augmented by cognitive conception and processes of location and action are not the same in the human brain. These processes are connected (i.e., they share and pass information between them) but are nonetheless distinct. Visual information flows and is processed in two pathways: (a) perceptual but non-conceptual information is passed through the ventral stream to the temporal lobe where percepts are interpreted into meaningful images of scenes and objects; (b) visuospatial (location) and visuomotor (action) signals are transferred through the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe to guide, for instance, our manual movements. The ventral-temporal (semantic) visual system allows to identify a target for action yet the dorsal-parietal (pragmatic) visual system is responsible in parallel for determining where the target is and how to act upon it. Furthermore, action requires only a subset of information from percepts, including size, shape and orientation of a target object to complete a task, much less than what we perceive and even recognize as seeing. The conceptual identity of the target is mostly not required.

Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), distinguishing between Semantic and Pragmatic vision as cited above, argue that pragmatic vision processed in the parietal lobe is more complex and multi-layered than has been theorised and described in literature on vision. Humans may believe they act on whatever they perceive (as an image) but in fact they usually act on the nonconscious signals that arrive directly to the parietal lobe. Recognising and identifying clearly the target and understanding what to do with it are therefore not enough — the target should be designed in a form that permits (affords) the visuomotor system to perform the action correctly and efficiently. The semantic and pragmatic processes occur simultaneously. In some instances the semantic system may assist the pragmatic system but usually deliberate intervention is not needed. A user should not have to tilt the tablet, for example, while trying to accurately and slowly direct his finger to touch the small backward or forward arrows of the browser on the touch-screen. This is an example of an effortful action users should not be driven to.

Using mobile devices with touch-screens has advantages and can be a gratifying experience. But there is also a lot that can be done to improve that experience, moreover if the aspiration is that consumers will use these devices much more frequently for performing more tasks, and especially that they will use tablets more than desktop and laptop computers in the future. Although the touch-screen mobile devices promote to use fingers, they should support the use of a pen or stylus and perhaps even encourage it with smaller screen devices (for typing and not just for drawing). It is also helpful to enlarge the images of keystrokes, icons and symbols as one approaches to touch any of these controls. These are just hints and there are probably many more ways interaction designers can create to improve mobile users’ experiences, making them more effective and enjoyable.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition; Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod, 2003; Oxford University Press.

Additional recommended reading:

Mobile Computing; Jesper Kjeldskov; In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition, Chapter 9); Interaction Design Foundation.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Human thinking processes are rich and variable, whether in search, problem solving, learning, perceiving and recognizing stimuli, or decision-making. But people are subject to limitations on the complexity of their computations and especially the capacity of their ‘working’ (short-term) memory. As consumers, they frequently need to struggle with large amounts of information on numerous brands, products or services with varying characteristics, available from a variety of retailers and e-tailers, stretching the consumers’ cognitive abilities and patience. Wait no longer, a new class of increasingly intelligent decision aids is being put forward to consumers by the evolving field of Cognitive Computing. Computer-based ‘smart agents’ will get smarter, yet most importantly, they would be more human-like in their thinking.

Cognitive computing is set to upgrade human decision-making, consumers’ in particular. Following IBM, a leader in this field, cognitive computing is built on methods of Artificial Intelligence (AI) yet intends to take this field a leap forward by making it “feel” less artificial and more similar to human cognition. That is, a human-computer interaction will feel more natural and fluent if the thinking processes of the computer resemble more closely those of its human users (e.g., manager, service representative, consumer). Dr. John E. Kelly, SVP at IBM Research, provides the following definition in his white paper introducing the topic (“Computer, Cognition, and the Future of Knowing”): “Cognitive computing refers to systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and interact with humans. Rather than been explicitly programmed, they learn and reason from interactions with us and from their experiences with their environment.” The paper seeks to rebuke claims of any intention behind cognitive computing to replace human thinking and decisions. The motivation, as suggested by Kelly, is to augment human ability to understand and act upon the complex systems of our society.

Understanding natural language has been for a long time a human cognitive competence that computers could not imitate. However, comprehension of natural language, in text or speech, is now considered one of the important abilities of cognitive computing systems. Another important ability concerns the recognition of visual images and objects embedded in them (e.g., face recognition receives particular attention). Furthermore, cognitive computing systems are able to process and analyse unstructured data which constitutes 80% of the world’s data, according to IBM. They can extract contextual meaning so as to make sense of the unstructured data (verbal and visual). This is a marked difference between the new computers’ cognitive systems and traditional information systems.

