UK banks are at a crossroads.

Consumers are increasingly banking online or on mobile, digital services have grown by more than 200% over the last four years, while in-branch footfall is falling 10% per year.

However, attempts to close under-used branches cause outcry, particularly in rural areas and among older customers.

In this post I'll explain why banks must invest in customer experience as wide scale branch closures look inevitable.

Fortunately, Spain’s BBVA bank may provide an indication as to what the solution is.

After investing billions of euros in a digital transformation programme, BBVA recently announced that it had achieved a €689m profit during the fourth quarter of 2014, compared with a €849m loss over the same period in 2013.

BBVA’s chairman, Francisco González is extremely open about his enthusiasm for digital; he believes that banks are entering a new world.

He says tried and trusted marketing methods are being replaced with more precise data and analytical insights on customer behaviour and trigger points for buying financial products. 

González believes so greatly in the power of digital that he even points to technological progress as a central theme behind the bank’s successes in 2014 as well as its future growth.

The belief in digital is clear in the investments that BBVA has made to date. Over the past year, BBVA has acquired US digital bank Simple and invested in bitcoin company, Coinbase.

What can we learn from BBVA’s approach?

While we can’t attribute all of the bank’s success in late-2014 to its digital efforts, it’s clear that the customer-centric approach of investment to digitally transform the banking experience has played an important part. 

BBVA wanted to re-think its digital strategy, with a series of mobile applications that would complement existing online offerings, letting service design lead the way.

By investing in digital strategy and enhancing BBVA’s view of mobile, the customer’s journey was put first and user experience greatly enhanced.

This led to a significant growth in mobile banking transactions with much of BBVA’s overall customer base only using the mobile apps for transactions and fully migrating away from traditional web-based services.

What this shows is that banks must focus their investment on developing the infrastructure needed to ensure that the customer experience is the very best it can be. This means making sure that consumers can access help quickly and easily and get the support they need through the channel of their choosing.

Responding to a customer’s enquiry on Twitter by asking them to call a number is not good service, and neither is requiring customers to pick up the phone to report a lost or stolen card when this could be done easily and conveniently online. 

Banks must prepare for a digital future

One in four branches are set to shut their doors by 2018, leaving around 7,000 open across the UK. By 2024, estimates suggest that the UK could be covered by just 500 branches. Business as usual cannot continue: banks must prepare for a future where 99% of the customer experience is virtual.

To continue providing the support that consumers expect, banks must look at how gaps can be filled.

For instance, by publishing answers to common questions online or in app and making these help pages easy to find on Google, or looking at where processes such as reporting a lost or stolen card can be streamlined. 

However, banks should not overlook consumers’ need for more in-depth support from time to time, by providing access to expert advisers through services such as video calls and live web chat, as well was by telephone.

This will become increasingly important in the future, as the first generation of consumers grow up without banks playing a prominent role on the high street.

As bank branches disappear, the banks that make plans now to improve the experience offered to customers online, will be the ones which remain in clear sight.  

Andreas Pouros

Published 10 February, 2015 by Andreas Pouros

Andreas Pouros is COO at Greenlight and a cotnributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him on Google+.

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