Strangers in a Foreign Land: when incumbent retail banks “go digital”
I am an immigrant.
I know the palatable word is expat, given my education and career, but I don’t like whitewashing. I am an immigrant: I live and work in countries other than that of my birth for the opportunities they afford and with all the practical and emotional difficulties that brings. Blue or white collar, missing your mother feels the same. What varies is your ability to fly back to see her.
Living and working in a variety of countries is an education and a gift, a source of incredibly rich experience and perspective. It means being faced with newness each day, knowing that the onus of working out your surroundings is on you, not the locals, and occasionally bracing yourself for the unkind, generalised hatred towards all things foreign.
That’s the grand narrative. Being an immigrant also means bureaucracy in at least two countries. That also includes banks.
Let’s just say globalisation doesn’t mean to banks what it means to customers.
If you are thinking that geographies and time zones make this hard, stop.
It’s not practicality that makes this hard. It’s bankers.
A banker goes a-banking: a horror story
I am a banker and a bank customer. A banker and a person. It’s often hard to be both at once. This has been a particularly bad week for it.
I had to deal with three different banks, in three counties, on three unrelated routine items that, for reasons that are clear to the banker in me but indifferent to me as a customer, could not be dealt with via the app, or the web interface which invariably offer different depth of functionality anyway. Why? Because of how banks are set up internally. Why should the customer care? I’m glad you asked.
Banks are businesses and to them you are either a high value customer or a volume play. I like to think I am high value to the bank I work for, though evidently not enough for them to make me a high value customer. I should get paid more. Till then I sit in the segment where margins are only secured by high volume at low cost. That’s most of us folks. It takes a hell of a lot to make it out of this bucket.
In the land of mass market service provision all customers are immigrants: far from home and often made to feel unwelcome even though our efforts and funds keep the engines running, for the economy as well as the retail bank balance sheet.
It is how it has always been, but it is not how it will always be.
Banking for the cowed medieval peasant
Three different banks. Three different “segment specific” relationship managers. Three different escalations to a supervisor and then a manager and then the manager’s boss. Because everyone I spoke to knew the right words to use but didn’t know how to stitch them together. And because this customer is also a banker, I noticed.
It seemed that the script was the same: the bank has a process that needs to be followed. Anything outside the process will be rejected as a security risk, a regulatory no-no or a technical impossibility: interchangeable and not sequentially, until all options are exhausted.
Those catch-all rejection paths sound technical and serious and are meant to scare you into reverential silence. But the training the banks give to their staff is minimal and the interest they in turn take in their industry non existent.
So the carefully crafted rejection reasoning becomes an exercise in absurdity as all the right words are used in the wrong place. It sounds impressive unless you talk to someone who knows what the regulation requires or how clearing works.
I got to the bottom of my issues, have no fear.
They truly hate me across three geographies right now.
I am a banker. I am a geek. This stuff is my livelihood and my passion and the system is not prepared for a customer with either knowledge or conviction. And that’s just too bad because the digital era is giving banks both and although everyone is getting on with the programme of creating more digital journeys and faster back-end processing, nobody seems to have connected the full universe of dots that said a digital business is more than an app and a bunch of APIs. It is a business that sees itself, the world and above all its customers differently.
My three experiences this week were amazing, as ethnography goes, because they span the globe and yet boil down to the same three principles of customer care:
- assume the customer doesn’t know what is possible for them or required of the bank under relevant regulations. Further assume they don’t know what industry standards dictate. Assume that the customer only knows what you tell them;
- assume that the customer is a little confused, a little scared and a little awed by all the bankery bankness being thrown at them and they will nod and take what they are given;
- assume that your policies somehow become the gospel by which your customer should live.
Now. This little piggy went to market and had a whale of a time when relationship managers too lazy to look me up on their creaky access database tried to sound bankery but getting the language wrong just so. Playing the “secure channel” card to explain why information was not given to me; only the information was public and their preferred channel objectively less secure than my preferred channel. Playing the regulatory card but getting the provision exactly wrong. Trying to sound technical and ending up with “computer says no”.
The specifics of what happened matter little. What matters a lot is that in three different banks the persons in charge of managing client relationships – this was no call centre interaction where you may expect no more – demonstrated both a lack of basic banking knowledge and a firm conviction that I would both not know any more than they and not question their authority.
The dismissive tone was all-pervasive and so evidently part of basic training, that it gave me pause.
Whose country is this folks?
Why did it occur to nobody to ask your user journey consultants who revamped your app and designed your innovation hub, to have a look at this? Who told you that you can improve your “on the glass” provisions and think yourself digital?
