When I was little, my stay-at-home mom always had lengthy conversations with the bank tellers she thought of as her friends, whether she went to the teller window in the branch or the drive-through. (I preferred the drive-through because the tellers usually sent me a lollipop through the pneumatic tube.)
That kind of lifelong dialogue is disappearing as consumers increasingly bank by taps and swipes on devices.
Yet banks are experimenting with newer communication tools to try to revive lost conversations in the mobile and online banking worlds.
Tangerine Bank, for one, recently became the first bank to use secure, encrypted chat sessions with customers in its mobile app and online banking site. This allows customers to talk about private or complex matters with bankers in the same channel they start their interactions.
The technology, which the $1.9 billion-asset Tangerine developed with IBM and Genesys, also provides call center agents with views of customers' Web and mobile banking app sessions, so they know exactly what the customers have been doing when they ask their questions. Customers do not have to explain themselves and can get immediate, informed help without having to provide lots of personal information.
Wells Fargo has been testing video chat and plans to launch it this summer. This will give some customers the ability to talk face to face, Skype-style, with the banker trying to explain complex products like home equity lines of credit. Customers will be able to choose the banker with whom they want to converse, so if they forged a bond with the person who originally signed them up for an account, they can select that friendly person to video-chat with.
Wells Fargo has an intentionally lengthy enrollment process, typically about 45 minutes, to get a full picture of the customer's banking needs. Incidentally, TD Bank has a similar process.
It is all about regaining that human relationship.
"We've done such a terrific job of enabling people to do banking 24/7 in their pajamas, they never see a banker," said Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research. "So we've lost that face-to-face opportunity that's so powerful. People still come into the branch, those opportunities are still there, but there are fewer of them. In some senses, digital banking is a double-edged sword. It's enabling us to provide convenience and satisfaction, but it's also undermining or weakening the fundamental relationship we have with our customers."
At Tangerine Bank (formerly ING Direct), which has long been a tech pioneer in areas like biometric authentication, the goal is to make banking effortless, according to Chief Information Officer Charaka Kithulegoda, who was American Banker's Mobile Banker of the Year in 2013.
Customers using the bank's regular "click here to chat" button, a messaging feature common to bank websites that Tangerine has had for several years, would inevitably reach a point where personal information needed to be shared one way or the other, and the customer service rep would have to ask the customer to stop chatting and call. Then the customer would have to start over again.
A similar problem happens when banks try to conduct customer service in Twitter — a conversation that should be private is happening in an open forum, and the bank needs to at some point take the discussion to a more secure, private venue.
"Today in a nonsecure chat environment, when people say, 'I want to open up a checking or savings account,' or, 'What was my balance on that investment account I had with you?' we'd say, 'Hey, you've got to call us,' " Kithulegoda explained. "Here, if you're validated, we create a very seamless experience for you. So we don't have to say, Sorry, I couldn't answer that question or do that for you, you'll have to call us."
Customers can only use secure chat after they have authenticated themselves and successfully logged in to the bank's online banking site or mobile banking app, both of which are encrypted.
Because the call center software has been integrated with technology that provides a view into the customer's current Web or mobile banking session, the agent has good intel.
"They can see what you've done before, and carry on a conversation on pretty much anything," Kithulegoda said.
The underlying software is Genesys' contact center program. IBM helped with integration and built some of the chat tool.
For contact center agents, the new technology adds life to their work.
"It makes the job much more interesting, [and] it empowers them as well," Kithulegoda said. For the first time, they have insight into what a customer was doing in a digital channel at a certain point in time and can fix customer problems efficiently, rather than having to pepper the customer with questions. Sometimes customers cannot explain what went wrong in a mobile or online banking session anyway.
In a future release, the bank may give customers the option of receiving an emailed transcript of the secure chat. "It's almost like a confirmation — here's what I meant," Kithulegoda said.