  • The Cognitive Computing Forum, which organises conferences in this area, lists a dozen characteristics integral to those systems. In addition to (a) natural language processing; and (b) vision-based sensing and image recognition, they are likely to include machine learning, neural networks, algorithms that learn and adapt, semantic understanding, reasoning and decision automation, sophisticated pattern recognition, and more (note that there is an overlap between some of the methodologies on this list). They also need to exhibit common sense.

The power of cognitive computing is derived from its combination between cognitive processes attributed to the human brain (e.g., learning, reasoning) and the enhanced computation (complexity, speed) and memory capabilities of advanced computer technologies. In terms of intelligence, it is acknowledged that cognitive processes of the human brain are superior to computers inasmuch as could be achieved through conventional programming. Yet, the actual performance of human cognition (‘rationality’) is bounded by memory and computation limitations. Hence, we can employ cognitive computing systems that are capable of handling much larger amounts of information than humans can, while using cognitive (‘neural’) processes similar to humans’. Kelly posits in IBM’s paper: “The true potential of the Cognitive Era will be realized by combining the data analytics and statistical reasoning of machines with uniquely human qualities, such as self-directed goals, common sense and ethical values.”  It is not sufficiently understood yet how cognitive processes physically occur in the human central nervous system. But, it is argued, there is growing knowledge and understanding of their operation or neural function to be sufficient for emulating at least some of them by computers. (This argument refers to the concept of different levels of analysis that may and should prevail simultaneously.)

The distinguished scholar Herbert A. Simon studied thinking processes from the perspective of information processing theory, which he championed. In the research he and his colleagues conducted, he traced and described in a formalised manner strategies and rules that people utilise to perform different cognitive tasks, especially solving problems (e.g., his comprehensive work with Allen Newell on Human Problem Solving, 1972). In his theory, any strategy or rule specified — from more elaborate optimizing algorithms to short-cut rules (heuristics) — is composed of elementary information processes (e.g., add, subtract, compare, substitute). On the other hand, strategies may be joined in higher-level compound information processes. Strategy specifications were subsequently translated into computer programmes for simulation and testing.

The main objective of Simon was to gain better understanding of human thinking and the cognitive processes involved therein. He proclaimed that computer thinking is programmed in order to simulate human thinking, as part of an investigation aimed at understanding the latter (1). Thus, Simon did not explicitly aim to overcome the limitations of the human brain but rather simulate how the brain may work-out around those limitations to perform various tasks. His approach, followed by other researchers, was based on recording how people perform given tasks, and testing for efficacy of the process models through computer simulations. This course of research is different from the goals of novel cognitive computing.

  • We may identify multiple levels in research on cognition: an information processing level (‘mental’), a neural-functional level, and a neurophysiological level (i.e., how elements of thought emerge and take form in the brain). Moreover, researchers aim to obtain a comprehensive picture of brain structures and areas responsible for sensory, cognitive, emotional and motor phenomena, and how they inter-relate. Progress is made by incorporating methods and approaches of the neurosciences side-by-side with those of cognitive psychology and experimental psychology to establish coherent and valid links between those levels.

Simon created explicit programmes of the steps required to solve particular types of problems, though he aimed at developing also more generalised programmes that would be able to handle broader categories of problems (e.g., the General Problem Solver embodying the Means-End heuristic) and other cognitive tasks (e.g., pattern detection, rule induction) that may also be applied in problem solving. Yet, cognitive computing seeks to reach beyond explicit programming and construct guidelines for far more generalised processes that can learn and adapt to data, and handle broader families of tasks and contexts. If necessary, computers would generate their own instructions or rules for performing a task. In problem solving, computers are taught not merely how to solve a problem but how to look for a solution.

