The life of a bank call center agent is rapidly changing.
Where once agents mainly answered customers routine questions over the telephone, today they are addressing a wider range of technical queries through a growing number of media.
There is live chat on mobile apps and websites. There are Skype-like experiences on ATMs. And in some foreign countries, there are mobile banking apps with video-chat capabilities. There is two-way texting, and of course, there is responding to consumers tweets and Facebook requests.
And the cries for help have evolved along with technology, too, like helping consumers find the camera app on their iPhones after Apple updates its operating system.
"There are so many ways consumers interact," said Matthew Smith, vice president of digital banking at Happy State Bank & Trust in Texas.
The $2.6 billion-asset bank is exploring the idea of using video within its mobile-banking app and letting more employees communicate with customers over social media. It already lets its agents remotely connect to customers devices for troubleshooting and other purposes.
"We have to protect the banks image, and at same time we have to engage and be where the customers are," said Smith.
Where consumers prefer to communicate will continue to evolve and it might be typing instead of talking over the phone.
mBank, a Polish bank regarded as innovative, is testing customer chats over WhatsApp, a popular mobile messaging app, SMS text or any other avenue the bank thinks its smartphone customers prefer.
"Normally, [we] would just call you," said Jaroslaw Mastalerz, head of operations and IT at mBank. "Some people dont want to talk over the phone anymore."
mBank sees the messaging experiment as a way to address an industrywide marketing challenge: as people conduct ever-more transactions on mobile devices, cross-sales opportunities erode as there is less room on the screen to promote additional products.
"You cant copy and paste things you used to do," Mastalerz said.
Sure, consumers usually access an app more frequently than they would a website, but they tend to do simple transactions like check their account balances.
"Migration to mobility is really challenging for the business model, even for Internet banks," Mastalerz said.
The direct banks messaging experiment coincides with U.S. financial services companies' efforts to refine the ways they connect with customers. Orrstown Bank in Shippensburg, Pa., for example, has quietly rolled out a feature that lets customers SMS text with its call center agents. So far, the bank says the most common queries touch on subjects with a sense of urgency, like lost cards.
"We are still very bullish on this medium," said Benjamin Wallace, executive vice president of operations and technology at Orrstown. "But we are still in early days of rollout."
As the $1.2 billion-asset bank studies how customers use its two-way texting capability, a number of large banks like Bank of America have recently updated their apps so people can click to connect to call center agents but over the phone. USAA has a virtual agent that lets members navigate its mobile app via verbal or written queries. And Digit, a service that automatically transfers funds from checking to savings every few days, in amounts its algorithms believe a person can afford, interacts with users through texts.
Ethan Bloch, chief executive of Digit, said consumers of all ages like message by smartphones.
"Its a no-brainer," Bloch said. "Everyone is communicating over text and messaging."
Mary Meeker, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, dived into the growing importance of messaging apps in her 196-slide presentation on Internet trends. The annual report, published in May, highlighted how six of the top 10 most-used apps globally are messaging apps.
Unlike typical text-banking "enter B for account balance" Digit sends automated messages that are meant to sound casual and can include fun images of comedian and actor Bill Murray.
"We write the messages as if we were sending them to a friend," Bloch said. "Again, its not for everybody."
Bloch said he could see a day when the savings service works on a messaging platform if doing so would help it reach more potential customers and improve service.
Meanwhile, mBank wants to crunch data about usage of its app so its agents can select the best channel for reaching out to individual consumers say with a product suggestion. mBank will not see what is being said, or with whom customers are speaking, in other apps on their phones. Rather, it seeks to monitor the frequency with which each mobile banking customer uses services like WhatsApp.
Of course, it could turn out consumers lack an appetite for messaging with bankers. Video chats, which mBank makes available, have proven to be less popular, for example.
"It's not a preferred channel," Mastalerz said. "Its growing but not as we expected."