I happen to know a lot about banking infrastructure and regulation, I happen to care more than most about secure client communications and I most definitely care about where my bank’s duty of care ends and it starts becoming a masquerade for incompetence. And I understand that I am not most people. Which is why I find the obfuscation and attempt to confuse the issue with irrelevant data offensive. Because I can cut through it but my mother can’t, and she deserves better. Plus if you decide that your customer care approach is shock and awe, at least put someone semi-informed and fearsome on the job.
But that would be expensive, and this is high-volume low-margin country and its inhabitants are treated like feudal peasantry, expected to know their place and accept what comes down from the holy mountain.
The blind leading the perfectly sighted
Let’s leave aside that the bank doesn’t care enough to make your life easier because you don’t bring enough money in. I am worried that they – that we – evidently don’t care enough to give the mass customer someone knowledgeable to not help them. Who can at least provide a truthful and adequate explanation and course of action, if not a speedy and appropriate solution.
The bank treating the customer like they are a time wasting nuisance. And we got used to it. We expected no better and as nobody offered better, acceptance was the only choice and banks knew it.
People who don’t understand the basics of banking are put in front of customers who used to take “what the bank said” at face value. There is anxiety when something goes wrong with your money, your livelihood, mortgage or pension. If someone is calling their bank it means something important to them is on the line. To be reminded how unimportant you are to the folks holding your assets is unfortunate to say the least.
We are not all banking geeks, I get that. But the digital era is changing humans first, machines second, and increasingly people expect better. And Google more. And take less nonsense, particularly when it’s packaged as “we are refusing to help for your own good”. Because when you dig – and dig I did – what you find is an error on your bank’s side. Human oversight, system glitch, process delay. But rather than owning up to error and providing a transparent path to a solution, the bank defaults to stonewalling and claiming all is due to non negotiable externalities: security, the law or the limitations of the almighty mystical machine.
All of those are valid answers to some questions. But not interchangeable shields and besides, the belief that explaining to a customer why you can’t help them qualifies as transparency is currently being challenged by digital experiences across the service industry: challenger and neo banks, insurance disrupters and friendly remittance providers win on fees first and on respectful customer care second. And that’s where loyalty is built. Consumers are fast learning that the serious institutions that hold money and underwrite assets do not have to be impolite and patronising and that it is possible for their representatives to say “I can see what went wrong. This is what happened. This is what we can do, this is what we can’t do, these are the options, how do you want to proceed?”. In digital country, service is about the customer. And although not all customers are bankers and can’t challenge vague regulatory provision nonsense, more and more customers are digital natives and this entitled obfuscation will simply not fly. We are in their country now.
This is digital country: most bankers are immigrants
We are reaching the tipping point after which the vast majority of the world’s working population will be digital natives. There’s no escaping how old this makes me feel. And there is no hiding how much I love the inclusive, egalitarian, human-centric language these kids champion. I am not of this land, but they make this weathered immigrant feel welcome here.
Among other sociological traits digital natives bring to the workplace, they are fluent in the art of the possible when it comes to digital experiences, they are statistically more likely to be multi-banked and are consistently less cowed by authority figures of all kinds. They either don’t care or react with aversion. Despite this being a sweeping generalisation, it holds and we are seeing that the most radical change in service provision as we digitise is that cowing the customer into submission doesn’t fly.
My old boss used to call it the “innocent smoothie” phenomenon. We have to be friendly and speak clearly now. Like, you know, as if we were actually trying to help our customers. Not like short-circuited robots from some post-apocalyptic horror-scape.
And with ease of transfer becoming a legally protected consumer right across many geographies, you patronise your customer at your own peril.
For a very long time entering a conversation with your retail banker was like pistols at dawn. You knew getting out of it unscathed was a matter of grim chance, you knew you would be flying blind and, unless you were very rich or randomly extremely knowledgable about the topic at hand and willing to take on the endless demands for escalation until you get somewhere or get the final “our internal policy won’t permit me to do this, it’s a different department you have to start from scratch have a nice day”.
I was actually shocked and dismayed to have experiences that felt like a throwback to the 90s this week from banks whose innovation budgets and press release activities make my eyes water.
And it’s not the error avalanche that was my issue. It wasn’t even weak explanations. It was the belief that this would suffice, that fobbing a customer off would be viable and acceptable.
This is digital country folks, bankers are immigrants: here for the opportunities and presented with the same choice immigrants the world over face. Work hard, often harder than the natives, to get what you came for. And make a choice: assimilate, integrate or stay apart but whatever you do never assume that the onus of understanding is shared. Maybe it should be. But the reality on the ground is you do the hard work. You chose to enter this country. Now learn its ways.
And respecting your customers is rule number one.
You can’t break this rule and stay in the country. Trust me. Not because I am a banker. Not even because I am your customer. And definitely not because I claim to be a digital native: I do not and I am not.
Take it from me because I am an immigrant. I know what living in a strange land feels like.
It’s hard. But it’s worth it. And as ever, in life, opportunity looks like hard work.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ new resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!