Why the bank branch isn’t going away

Digital services alone have not delivered the trusted relationship customers desire

by AT&T Business Editorial Team

The bank branch is at the forefront of the digital shift.

Like many businesses in today’s increasingly connected world, customers demand faster-than-ever service, wherever and however they care to connect. This means apps and digital services are top trends for financial institutions. But there’s more to the story.

Digital services alone have not delivered the kind of trusted relationship that high-stakes advisory services require. As a recent study reveals, customers do want more automation in their interactions with their financial companies, like what they demand from companies in other sectors.

The study found that 46% of consumers in the United States and Canada desire automated customer service for banking, but also revealed that 87% of consumers will continue to use bank branches for the foreseeable future. Face-to-face interactions are major factors keeping those customers coming back for more.

As the authors of the study proclaim, “The branch is alive and well.”

Revamping the branch

For financial firms engaged in the digital transformation sweeping through the economy, the branch needs to be a major focus, even as they continue to automate and develop new ways to serve customers in the digital realm.

According to NCR, companies are expanding their branch locations to include smaller-footprint locations that bring efficient service to customers at retail centers, grocery stores, and other high-traffic areas. They’re also integrating videochat with ATMs, enabled by live customer service agents. In addition, they’re bringing self-service to tablets and other consumer devices.

Asked to name the main benefits of digital optimization, respondents to a recent IDG-AT&T survey cited the goal of “improved customer satisfaction” as their top perceived benefit – at the rate of 70% of respondents, topping the second major benefit, which was improved data security (64%). All of the leaders who participated in the research said they plan to optimize the customer experience with new technology.

Making these changes requires investments for financial institutions in not just backend systems, but in technology for branches. The IDG-AT&T survey also found that 81% of financial services organizations recently made technology changes at the branch and behind the scenes at headquarters to optimize the customer experience. Nearly half (49%) of the CIOs, IT directors, and other financial institution leaders surveyed said they plan to undertake such investments in the next 12 months.

Respondents also pointed to increasing customer traffic as a benefit of digital optimization; traffic not only to apps and online banking sites, but also to branch locations.

The omnichannel experience

Financial institutions, along with other sectors of retail, realize that reports of the demise of physical locations are premature.

Instead, customers want digital points of service like apps to complement their interactions at physical locations, not to replace them. The ideal blend is known as “omnichannel.” And omnichannel is the name of the game in the financial world as much as it is for other customer-facing industries.

Technology investments by financial institutions reflect this reality. The top area of customer service investment – cited by 65% of financial institution leaders – is to provide access from anywhere, anytime, in the form of secure networking and mobile apps, according to the IDG-AT&T study.

“Offering innovative new products and services” comes in second, named by 53% of respondents, followed by the goal of providing more personalized service (51%). Also high on the list are ways to improve the branch experience: shortening the time spent in line, and providing access to accounts via kiosks and secure Wi-Fi.

Bringing together all access points is the goal of creating an omnichannel experience, in which customers can smoothly transition from mobile app to one-on-one interaction in-branch, then resume their experience online.

Digital optimization doesn’t just help customers. It also helps lower the operating costs for branches as customers engage in more self-serve options for routine transactions. According to the IDG-AT&T survey, financial leaders cited lower costs per transaction (53% of those surveyed) as a major incentive for digital optimization.

Just as importantly, those routine transactions may include enhanced sales opportunities (cited by 51% of respondents) among the other forms of customer service. Giving customers more options to serve themselves more conveniently also allows branch employees and customer service agents to focus more on the valuable advisory services most effectively delivered in-person.

The backbone of omnichannel

Tying together the elements of digital optimization and the omnichannel is the backbone of it all: The high-bandwidth network needs to move customer data, video, software updates, and more between branches, headquarters, the cloud, and mobile devices.

To preserve the all-important trust of customers, enhanced security topped the list of planned solution investments in the IDG-AT&T survey (69% of respondents), just ahead of investments in mobile apps for customers (61%). Scalable networks, always-on backup, highly secure Wi-Fi, voice services, video streaming, and chat are among other solutions in which financial executives expressed interested. The goal is to connect customers and employees with one another and with the tools they need to repurpose the branch for the digital age.

AT&T is a leading provider of integrated solutions for business, powered by the global network with more secure connections than any other provider in North America. To learn more about transforming the customer experience in the finance industry, visit our Financial Services solutions page.