Editor at Large

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."

Chatting Uninterrupted

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.

The bank will also be able to mine the archived secure chat transcripts to learn how its digital channels are working. For instance, if the same question is cropping up repeatedly, there may be an additional feature the bank could add to address that.

Face to Face at Wells Fargo

With a similar goal of rebuilding relationships in digital channels, Wells Fargo has been testing a video chat tool for several months and plans to launch it to customers in early summer. The bank declined to share which vendor it's working with.

"We're high on video chat. We think it will be a tremendous advantage for our customer experience," said Paul Bajus, executive for Wells Fargo contact center sales. It's taking a careful, phased approach, partly to work out any technical kinks that arise.

Video chat technology has existed for years — Cisco came out with video streaming for online and mobile banking about five years ago, and Linqto and Personetics more recently have rolled out bank-specific products. But while several banks have deployed video kiosks in branches, drive-throughs and other locations, few U.S. banks have formally launched video chat through a mobile app or online banking Capital One offers video communication in its iPad app.

The main reason is that other priorities — like making mobile banking profitable and secure — are probably taking precedence at the moment.

Another challenge is that because banks have no control over the telecom network, the smartphone or the laptop or desktop the customer is using, they cannot ensure the quality of the video streaming.

This is why Wells Fargo is taking things slowly. It is using a software that will do a systems check on the customers' PCs to determine if they need to download a special browser plug-in.

"In the lab, we've tested it on Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer, and the testing has gone well for us," Bajus said.

Wells Fargo implemented text chat about four months ago and considers video chat the next logical step, Bajus said.

"As customers continue to move more digitally, remotely and virtual, they'll still want that face-to-face connection, especially on more complex transactions," he said. "They're not going to want to get in the car and drive to a store."

Video chat will at first be available only on PCs to customers looking for home equity lines of credit.

"Real estate secured lending is one of the more complex transactions we do," Bajus noted. "We're thinking, how do we improve the customer experience for some of the more complex transactions we do a lot? We want to be that lifeline out there if the customer needs us, and make that visual face-to-face connection with the customer."

About a dozen existing contact center reps will become video agents when the new tool launches.

"We asked for volunteers among the voice-team members," Bajus said. "We had an overwhelming response — I was kind of shocked. I wouldn't want to be in front of a camera." Those agents are being trained in what to wear on camera, what the background behind them should look like and other tricks of the trade, he said.

By the end of the year the bank plans to make the feature available in its smartphone and tablet apps. It also plans to give the agents co-browsing capability be yearend.

Schwanhausser said such video chat tools will become common.

"Sometimes when you talk to somebody face to face, you can see the way their eyebrows furrow and you can say, 'Let me come at that another way,' " he noted. "That can be really powerful."

Can chat tools fully replace the human connections that in the past were made in person? Probably not. But the ease and convenience of being able to get informed help quickly in digital channels could build a lot of goodwill (or at least reduce irritation) and could help banks differentiate themselves from each other and from fintech startups.

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at penny.crosman@sourcemedia.com.