While cognitive computing can employ greater memory and computation resources than naturally available to humans, it is not truly attempted to create a fully rational system. The computer cognitive system should retain some properties of bounded rationality if only to maintain resemblance to the original human cognitive system. First, forming and selecting heuristics is an integral property of human intelligence. Second, cognitive computing systems try to exhibit common sense, which may not be entirely rational (i.e., based on good instincts and experience), and introduce effects of emotions and ethical or moral values that may alter or interfere with rational cognitive processes. Third, cognitive computing systems are allowed to err:

  • As Kelly explains in IBM’s paper, cognitive systems are probabilistic, meaning that they have the power to adapt and interpret the complexity and unpredictability of unstructured data, yet they do not “know” the answer and therefore may make mistakes in assigning the correct meaning to data and queries (e.g., IBM’s Watson misjudged a clue in the quiz game Jeopardy against two human contestants — nonetheless “he” won the competition). To reflect this characteristic, “the cognitive system assigns a confidence level to each potential insight or answer”.

Applications of cognitive computing are gradually growing in number (e.g., experimental projects with the cooperation and support of IBM on Watson). They may not be targeted directly for use by consumers at this stage, but consumers are seen as the end-beneficiaries. The users could first be professionals and service agents who help consumers in different areas. For example, applied systems in development and trial would:

  1. help medical doctors in identifying (cancer) diagnoses and advising their patients on treatment options (it is projected that such a system will “take part” in doctor-patient consultations);
  2. perform sophisticated analyses of financial markets and their instruments in real-time to guide financial advisers with investment recommendations to their clients;
  3. assist account managers or service representatives to locate and extract relevant information from a company’s knowledge base to advise a customer in a short time (CRM/customer support).

The health-advisory platform WellCafé by Welltok provides an example of application aimed at consumers: The platform guides consumers on healthy behaviours recommended for them whereby the new assistant Concierge lets them converse in natural language to get help on resources and programmes personally relevant to them as well as various health-related topics (e.g., dining options). (2)

Consider domains such as cars, tourism (vacation resorts), or real-estate (second-hand apartments and houses). Consumers may encounter tremendous information in these domains on numerous options and many attributes to consider (for cars there may also be technical detail more difficult to digest). A cognitive system has to help the consumer in studying the market environment (e.g., organising the information from sources such as company websites and professional and peer reviews [social media], detecting patterns in structured and unstructured data, screening and sorting) and learning vis-à-vis the consumer’s preferences and habits in order to prioritize and construct personally fitting recommendations. Additionally, it is noteworthy that in any of these domains visual information (e.g., photographs) could be most relevant and valuable to consumers in their decision process — visual appeal of car models, mountain or seaside holiday resorts, and apartments cannot be discarded. Cognitive computing assistants may raise very high consumer expectations.

Cognitive computing aims to mimic human cognitive processes that would be performed by intelligent computers with enhanced resources on behalf of humans. The application of capabilities of such a system would facilitate consumers or the professionals and agents that help them with decisions and other tasks — saving them time and effort (sometimes frustration), providing them well-organised information with customised recommendations for action that users would feel they  have reached themselves. Time and experience will tell how comfortably people interact and engage with the human-like intelligent assistants and how productive they indeed find them, using the cognitive assistant as the most natural thing to do.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

1.  “Thinking by Computers”, Herbert A. Simon, 1966/2008, reprinted in Economics, Bounded Rationality and the Cognitive Revolution, Massimo Egidi and Robin Marris (eds.)[pp. 55-75], Edward Elgar.

2. The examples given above are described in IBM’s white paper by Kelly and in: “Cognitive Computing: Real-World Applications for an Emerging Technology”, Judit Lamont (Ph.D.), 1 Sept. 2015, KMWorld.com

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

The EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milano, that is coming to a close at the end of October, has concentrated on the future of agriculture and food on our planet. The urgency of these topics is elevated by adverse conditions of climate change (warming) and shortage in water, predicted to worsen further. The EXPO is generally a prime opportunity for countries to promote their nation-brands. This time countries were invited to showcase their advanced scientific and technological capabilities by offering programmes and solutions to overcome environmental and economic challenges of agriculture and food provision.

The supermarket retailer Coop of Italy has yet taken a different direction, within the realm of its business specialisation: Coop Italia proposes at EXPO 2015 its vision of how shopping will be conducted in future supermarkets. They have put on stage a functioning model of a supermarket store (Future Food District / il supermercato del futuro) where detailed product information is displayed on large digital screens and check-out and payment are performed on computer-automated terminals. Almost obviously, such a supermarket will require even fewer human service personnel than met today in the store.

