Blend technology and personal interaction to engage customers and maximize ROI

  • 15% of bank customers are mobile dominant, up sharply from 10% a year ago. (Source)
  • 78% of consumers would bank with a tech firm like Amazon or Google. (Source)
  • Only 50% of consumers prefer to apply for a loan or deposit account in a physical branch. (Source)

The numbers are clear: banks need to invest in technology in order to meet the expectations of today's customers. But the pendulum may have swung too far in the tech direction. In their quest to keep up with fintechs and retail giants, community banks must remember what sets them apart: human connection.

"Table Stakes"

It's easy to see how community banks may have drifted from their customer focus in the past few years. Not only has regulatory compliance burden forced more attention and resources to dotting I's and crossing T's, but technology's breakneck development pace has left no room for banks to catch their breath. "The rate of change over the past five to seven years has escalated dramatically," said Laura Wiegert, SVP – marketing at Investors Community Bank, Manitowoc and a member of the 2018-2019 WBA Marketing Committee. "Digital technology is transforming banks at a faster and faster pace, and it's in every aspect of banking." Back-office operations, products and product delivery channels, and customer expectations have all transformed. "In the past, some of the feature functionality on the technology side was a 'nice-to-have,' but now it's table stakes," said Len Devaisher, Wisconsin region CEO at Old National Bank, Madison.

Technology isn't a fad that smaller banks can wait out, either. "The future of banking is demographics, just like it always has been and will be," said Joe Sullivan, CEO of Market Insights, and the largest demographic of the future is the typically tech-dependent millennials. And it's not just the younger generations that see technology as a requirement for their bank. "Regardless of demographics and geography, we're all becoming more comfortable with digital," Sullivan continued. However, no matter how much technology has changed banking, it hasn't reduced the importance of human interaction. 

"Advisors You Trust"

"The role of banker as an advisor hasn't changed," said Jenni Dolata, deposit operations officer at The Stephenson National Bank & Trust, Marinette. "We see our customers in person far less than we used to, but they still come to us for solutions." One example of this is SNBT's recent addition of eTeller machines. "Personal interactions with customers still have to be first and foremost, but we're interacting with them a little differently," Dolata explained. "The key is not how often our customers visit the branch. It's about the relationship we build with them while they're here."

In order to build those relationships—and help ensure they're profitable—today's bankers must not lose sight of putting the customer first. According to Nancy Bleeke, founder and president of Sales Pro Insider, in-person interactions must be relevant and customer-focused, not just a quick sales pitch. "You need to earn the right to speak to a customer about additional products and services," she said. Empathy—seeing the situation from the customer's point of view—is another critical skill for today's bank staff, according to Sullivan. Empathy helps the banker anticipate and respond to barriers the customer may have to using a new technology product, whether it's shame or frustration. "Human interaction can enhance and help them get past any barriers," he explained.

Ultimately, the goal of in-person interactions with customers should be to augment digital interactions, and vice versa. "Fundamentally, it's about moving from an either-or mindset to a both-and mindset with respect to digital versus in-person client engagement," said Devaisher. That ability to engage the customer is how community banks have always set themselves apart in the financial services industry, so banks should view the rising importance of technology as another opportunity to do so. "You still need humans to help technology help humans," said Wiegert. "Our differentiator is the human touch and interaction. Community banks are built around the customer, so it's critical we offer that."

Creating Engagement

So what can banks do in order to keep their focus on the customer and avoid the "shiny object" of technology? The three keys are to invest in staff training, educate customers, and deliver on consumer expectations for interaction. 

Whether it's a new product like mobile banking, branch feature like a video teller machine, or back-office software like Compliance Concierge, staff training is paramount to the success of any bank technology investment. "Banks need to be sure their people understand not just how to use the new technologies but what the benefits are for the customer," said Bleeke. "In the implementation plan, make sure there's enough time, attention, and focus given to the training aspect for anyone in the bank who might directly touch the new product or service or help customers who do." In addition to training, bank staff should be encouraged to use the new technology for their own personal banking (when applicable). "We have to be our own clients on the technology front," said Devaisher. "If our associates understand and embrace it and through personal experience see the value and benefit, they become effective advocates and inviters for clients to consider this technology as a way to grow. They then have the skillset to come alongside them and show them how easy it is and how it can help them." Sullivan recommends taking it a step further: "Make it mandatory that staff use it, because you can't teach someone how to use a product if you're not familiar with it yourself," he said. 

When bank staff have become experts on the new technology, they can then move to educating the bank's customers (both current and potential). "We're spending more quality time with our customers now than we did in the past," Dolata said of SNBT's operations after installing the eTellers. "We're taking these opportunities to train our customers on how to bank for the future." Many banks today are remodeling their branches to accommodate this customer education need, creating new spaces for interaction between bankers and customers.

Finally, bankers need to interact with consumers in the way the customer prefers. "It's incumbent upon us to understand what's most important to each client and meet them according to that preference," said Devaisher. "We need to listen to our clients and make it about them." In order to do that, the bank must clearly define who its customers are and what they want. "Banks need to understand who their primary customers are and how they want to interact," Wiegert explained. Investors Community Bank is using a new customer experience process to validate their assumptions about how to interact with three key niches they serve. "It's not about how the bank wants to communicate," Wiegert reiterated. "It's about how our customers want to be communicated to." Customer-centric interaction also means having the correct array of products and services to offer, since not every customer wants to bank in the same way all the time. "If one particular channel doesn't work or the customer isn't comfortable with it, we need to have something else to offer," said Dolata. "Allow the customer to choose the best fit for them."

In order to stay customer-centric in today's banking industry, where digital and physical interactions are increasingly blended and dependent upon one another, community banks must walk a fine line between the two. "It's a combination. You can't go all one way or the other," Bleeke cautioned. "Don't jump into technology if it's not right for your bank and your customers." But don't get left behind, either. "You need both in order to succeed," said Wiegert. "You need the right people and the right technology in order to get the best ROI on your technology."