Generally, people’s impressions of banks aren’t too positive. The credit crunch, banker’s bonuses, overdraft fees and call centre queues are some common negative associations in people’s minds.

However, digital does offer some opportunities for banks to improve the way they are perceived, by helping them to improve the overall customer experience.

Let’s take First Direct as an example. This bank, a subsidiary of HSBC, has gathered a reputation for great customer service.

It regularly comes top in consumer polls for this, achieving an impressive score of 92% in a recent MoneySavingExpert poll for example. By comparison, its nearest rival, Santander 123, had 74% while most high street banks struggled to beat 50%.

There are plenty of reasons for this: for one, First Direct actually answers the telephone when it rings. No call queues or automated systems. Simple but effective.

This isn’t the whole story though, as First Direct, with no branch network, has focused on providing an excellent all round experience, especially online.

Its social campaigns are daring and innovative. Take ‘first direct live’ for instance. Launched in 2009, it turned its site into a repository for customer feedback, a very brave move for a bank in the wake of the financial crisis but one that paid off.

The site works well too, making it easy to check balances, transfer funds and so on, but it’s mobile where customers really feel the benefits.

Mobile and online banking frees customers from the need to call into branches or take to the telephone for most common transactions. It saves them time, and thus enhances their lives in a small way.

Indeed, a recent Bain report (PDF) on customer loyalty in banking found that mobile and online banking are the areas most likely to ‘delight’ customers and therefore increase their loyalty and make them more likely to recommend a particular retail bank.

Mobile banking is taking off too. While some banks were slow to launch mobile banking, most high street banks now offer this service.

The ubiquity of mobile banking apps means that they will soon become a hygiene factor. People will not consider opening an account if their bank doesn’t offer this.

NatWest’s mobile app

Apps need to be well-designed though, and NatWest’s has been highlighted as a great example – our own David Moth rates the app highly.

The NatWest app offers limited functionality, but it’s perfect for banking while on-the-go. Users can check their balance, make a payment or transfer money between accounts.

There is also a GPS store locator tool if users need to find their local branch or a cash point, a very useful feature.

       

This kind of simple yet useful functionality is what banking customers are looking for.

Younger age groups are particularly keen to access their money via mobile. According to Tealeaf stats, 57% of 25-34 year olds and 53% of 18-24 year olds in the UK say they have accessed banking on smartphone or tablet, either via app or mobile web.

Under closer scrutiny, smartphone apps are the most popular mobile way of accessing banking services for both of these age groups, with 22% and 25% doing so respectively.

In the digital age, where bad news spreads fast on social media and consumers trust reviews and recommendations from friends and family above all else, customer experience is all-important.

For banks looking to delight their customers, providing excellent experiences on mobile and desktop and making people’s lives easier is perhaps the best form of marketing there is.