  • Coop Italia covers online (in Italian) a range of aspects such as food retailing, shopping, technology, and the future of food itself.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (3)

It should be emphasised that the experimental supermarket of Coop at EXPO Milano is not just for demonstration but visitors of the site can practically collect food products into their shopping baskets and purchase them at the end of their trip. In the store’s front and on the upper level a visitor/shopper may find fresh produce and packaged food products displayed on shelves. From there he or she may descend to the lower level to find mostly refrigerated and frozen products. If products were actually selected from the display area, the shopper may go to the self-service scan-and-pay terminals and finalise the purchase (payment can be made by credit and debit cards or in cash).

The prospective format offers, according to Coop Italia, new interactions between consumers, products and producers. Mainly, consumers can observe and read from digital display screens much more information on products and their producers than has been traditionally possible in supermarkets. The screens are hanging usually above shelf cabinets or refrigerators at about head level. When the shopperCoop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (4) points to a particular product’s title and image on the nearest screen, a variety of details in text and graphics, and a larger pictorial image of the product, will appear on screen. Besides the essentials of product name, size measures and price, additional information may be presented on product components and nutritional values (e.g., calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fibres), and on its source (e.g., producer company and country of origin). This facility should save shoppers the effort of tearing their eyes while reading small print on product packages, where packaging is relevant at all. The information is also displayed in a more friendly and comprehensible form (e.g., using understandable terms, illustrated visually in graphic charts). These enhancements of the future shopping experience are much about advanced display technology and data visualization.

Occasionally the visitor/shopper may also see some sales statistics and more background on growing and production of the product of interest with emphasis on nutritional and health implications. Coop Italia suggests that presenting more of these kinds of information will give better direction to consumers on preferred or recommended food products in future times (e.g., given new constraints on food provision). Thus Coop connects to the general issue of the future of food at the focus of EXPO 2015.

Coop Italia: Future Food District at EXPO 2015 (1)

Being on site, the space of the supermarket looked elegant and modern. The large black screens hanging over, positioned in an angle as “\”, definitely signalled a change in the visual scene of the store. It was the first cue to be noticed as to how the future supermarket could be different. The screens were easily discernible but their arrangement was not in any way disturbing to the eye — one could quickly get used to them. Activating the display and viewing information for any chosen product was intriguing and to some extent even entertaining. On one hand it felt like “playing” while shopping, on the other hand it increased interest in products considered, if only for curiosity and not for purchase. The information presented was usually helpful and of practical value for decision-making. Overall, the future supermarket model appeared to enrich the shopping experience.

There were some impediments, however, in practice. Making the screen to display information related to a desired product was not always smooth and easy. It was not clear, for instance, if one should raise a chosen product item up to the screen above or just point towards the image of the relevant product (visitors could be seen trying both). Whatever sensors were supposed to identify the gesture of the shopper’s hand or the product itself, they occasionally were not satisfactorily responsive. Most screens were located on-top so that shoppers could not touch them, and therefore the question was: How do I cause the system to recognize my choice of product. But perhaps it was also a matter of some more training by the shopper to get it right (gamers should have better success with such a system).

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Screens on-top and as panels on the door-side of refrigerators

Additionally, sometimes it felt the information displayed changed too quickly, not giving enough time to review parts of the data provided. Information on each product was usually screened in two or three “shots” (i.e., display of first portion of product information replaced by display of the next portion). Since the shopper has no control of the duration of display, it could be sometimes irritating when, as a shopper, I could not review a data figure of interest in time. But one should remember that usually a shopper is not alone and the same screen may have to serve multiple customers within a few minutes, so a single shopper may be allowed just a brief time to inspect the most needed information. The stress on shoppers might be felt particularly during peak hours of shopping.  Hence, shoppers may benefit from the convenience of viewing information on large screens, but when necessary they should be able to toggle to the private screens on their mobile devices to continue their review of product information.

  • It is noted that Coop Italia provides QR codes for products that shoppers can scan and access the product information on their own devices (and possibly conduct the purchase online).

