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Opinion: How to meet customer expectations in digital banking reality

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For roughly the past decade, banks experienced a steady and somewhat reliable digital adoption rate, converting about 10% of customers per year to conveniences like e-statements, mobile banking and contactless payments. This predictability allowed financial institutions of all sizes to plan and prepare for the future expectations of its customers at their own pace, budgeting far in advance for investments in new technologies like video banking and online chat.

But as we quickly discovered, there is no predicting a pandemic and the extraordinary effect it has had on digital adoption in banking and beyond. In the beginning, branches across the nation closed their lobbies suddenly in a concerted effort to protect customers and employees, forcing consumers to embrace online features in record-breaking numbers ever since.

This massive shift in digital users has created brand new territory for many financial institutions – especially community banks – which are now rushing to meet customer expectations in unexpected or, more aptly, expedited, ways. Interactions that 18 months ago happened face to face now occur with a digital screen in between, either on desktops or mobile devices, dramatically changing the overall banking landscape.

As a result, it’s no longer acceptable for banks to simply provide digital capabilities. From customer care to product recommendations, consumers also expect engagement to be just as fast and effortless. It’s at this point where the customer’s experience and their expectation intersect. Aligning these two important considerations as quickly as possible is crucial to maintaining and growing the customer relationships that community banks rely upon.

This pivot has quickly become evident in the near-term strategic priorities for banks, which look very different from yesterday’s priorities. Reducing the friction online for the numerous pieces of once-traditional in-person banking is now the dominant primary focus for nearly all financial institutions. According to the 2021 Digital Banking Report by The Financial Brand, 86% of banks with assets under $10 billion said improving the digital experience for consumers is a top three strategic priority. For banks with assets greater than $10 billion, that number is even higher at 90%.

The new dilemma for banks isn’t just competing with each other or even successful financial technology companies. In the digital world, competition is everywhere. Consumers who enjoy the experience they receive at the leading tech companies in the world, Apple and Amazon for instance, compare it to their bank’s digital offerings. These apps may even sit beside each other on their mobile phones, so the jump between them can be as quick as the press of a button. And comparisons quickly follow. According to the Digital Banking Report, 73% of consumers say a digital experience with one organization changes their expectations for all other organizations.

As branches in our area have reopened and restrictions have eased, the last consideration for banks is whether the drive to digital has permanently altered customer expectations. While the rate of digital transformation may once again slow down, it’s evident that customers who’ve made the leap enjoy the ease and speed of always-available digital services, from ordering groceries to depositing checks.

Banks shouldn’t expect a return to historical norms, not when the usefulness of digital simplifies life so significantly. But the industry should aim to strike a balance between digital and the personal, impactful interactions that only occur in bank lobbies. There will always be a place for employees who can create a great customer experience and enhance that level of service through the bank’s digital tools.

Thinking about the best customer experiences available, they’re all developed with a combination of several cohesive components:

  • personalization and relevance;
  • seamless omnichannel engagement;
  • simplicity and reliability;
  • security; and
  • the ability to promptly resolve issues and provide answers.

Now that most bank customers are in this digital space, it’s imperative that financial institutions weave these elements together or risk falling far behind.

Stephanie Rutledge is a senior vice president and director of consumer sales and customer experience at Guaranty Bank. She can be reached at srutledge@gbankmo.com.

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