Strengthening customer relationships in a digital world

With pressure from customers for 24/7 convenience and the rise of new technologies, many financial institutions have made a sharp overcorrection from the dated model of in-branch banking, expecting customers to rely almost solely on technology and self-service. This is evidenced by the thousands of branch closures, extending what analysts say is an enduring trend that reflects increasingly digital customer behavior.

At a time when there have never been more banking options given the array of traditional and alternative providers, balancing digital capabilities with personal service to build and deepen strong relationships has never been more crucial for banks.

While technology is a phenomenal tool, banking is all about relationships. This means banks – in 2017 and beyond – will need to strike the right balance between providing convenient technology and strengthening customer relationships in the digital world to keep consumers coming back.

Banks need to bring humanity back

Technology has given consumers more control of how they bank, with tools that let them handle virtually any banking transaction anytime, anywhere. Yet there is still very much a need for that good, old-fashioned “human touch” that seems to have all but disappeared across the industry.

According to a recent survey of more than 24,000 consumers on the balance between digital and human customer service, most people consider personal interaction a critically important part of their relationship with brands. Eighty percent of all consumers polled said they want direct personal contact to remain part of customer service and 83 percent said that talking to a customer service representative on the phone or in store will always be important. And as service requests become complex, consumers become more likely to prefer human interaction over digital channels, the survey showed.

But simply offering access to people isn’t the only necessity; providing exceptional customer service is even more important to consumers. According to [24]7’s 2016 Customer Engagement Index, almost half of customers would take their business to a competitor within a day of experiencing poor service.

With that in mind, here are a few actionable steps banks can consider to improve customer service, deepen customer loyalty and maintain relevance in 2017 and beyond.

Build a customer-first team

Building a customer-first team involves two critical components: the people you’re hiring and training, and the process that is set up for customer support.

As many hiring managers are aware, the quality of customer support will never exceed the quality of those offering it, so it’s important to hire for attitude – traits like empathy, kindness and attentiveness – and train for skill.

Another great way to position your bank for customer service success is to train your support team extensively across product and service lines. That level of knowledge will often translate into customers being able to get one-call solutions, leaving them feeling satisfied. Compare that one-call solution to what customers typically experience when calling a brand for support and getting transferred multiple times between digital and human support teams. The difference is immediately evident. (And not in a good way.)

The goal of the entire team at First Internet Bank, especially those who interact directly with our customers, is to focus on meeting the needs and exceeding the expectations of our customers. Our customer support representatives, for example, are equipped and empowered to be the single point of contact for issue resolution from start to finish.

Each interaction is an important element in providing a good customer experience. Every. Single. Time. And it’s crucial to provide multiple channels of communication to allow flexibility in helping consumers wherever and however they reach out for support. While self-service options and email communication are great tools, the human touch is important when life calls for it.

At First Internet Bank, we post names, photos and direct contact information of our customer-facing staff (yes, those are our actual employees!) on our website. This enables our customers to build a relationship with certain team members and have a “go-to” representative who can provide support whenever it’s needed.

We’ve found that a personalized, customer-first approach increases our customers’ affinity for our brand and increases the likelihood of a deeper, mutual relationship.

Take a consultative approach

When representatives take a mindful, consultative approach, customers inherently recognize they’re valued and feel their specific needs are understood. Compare this to customer service environments where staff are incented to close tickets quickly, which often results in a feeling of being “just a number” and lacking personalized attention.

Take, for example, a customer calling in to your bank who is interested in a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. While it would be a relatively simple matter for a loan officer to process a mortgage, a consultative approach would go beyond completing the transaction as is. Instead, he or she would seek to better understand the customer’s goals, evaluating financial situation, anticipated life stage changes and desired retirement age. The loan officer could then propose options to consider based on the customer’s specific needs, which may or may not be the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage the customer called about originally.

We hear from many of our customers that they value our team’s willingness to take the bigger financial picture into consideration. They mention that we offer a more trusting and open relationship, versus other banks, who instead focus on finding a quick – and not necessarily appropriate – solution before moving on to the next request.

A consultative level of understanding and transparency means delivering a more satisfying experience for customers, leaving them valued and confident that they’re being guided toward financial health.

Stronger customer relationships = stronger bank

Across all lines of business, banks need to see themselves as partners for their customer’s business objectives and aspirations, and equally committed to their well-being. When customers succeed, banks do as well.

The digital revolution will continue to impact all aspects of banking. But as easy as it is to rely on technology to provide services for customers, banks cannot forget that there’s no substitute for genuine human interaction in certain situations.

Nurturing customer relationships will always be an important part of a bank’s business, no matter how digital the industry becomes. It’s how each bank adjusts its customer service approach to suit shifting customer preferences that will determine the banks that outlast competitors. While it can be easy to become overly reliant on the conveniences and efficiencies that technology offers, banks must remember that there’s no true substitution for genuine interaction.


Image: iStock/Tsyhun

Written by David Becker

David Becker has served as chief executive officer of First Internet Bank since its inception and has served as president since January 2007. David has a history of successful start-up companies in financial services and technology.