Regardless of the technology employed, the Coop deserves congratulating for their visually appealing layout and arrangement of product display, and its orderliness and cleanliness. It was evident that great care was invested in setting-up and housekeeping the supermarket. Since this is indeed an experimental stage for the future supermarket, it is reasonable and expected  that work to improve the performance and usability of the technology installed will continue. When it arrives, the younger generations will most likely be prepared for this concept. In summary, the shopping experience ‘nel supermercato del futuro’ was positive and encouraging.

 


How is Coop Italia perceived following its initiative? Naturally, the Coop would expect its Future Food District initiative to have a positive effect on the company’s image. Feedback they received from consumers following their visit of the future supermarket included (most frequent responses, cited from video clip):

  • The Coop demonstrates that it is modern and up-to-date (48%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it has at heart the future of the planet and its inhabitants (29%)
  • The Coop demonstrates that it keeps in line with the new requirements of consumers (27%)
  • The Coop anticipates the future (19%)
  • The Coop is looking to generate curiosity and interest (13%)

But 16.5% also indicated that the Coop has gone too much ahead of its time, that consumers are not ready yet for all this technology, and 15% argued that the Coop may risk distancing those who are not familiar with the technology. Hence, the technological advances may be welcome, yet it could be too early to implement at this time.

 


The EXPO exhibition in Milano this year was enormous in scope and fascinating; it was well-organised and instructive. All countries presented products and other artefacts, images and models standing for some of their national and cultural assets and symbols,   emphasising, as much as possible for each country, environmental considerations and priorities. The differences in scale between exhibits of countries, however, were striking. There was also large diversity in level of sophistication of presentation, in the technologies used and other display aids applied. In particular, some countries focused more on high-tech techniques while others relied mainly on low-tech features.

Country exhibits hosted in shared-pavilions by theme (e.g., Cacao and chocolate, coffee, rice, bio-Mediterranean, arid zone) were modest; those countries also related  moderately to projects or developments to resolve agricultural and food challenges. But even among smaller exhibits it is unfair to talk of homogeneity because some countries were enlightening exceptions who managed to put up impressive and interesting exhibits.

Countries exhibiting in their own pavilions blended more expansively between their traditional assets and their programmes and technological solutions dedicated specifically to the challenges of future agriculture and food. It must be noted that some pavilions were impressive in their architecture per se. But the country pavilions also proved that size is not everything — diversity in level of effort invested, ingenuity and richness was discernible among those pavilion exhibitions. Furthermore, it also did not seem that variation in quality, originality and interest of exhibits was accounted for merely by differences in economic power or resources.

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

Israel Pavilion at EXPO 2015: A Vertical Field

 

Read Full Post »

For over fifteen years companies are gradually shifting from providing customer service by live person-to-person channels to computer-based, automated and self-service modes. In the past three years the momentum seems to have even increased to replace bilateral human interactions with human-computer interactions — human on the customer’s side, computer on the company’s side. The trend is evident in a variety of sectors, including manufacturers and dealers providing maintenance and repair of goods, inherently service providers (e.g., mobile and Internet telecom, health, insurance, tourism), and retailers. The servicescape is definitely changing, and the repercussions are still unfolding (e.g., customer adaptation, social-related, customer-company relationships).

We can identify several stages a company may go through in reducing its direct human interaction with customers — transitioning from face-to-face to phone touchpoints, then to self-service on the Internet and by mobile applications. In-between companies have applied methods such as IVR on the phone and Web-based live chats with human customer service representatives (CSR). But the latest technological advance in computer-based self-service entails a potentially more extensive substitution of intelligent virtual agents for human service agents. It means that a larger variety of issues handled thus far via phone conversations and live chats on the Internet would be resolved by chats, at different levels of sophistication, with virtual agents.

Certainly a customer would not want to rush out to a physical branch of the serving company for resolving every problem with a product or service when it can be settled by a phone call to the company’s call centre. Some enquiries and technical issues can furthermore be resolved by means of e-mail or Web-based interfaces and resources without talking to anyone — many customers prefer nowadays to make a phone call to a company only after they have exhausted their options to solve their problem by means of self-service. There are clear advantages (e.g., convenience, control, independence) in using the computer-based modes of service. However, in cases where problems cannot be resolved effectively by self-service, and reaching a live representative of the company is made harder, it may engulf a wider gap between the company and its customer, possibly inducing frustration and anger. It may be even worse for consumers who are less computer-orientated and have difficulties using those online tools (e.g., tasks that may seem obvious or easy-to-do to Millennials [Generation Y], and to a large extent to Generation X consumers, are less likely to be so for earlier generations born before 1960).

