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Think about the relationship that you have with your own bank today. What does it do well and what could it do better? And, perhaps most importantly, does your bank make you feel like a valued customer every time you engage with it?

We wanted to find out a little more about what it is like to be a banking customer today so, recently, we decided to visit some bank branches in the UK and spend some time talking to groups of customers – both in person and through online polls – to understand how they feel about their bank and what types of services and interactions they value.

Over an 8-week period we conducted over 40 hours of observations in high street banks and studied their respective digital services. We approached our research from a consumer and a business perspective, setting out to discover what type of experience a customer today receives when they want some information about getting a personal loan, and how a company is treated when trying to get funding to buy a 3D printer to expand their business services.

Our findings were eye-opening

What was most apparent to us was that the scars of the past are still very visible on the high street. Despite the fact we’re heading towards a period of economic recovery and growth, banks were visibly ‘triaging’ – akin to an awkward clothing store where as soon as you walk through the door you feel that the staff are nervously sizing up why you are there, whether you’re the right sort of customer, too tall, too poor or not cool enough to shop there. In the banks, this feeling was universal, which ultimately meant that as a customer you felt guilty and judged before you’d even had an opportunity to explain your situation.

Digital platforms were the opposite, open to all, but limited in distinctive conversation and engaging invention.

In less affluent areas this is having a particularly damaging effect; we found that customers are more likely to turn to payday money lenders than approach their bank to help them manage weekly and monthly cashflow issues.

All in all, banks were unwilling to give professional advice until they knew we were an existing customer or could determine our financial position.

Based on our findings, we’ve highlighted five key ways in which we believe banks can better engage with customers and, ultimately re-establish connections that are relevant in our own daily lives.

  • Deliver a compelling proposition: help customers make smarter choices and make the most of the situation they’re in. It sounds cheesy, but help them to be the best they can be; mediate through the technology and expertise you have at your disposal.
  • Be approachable: ensure you do this both via your digital channels and in your branches. Ultimately, this comes down to offering a meaningful, personalized experience, where the customer feels welcomed, valued and supported.
  • Create credible connection to experts: develop the right sorts of connections for the right reasons. If your customer has applied for a loan to set up a new business then consider how you may continue to help them in the long run. Do you have a mentoring programme that you can invite them to join, for example? Imagine if you had just opened a new clothing company and we brought someone from an agency to help you understand how to advertise in local mobile search results so people could find your business easily? Imagine if a financial management accountant gave a session on how to create a subscription business model? If you’re adding value to the relationship then you’re creating a customer for life.
  • Build creative relationships: look to build relationships based on individual needs. Be empathetic to your customer’s situation and figure out solutions together. Digital services have the potential to shape the proposition around the customer rather than a policy or product.
  • Have peer-to-peer conversations: talk to the customer on their level and try to understand how you may help them; don’t bombard them with jargon and don’t alienate them from the services you’re trying to provide. It’s also important to be open. One of the things that was really apparent in our research was that even though the bank had our data, they wouldn’t show it to us. That instantly puts us at an imbalance. It’s my data, about me, so why not show it and encourage me through a peer-peer conversation to enrich it for you? Foster collaboration rather than hiding behind a glass screen.

Around the world, financial inclusion is a critical factor for the development of nations and their citizens. In our society, having a connection to a financial ecosystem is now so important for your own development and well-being that it is almost a basic human right. But we often take this connection for granted – either through active distrust or, at worst, passive apathy.

Banks now have a great opportunity to turn this around. By looking back at where their customers have come from and where that means they are going, banks can adjust their value propositions for the future. They can regain their position as financial stewards which are deeply connected to and relevant in their customers’ lives – a status which has been gradually eroded away in favor of payday lenders, startups, mobile payment services and so on.

Building on our research, we’ve developed a story that demonstrates what’s possible. Rather than acting as passive utility-like service providers, we believe that banks can play a much more active role in our financial decision-making processes and connected digital lives.

Watch the online experience to find out more.

Fred Warren, Microsoft Connected Digital Services

About Fred:

Fred is with Microsoft’s Connected Digital Services team. Focused on delivering societal or market moving change. Fred is a pioneer in the research, conception, design and implementation of practical interactions, new digital products, insightful services and novel business models that have enabled companies to leapfrog their competition and create new sustainable market space through creativity and by design.

Fred works with leading organizations helping them connect a future potential to immediate value to realize competitive advantage on the global stage.

Currently Fred is leading the exploration and design of next generation experiences for native digital storytelling.

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