Banking is all about customer service

How empathy can be just as disruptive to banks as technology

2 days ago
5 min read
How empathy can be just as disruptive to banks as technology. Image: Shutterstock

Written by Shaun Weston

Shaun Weston discusses the power of empathy and human connections when it comes to bank disruption.

In the few recent articles I’ve read about branch banking, I’ve come across similar statements about how face-to-face banking will prevail. One statement particularly caught my eye for mistaking online banking as being somehow devoid of humanity, when quite the opposite can be true.

When it comes to human relationships, the online world can offer myriad experiences that range from the beautiful to the inhuman, from grace and etiquette to downright rudeness, and from empathy to apathy. This is no different in real-life situations, where speaking to a bank employee behind a thick sheet of tempered glass can be as robotic as anything you do online. My experience with a face-to-face bank appointment a few months ago, where I was politely asked to change my card details using the bank’s phone line, was odd. It negated the whole experience of visiting the branch in the first place.

When it comes to online vs call centers vs branches, I don’t see dividing lines. I simply see levels of service.

Being human

The world can be complicated, and banking is sometimes rightly labelled as one of the most complicated services. There are loans, ISAs, savings accounts, current accounts, mortgages, interest rates, home insurance, travel insurance, and so on – it’s a big picture. Banking has become so complicated that we often need help, and we need help so often that vast amounts of money are spent on call centers. To save money, these call centers can often be offshore, manned by poorly paid people who are so far removed from a sense of company and brand loyalty, they obediently run through a series of predefined actions, sentences and questions to try to make sense of the customer query they’re faced with without ever feeling empathy with the person they’re talking to.

Conversations can be automated and robotic, and you’re never quite sure you’re talking to the same person

It can be a robotic experience for both parties, and it’s not always an accurate experience, because you may call again five minutes later and speak to a completely different person.

Chat boxes on websites are sometimes a better option, because at least you stand a chance of being able to keep the transcript of your conversation (chat boxes are usually text). Should your connection fall, you could pick the conversation right back up again once you’ve reconnected. However, these conversations can also be automated and robotic, and you’re never quite sure that you’re talking to the same person (‘Janet’ may actually be three or four people).

As with anything, the human experience is about quality. We love to be addressed by name, we like eye contact, we enjoy being listened to, and it’s an approach that works well in everything we do, from forming important life relationships, to working with colleagues, to living in a world surrounded by people who want your money or want to look after your money. The quality of these relationships is dependent on how well we feel treated, so whether we’re making a call to our bank, visiting a branch, or engaging in an online conversation, the human approach is all-important.

Connecting and sharing

This is how I try to make important decisions. I tend to travel with certain airlines because they’re friendly and engaging, I shop for certain brands because they reach out with clever marketing tricks to entice me (I know I’m being manipulated, but I’m OK with it because the quality of what I’m buying is attractive to my definition of integrity), and I try to choose energy companies that look like they give a damn about their customers. I look for human things. I look for things I can place some trust in, which is why I’m often massively disappointed when things go wrong!

I’ve come to the decision that I’d like to bank somewhere else

I’ve come to the decision that I’d like to bank somewhere else. My current bank has offered a good service for many years (since 1989, in fact), but it has become large, unwieldy and distant. Branch visits are always friendly and welcoming, but I never seem to come away with clear answers to my questions; it often feels like the bank’s employees are as confused as me. I want something simple to understand, simple to use and simple to communicate with.

I want my experience to feel more human, and whether it’s a branch, a call center or a mobile app, I want to sense a connection. I’m shopping around, and when I find what I want, I’ll tell my friends and family about it, because they also care about human connections.

So, for me at least, there are no dividing lines; no battles between this format and that format. It really doesn’t matter whether there’s a branch or a mobile app or a telephone service. What’s at the end of those things is what matters most, and whether the service I receive is empathetic to my needs as a banking customer. What will you do with my money? Why will you do that? Will you explain it to me in words I can understand? Will you guide me through the complexities of managing my finances? Will you always really be Janet?

We seek stability and comfort. In return, we are loyal. If disruption is to be had at any level, it should be human as well as technological.