Banking by robots? No

Banking by robots? No

Make more of people

Here's a story about a friend setting up a business account. He was asked to write a short description of his new company. Sadly, he used the word ‘elite’ to describe the people he worked with. Big mistake.

After waiting a long time for a response to his (paper) application, he got a call from a bank person. They wanted to discuss what exactly his start-up actually did for a living.

There was, it seems, a problem. The word ‘elite’ – which the customer handler insisted on pronouncing as ‘e-lite’. Eventually a thought dawned on him. Did they think he was flogging e-cigarettes?

There, in a single daft story, is the essence of banking.

If your customer service is only as good as a robot, then you’re doomed.

If the people handling calls merely read from a script, then there’s no hope of building trust or reputation.

The challenge for challengers

There are currently around 20 fledgling institutions hoping to challenge the Big Four incumbent high street banks in Britain.

Most will offer a pared-down mobile or online service without bricks and mortar branches.

Hurrah. I’m sure most will do the things high street consumers would have expected of the Big Four years ago. Things that ought to be a given – such as seamless user experience, proper alerts for every transaction via your chosen messaging service, unbreakable security, peer-to-peer services.

But, given the huge cost of entry, they are unlikely to provide much in the way of clever, knowledgeable, qualified, experienced human beings to support us and put things right when they go wrong.

So here’s the thing

Good technology alone isn’t going to win significant market share in banking.

Banking isn’t like Uber. It’s a long-term, human thing. Trust is all. If your last Uber ride was in a clapped out Ford Fiesta piloted by a bloke with severe halitosis, you can walk away. It’s not so easy with a bank.

Most challenger technologies are facilitators of services, marketplaces for goods, connectors of people. Most of what they do are one-offs or ephemeral. Few are matters of life, death or money.

The challenger banks must offer humanity and knowledge. People who can solve problems like fraud, debt and start-up funding for smokers.

How it should be

I’m not, of course, suggesting that the incumbents do these things well. Far from it, as countless surveys show. They are vulnerable to competition on technology – and customer service.

And branches? Going into a bank branch these days is a doleful experience. There’s a line of ATMs, a few staff and some big open spaces. Owning a ton of real estate looks like a waste of space.

Not necessarily so.

I work with the Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo, which has branches in every Italian city as well as a big international network.

It’s started refurbishing its branches in an unusual way. Out go the staff desks and counters. In come large tables and armchairs (being Italian, they’re rather lovely tables and chairs).

Customers can sit on these tables, talk, work or just hang out. It’s a cross between a coffee bar, a co-working space and an Apple Store. Suddenly there’s a reason to go a branch.

There are also events; a workshop on business start-ups; a third-sector debate on women and work, and a talk on digital culture, for instance.

The branches have a reason to exist. They are bright and colourful on a dark winter afternoon in Milan.

Here is a different model: the bank as community hub, guide and educator. And not a robot in sight.

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