Despite what many people think, automation and personal service are not natural enemies. In fact, they are both more effective when they work together.
Banking, in particular, has reached a turning point: From now on, the most successful institutions will be the ones that combine sophisticated technological delivery systems with personalized customer service.
Today, one of the best examples of how technology can be "humanized" is virtual reality, which is about to change forever the way we think of computers and what we do with them. Virtual reality allows the computer user to walk through, interact with, and participate in a simulated environment that appears to be real.
Financial institutions of the future will use similar technology to create the "virtual bank," which will allow the customer instant access to financial services from any location at any time.
For the consumer, the virtual bank will mean added convenience and better service. It not only will simplify and speed up the customer's banking transactions, it also will permit "face-to-face" contact with bank personnel, regardless of where they are located. Applying for a loan or purchasing a certificate of deposit will be a simple procedure through the virtual bank.
The virtual bank will give the customer access to all the bank's services without the long lines, parking hassles, and traffic delays. The instantaneous availability of a personal banker for assistance will prevent the customer from feeling like a mere number on a card.
This new concept also holds many benefits for the bank: less overhead expense for physical facilities; greater access to more markets by taking the bank to the customer, rather than making the customer travel to the bank; and additional opportunities to cross-sell a broad range of services specifically geared to customers' needs.
The staff will spend more of its time on profit-oriented pursuits. Inefficient teller activities will be eliminated. Customers will contact bank personnel only when they need information or advice, or want to broaden their relationship with the bank. Many times, customers will be prompted to do this as a result of marketing messages the virtual bank displays while routine transactions are taking place. These cross-selling messages will plug specific services likely to be of interest, based on information contained in the customer's bank card.
Elements of the virtual bank already have been introduced by some forward-thinking institutions, which have discovered that they can extend their market bases to affluent customers in remote areas via a combination of telephone and postal banking services.
In strategic locations, the virtual bank will make use of automated tellers and self-service terminals, activated by "smart cards" containing computer chips, to handle basic transactions. These computer chips will store a wealth of information about each customer.
Other virtual bank building blocks include video banking machines, which will allow interaction with bank personnel when necessary. Touch-sensitive screens and voice-command capabilities will provide additional convenience and a necessary service for customers with disabilities.
Telephone and personal computer access will allow the customer virtually unlimited, around-the-clock contact with the virtual bank, from anywhere. Holographic image projections could even create a simulation of a branch office, which the customer could "walk" through to get to the right department.
Tomorrow's customers will demand nothing less than the conveniences these technologies will provide. Today's 18-to-24-year-olds have grown up with the automated teller machine, and they prefer self-service banking for everyday transactions. The more they can accomplish through the convenience of self-service technology, the more satisfied they will be with their banking relationships as their financial needs become more complex.
When these advancements become commonplace within the next 10 or 20 years, location no longer will be an issue in the customer's decision on where to bank. Only one thing will matter: quality of service.
The virtual bank, through its partnership with technology, will bring the human touch back into banking by providing personal customer service more efficiently and more effectively than we are accustomed to today.