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Why the bank branch still has a role to play for consumers

By Carl Uminski, Co-founder and COO, Somo

Earlier in the year Nationwide announced a commitment to keep all their branches open until May 2021 as well as giving them a £80 million makeover. More recently, this month, Barclays have pledged not to close any branches in remote areas for two years. It would appear that banks are starting to listen to customers and understand that there is a role for the branch to play.

Despite the factmore than a third of all UK bank branches have closed since 2015, it’s wrong to believe that the role of the bank branch has become redundant. New extensive research we have commissioned into consumer banking trends has shown that the branch is more popular and relevant than we’re led to believe in the media, despite consumers moving increasingly to a digital-first world.

The research shows that over a third (35%) claimed the branch was the main place they did their banking; and more than 2 in 5 (43%) said they’d go to the branch in order to talk to a real person. This proves that branches still play an important role in making those big financial decisions we mull over.

Although day-to-day online banking is pretty frictionless, it’s harder to understand more complicated financial products without speaking to someone who can explain them face-to-face.

Although with the mismanagement of the business in recent times, who knows what the future will hold for them.

Similarly, in the US, Capital One opened over 30 coffee shop style branches, combining a relaxed atmosphere, good coffee, local produce and a community feel. So-called ‘digital lifestyle coaches’ roam the floor, helping customers with their online banking and making the in-branch experience far more intuitive and an real-world extension of their online service.

Evidence shows we’re still searching for that sweet spot between technology convenience and a human touch. Earlier this year a hotel in Tokyo run by robots was forced to lay them off in favour of humans owing to the dissatisfaction of customers wanting to speak to real people. Similarly, Sainsbury’s recently reinstalled tills in their till-less London store as consumers attempted to check-out in the traditional way, resulting in long queues. What’s the answer?

Firstly, better self-serving options and a better blend of digital/ physical solutions to shorten queues and make the experience a lot more pleasant. Banks have been quite quick to adopt self-service kiosks, with some (such as NatWest and Barclays) going as far as opening fully self-service branches with a handful of advisors on hand. But they must understand that they need to cater for a wide range of needs, with customers being at different life-stages and varying levels of digital/self-serve sophistication.

Currently, most traditional banks do not make it easy when you need help and seem to miss simple opportunities where they can improve business.So if you forget your pin number or have lost your bank card, you’re forced to wait a number of days for replacements. This is unlike the digital disruptors where their online experiences is all about self serving at speed in an intuitive way.While safety and security must still be paramount, traditional banks need to meet customer expectations. Banks should be driving customers to branches by allowing them to order online, showing them where their nearest branch is and having the card ready for them that day.

Thinking specifically about data, banks have an advantage in the sheer amount of data they have. They could use this responsibly to become more useful to customers. For example, if someone has a regular direct debit to a car insurance company, a bank could provide a price comparison to help them save money on renewal. If they create an imformative profile, a branch could know things about a customer at the click of a button that makes the experience more personal. Call it going back to the good old days but it’s the personal touch previous generations enjoyed when they walked in.

Finance is an industry historically plagued by a lack of transparency, whether the PPI scandals or undisclosed security leaks. Challenger banks have capitalised on this by putting transparency at their heart. Traditional banks can use branches to deliver coherent information using digital products. Skoda, for example, recently unveiled a new app in dealerships that allows salespeople to compare Skoda models with competitor cars. It understands that customers will do this anyway so why not make it easier for them whilst being transparent and confident in their own product? The result was an increase in customer satisfaction across the UK. Traditional banks must also evolve from the age-old marketing brochures and leaflets.

Traditional players are losing some ground to disruptors but largely are unthreatened. Research last year reported that despite having over a million customers in the UK, only 1 in 5 have their salaries paid into their Monzo account. Consumers are joining neo-banks in their millions because they’re offering something which appeals to their modern needs. The alluring flexibility and responsiveness associated with digital tech has encouraged these new financial players to design products people (particularly millennials) want to use, even enjoy using.

The winners will be those banks who serve customers seamlessly offering choice, convenience and a caring human touch. Keep the branch but change it – cater to the needs of those who want face-to-face advice, which research shows is largely young people who may be digitally savvy but not financially savvy, and use technology to help keep the experience personalised. Look outside of category at apps consumers are regularly using: Uber, Netflix, Amazon, etc, and understand what it is about these services that are speaking directly to their needs. It has never been more important to understand how and why customers shop around – and it’s time the bank branch caught up with this.

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