Companies have a strong incentive of cost reduction to reduce or limit forms of human personal service  — various estimates suggest that the cost of interaction may fall from $10-12 when face-to-face to $5-6 by phone to less than a dollar by e-mail, online live chats or social media, and even less in human-computer interactions that do not involve a human on the company’s side. The face-to-face channel seems to fare the worst. Some companies eliminate branches for meeting with customers, reduce their accessibility or span of services provided face-to-face, and generally de-motivate customers to come and see their representatives for service.

  • A few examples: (a) A mobile telecom company that receives customers at its service centre only for acquiring new phones or leaving a phone for repair at the lab but not for issues related to changing a service package or billing; (b) An airline that prefers customers to arrange and order flights by phone and better on the Internet, and de-motivates them to come and make their travel arrangements face-to-face; (c) A ticket agency (e.g., live concerts) whose office is unaccessible, relying only on phone and online contacts.

While consumers are more willing to utilise computer-based self-service tools and resources, and are doing so more frequently, this does not mean they are ready to give up access to a person from the company. That is a wrong interpretation by certain companies who make it more difficult for customers to access their representatives, by phone or face-to-face. The last thing a company should do is to let its customers feel that it is not interested in hearing or seeing them in person. Consumers should have the privilege to choose how to receive their service. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope whereby a company may distance itself too far apart from its customers.

  • There are a number of cases where acquisition and service are intermingled. For instance, when (a) consultation is required prior to a purchase decision; (b) the buyer is a repeated customer; and (c) a purchase transaction is made online for a product or service consumed or experienced in the real physical world.

Intelligent virtual agents (IVA) may operate in several forms with regard to their level of exchange with users. They all rely on advanced methods of artificial intelligence and abilities to interpret natural language, and they may also utilise knowledge gained through Big Data analytics (e.g., of previous customer enquiries) to improve their quality of response (e.g., Watson by IBM, Siri by Apple, Optus by IntelliResponse). In one form, that may be described as less dynamic, a user poses a question in his or her own words, to which the IVA replies with the most accurate answer it could find from existing content in the company’s knowledge base (e.g., product profiles, service procedures, bill structure). The information, provided in text, is standard for any similar question on the same topic. The agent may assume the still image of a real person with a first name. A more sophisticated form of chatbot is an animated figure that behaves more like a live agent and can actually speak. The content may not differ from that given by the agent described formerly but it gives a more realistic “lively” feeling of speaking with another human being.

The advantages of this new breed of IVA are not to be underestimated. The IVA can save customers considerable time that is often needed in reviewing multiple results for a search query, referring the user to various pages from a company’s knowledge base. The IVA is also more flexible and efficient than the anachronistic method of pre-edited FAQ. The IVA can construct a relevant answer ad-hoc on a much larger variety of issues than a typical FAQ and it is much faster and more accurate in providing the correct relevant answer than a user searching the company’s resources. Yet, a virtual agent’s answers are based only on information that is pre-existent in the digital library of the company — if a customer asks for more details on a topic that are not available in advance, the agent may revert to repeat itself (links to related or additional details may be enclosed in an answer, thus excusing the user from posing the next question). The virtual agent also seems to provide standard answers not related to a specific personal problem described by the customer (e.g., particular monetary figures in the customer’s recent bill). For that purpose, the virtual agent should promptly escalate the call to a live CSR; the question remains, how readily IVAs are configured and able to do so.

Hence, IVAs at least at this stage may be able to promise consistency of relevant answers but not real ingenuity. Other aspects that also remain debatable are, for example, the ability of IVAs to identify the correct context of questions posed in natural language and their sensitivity to the mood of customers as a chat proceeds. These capabilities call upon a combination of experience and intuition that human representatives should still have the advantage in exercising over intelligent virtual agents.

