It looks like something out of a sci-fi film, consumers and bank salespeople conducting business by swiping their hands across a table-top screen. In reality, the Surface technology is Microsoft's latest foray into retail innovation, and just one of the latest technology products that aims to sweeten the branch experience for customers that are less and less likely to drop in.

The Surface technology is a 30-inch table-top screen that has customers and a bank employee sitting across from each other and moving through digital content - including information on products and services - by touching and swiping the screen with their hands. Adam Brownstein, director of business development for Microsoft Surface, says this visual and physical interaction helps build "a sense of trust" and engages the customer better in the search and discovery of information about the financial topic at hand.         

Early takers of Surface include Barclays, which deployed the technology as part of its 8,000-square-foot branch in Piccadilly Circus in London, the fourth busiest intersection in the world with an estimated 27 million visitors per year. Bank executives figured they had a rare opportunity to incorporate branch innovations that could catch the eye and lure in thousands of potential customers each day.

And they weren't wrong. When the branch opened in December, 7,000 people passed through the branch, and since then the daily foot traffic has averaged 4,000, says Erin Biertzer, head of distribution services at Barclays. Among the many high-tech touches in the branch is Surface.

Customers that first use the Surface technology often think of the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," in which the Cruise character uses his hands to quickly move images around on a huge screen during his criminal investigation, Biertzer says. "We wanted to attract customers in a cool and innovative way and inform them about products and features in a way they remember us." Since the Piccadilly Branch opened sales of its Premier Life product - the only product so far sold via Surface - has increased 50 percent, a gain Biertzer attributes largely to the technology. Premier Banking is a service that's built on expert advice, exclusive products and personal service. It costs from £17.50 to £25 per month.

Brownstein says Microsoft is engaged "with a number of banks internationally and in the U.S. about deployments." Microsoft is also partnering with others to bring new branch technologies to market. NCR Corp. has integrated a variety of devices, such as PIN pads and contactless readers, with the Surface technology. The NCR concept - which has not been deployed - works like this: a customer enters a bank branch and reviews posters on various deposit and loan products. Using their mobile phone that's equipped with an NFC chip, the customer can download details of the product he or she is interested in. The customer can then take their phone to a surface table, which can extract the information and begin a more in-depth, interactive study of the product. One of the big advantages of this system is that a smart token inside the phone can automatically populate the product form residing on the surface table with basic information such as address, phone numbers, etc. This process leaves more time for the customer and bank employee to discuss the product and not spend time gathering mundane information

But before a customer gets a chance to sit down with a sales rep, the time spent waiting in line can be particularly irksome. As people wait, they increasingly feel trapped, anxious, and irritated - it's hardly a mindset that lends itself to building trust with the institution and signing up for more products and services. To overcome the waiting problem, Peter VanSickle, vp of strategic development at Envision, is promoting "queue management," a handheld paging device given to a customer that vibrates when it's that customer's turn to speak with an advisor. No more waiting in line; in the meantime the customer is free to relax in front of a TV, or browse information without the pressure of a sales person hanging over their shoulder, or the worry that they'll lose their place in line. That extra time might lead to extra sales. Something as simple as a plasma TV can reduce a customer's perceived wait time by 20 percent, Barclay's Biertzer says.

But Bob Meara, a senior analyst at Celent, cautions that concepts such as Surface and queue management are hobbled when a bank's legacy systems can't talk easily to each other, which is often the case at big U.S. banks. Fixing this problem is expensive, he says, and is fighting headwinds from profit losses, depleted capital, stepped up regulatory scrutiny, and declining sales volume at branches. "Banks will be challenged with overall branch profitability," he says.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.