We want to take real people out of the equation, for cost purposes, and yet we want our self-service machines to become more like people.

We want to take real people out of the equation, for cost purposes, and yet we want our self-service machines to become more like people.

Recent business surveys together with published industry trends suggest that ATMs aren’t going to disappear from the landscape quite yet even as the rate of bank branch closures will not take place as rapidly as could have been expected just a short time ago. What’s happening?

As an industry, are we having second thoughts? On the other hand, we are now mobile and want to do it all ourselves and by this I mean, no matter how you elect to categorise it, we have entered the self-service era. As one F1 racer once so famously said, “Leave me alone, I know what I am doing!”

This exclamation wasn’t issued in private but rather over the radio channel television broadcasters worldwide were monitoring and it made headlines as the F1 driver who made the observation was none other than Kimi Raikkonen. A racer who rarely ever says anything to the press! Today it has passed into F1 folklore and you can purchase t-shirts with Kimi’s remarks emblazoned on them.

More relevant to us perhaps is that wherever we turn, the same sentiment can be encountered. Whether it is an ATM in the lobby of our favorite bank branch office – don’t stop to ask me what I am doing, don’t even prompt me on the screen, suggesting I should look at this site or another. I know what I am doing and I just want to complete the transaction and move on. Or, a branch manager asking as to how best they can serve you! No, I know what I am doing seems relevant at this point. So, if customers know what they are doing, why such a slow decline in customer dependence on ATMs and branch offices?

On the other hand, the challenge this presents is that, in a self-service oriented world, any desire to interact with anyone at all, let alone pay attention to something that may appear as a sidebar on a screen, is marginal at best and intolerable at worst. So, how do we go about nurturing a relationship with our customers? How do we know what it is that they like about their visits to the branch office and yes, how do we introduce our customers to new services that we have spent a lot of time to develop and deploy? Are we fast approaching a time when this attitude of leave me alone becomes one that is a tad more aggressive – get lost! No, “Have a nice day” isn’t going to play to this crowd nor is the even more benign, “Can I help you?”

In the most recently published ATM and Self Service Software Trends 2017 jointly funded by KAL and ATMIA, when asked what were the most critical changes banks need to make regarding the use of self-service over the next four years, the responses were quite revealing. With respondents opting a third of the time (36%) for both “Migrate in-branch, over-the-counter transaction to self-service systems” as well as “Reduce operational costs related to managing and maintain the ATM network” we can see that there is a shared belief that the balancing act these banks know that they have to perfect is offering more self-service functions even as they have to better manage the costs.

However, with this percentage of 36%, reducing operational costs and migrating to self-service both came in second place. Ahead of them with 57% of those responding to the survey want to see is the age-old desire, “Improve the customer experience!” Ouch – to an audience that simply wants to be left alone, all of these responders want to do more with the actual interaction and if the rest of the responses count for anything then this includes improvements at the self-service devices where we know our customers want to be left alone! What to do?

I took this up with OmniPayments’ CEO, Yash Kapadia. “Whether we are working with bankers in developed or emerging markets, the response is always the same,” Yash says. “We want to take real people out of the equation, for cost purposes, and yet we want our self-service machines to become more like people.”

Now Yash is one of those executives whose track record over the past couple of decades suggests he knows what he is doing and so with his product, he leaves the actual customer interaction up to the banks. “We provide inexpensive ways to improve the customer experience but ultimately, it is banking management that has to determine exactly where all the fuzzy lines lay – push too hard towards the ultimate customer experience and you will blow out your costs; lean back from providing an enjoyable experience and your customers will go elsewhere.”

No real surprises here for most readers. However, what may be a surprise is that pursuing improved customer experiences for an audience that believes that they know what they are doing may be transitory. Fleeting, more likely! The very nature of self-service todays is flawed for one very simple reason – these very same customers just don’t want to interact with a bank at all. Period! I can foresee a time when there will be plenty of instances where we come across rows of self-service devices with nary a customer in site. Customers need money to purchase and when you follow the money, purchases will be online, whether it’s appliances, media, food, or whatever. Tickets to Broadway? Check! Airline flights! Uber! Don’t be fooled; the only time I need cash today is for tips and already, practically everyplace I go (where I used to dig through my pockets for change) has a screen for tips!

When I raised this with Yash, he reminded me of how loyalty programs are playing a bigger and bigger part in our interaction with everyone from those dispensing gas to supermarkets to cruise ships and of course, airlines. All part of improving the customer experience, certainly, but very little to do with going to a branch office for cash!

“Our support of loyalty programs in our most recent update to OmniPayments,” says Yash, “came about when retailers asked us to help them better understand who their customers were and what they actually wanted to purchase – all to avoid actually stopping them at the cash register for a little chat on the topic!”

I snap a photo of a cheque I get in the mail and yes it’s deposited to my account so no, I don’t need to go to the branch to deposit cheques. But even with this customer experience, I am getting less and less cheques so it’s not really going to influence who I go to for my banking needs. Auto loans? Got that at the car dealer! Insurance? Wealth management? You name it – so many options that going into a bank branch office and looking for a really smart self-service device isn’t one of those options.

Perhaps the most critical change a bank needs to make isn’t regarding its use of self-service devices as much as it has to do with better integrating themselves with society as a whole. As village life has changed through the centuries and as the shopping mall has replaced churches and cathedrals and as the corner bar has been replaced by home media rooms so too has the need for a branch office. In my last exchange with Yash as I was working on this article, he reminded me that this is all likely to happen but at varying rates and with many mishaps along the way.

“We have introduced support of loyalty programs within OmniPayments in response to requests to improve the customer experience,” Yash tells me. “But will it be enough to keep customers coming back? It will probably be true for a while longer but CIOs have to be aware that customers do indeed know what they are doing and that they have become more vocal than ever before. Yes, you better get out of their way!”

All the data in the world will not be helpful if we haven’t a clear vision of our future. When I went back to look at some of the analysis provided a case can be made that they are all correct. That simply is the nature of such undertakings. However my own experiences of late suggest that reducing costs will remain a priority no matter what and the more we can deliver an experience a customer enjoys the more we will continue to retain their patronage. But getting ahead of ourselves and injecting ourselves into a transaction well, those that try will in turn become all too familiar with their customers shouting as they exit the branch or come out from behind the ATM, “Leave me alone, I know what I am doing!”

By Richard Buckle, founder and CEO of Pyalla Technologies