In a main feature article in Fortune magazine (August 2015), Geoff Colvin discusses the impact that 21st century’s technological changes, particularly advance of automated computer and robotic systems, have on members of society, whether as employees or as consumers (1). He is critical of a spiral of underrating humans versus computers which may lead further to degrading human touch. In response, Colvin proposes areas of activities that humans should insist on continuing to perform, no matter the abilities of computers: remain in charge (e.g., be accountable to others, making judicial decisions); work together to set collective goals; sustain an advantage in satisfying deep interpersonal needs (e.g., in doctor-patient relations).

Colvin refers to a study by a research firm where employers were asked about the skills they expect to seek in five to ten years. We may predict those would be mainly analytic, business and financial-related (e.g., note warnings of a shortage in decision scientists). Yet, according to the study cited the future skills more demanded by employers include relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity, and ability to manage diverse employees. These stated priorities are partly at odds with employers’ own inclination to be more reliant on computer systems for service and allowing less leeway to customer-facing employees to act on their own judgements. Social interaction and empathy are expected to be in high demand in the 21st century. However, social interaction may regress when people become increasingly occupied with their smartphones and invest more in interacting with others through social media networks; and empathy, as Colvin shows, appears to be actually in decline among college students since 1990. Colvin concludes in suggesting that people should take the challenge by computers as an opportunity and work harder on their social skills and value as humans.

Forrester Research issued recently a brief report on the changed characteristics of young contact centre agents from the Millennial generation and how to accommodate them in the workplace (2). It is a new breed of (live) agents who are well-seasoned users of computer devices and computer-based tools and applications, an experience that shapes their approach to digital technology in leisure as well as at work. They have their own “philosophy”: any information they may need is stored in some repository these days (online or offline) and their skills should be directed to finding it. There is therefore no need for them to memorise facts and procedures. At work, they seem reluctant to learn details of products and services the way workers of previous cohorts have done. They prefer to learn where to find the information, being free of memorising details of product support. That clearly poses a challenge to professionals who develop the applications that agents should use for delivering computer-assisted service. Forrester proposes going towards the new agents with tools that reenforce their information search and navigation capabilities  (e.g., improved knowledge management, context-wise tools). Additionally, it is advisable to provide them hardware such as touch screens which they are so familiar with and comfortable operating (e.g,, as on their smartphones), and compatible graphic interface.

The focus on new information skills is welcome and in due time, and companies are most justified to enhance them in the young service agents. But Millennials, and others  in the same mind, should realise that their approach could be self-defeating. In order to excel at work, such as delivering an exceptional customer service, one should utilise in the best way his or her rich declarative knowledge in a domain and the practical experience one accumulated. Memorising information cannot be discarded because with expertise it means the CSR is better able to quickly provide the most effective solution to a customer’s problem. Can it be done equally well by looking up the solution or clues to it in a company’s knowledge repository? This is yet to be proven.

In the realm of keeping a sensible balance between human competence and computer technology, customer-facing employees are required to demonstrate professional aptitude (e.g., domain knowledge, proficiency in using information, responsiveness) and certain personality traits that can contribute to dialogue (e.g., reaching-out, courteous, open-minded)(3). Domain knowledge resides in one’s head (brain), not by sole reference to knowledge management systems. Thereby the human agent can develop the proficiency of using information retrieved from both own-memory and the information system as the task calls for. Companies are expected to reward exceptional CSRs. Even more advanced computer technologies may offer the agents the opposite — greater dependence on and integration with the computer system. Forrester suggests that live agents should be reserved for more complex context-sensitive conversations. If human service agents cannot demonstrate exceptional capabilities, companies will be encouraged to replace them with even-greater-intelligent virtual agents in future.

Companies as well as customers and customer-facing employees may perceive benefits in greater reliance on advanced computer technologies, for preferences or interests of each party. But there is a price to pay in company-customer relationships. What indeed is a relationship without a human factor, engaged on both sides? Companies should find it very hard to talk of a bond with their customers if they have little or no human contact with them. They should not expect too much loyalty from their customers in such conditions. The three parties have much to gain  from preserving and supporting live person-to-person service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Humans Are Underrated; Geoff Colvin; Fortune (Europe Edition), 1 August 2015 (Vol. 172, No. 2)  , pp. 34-41.

(2) Brief: Retool for a New Workforce Reality — New Technology for a New Breed of Agent, Forrester Research Inc., December 2014.

(3) Adopted from a 2011 post: The Human Shortages of Relationship Marketing

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »