Editor’s Note: A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Banks across the world are trying to push their customers out of their physical branches. Well, they are not trying to get rid of customers really — at least not intentionally. Instead, banks are trying to get their customers to interact through one of their myriad channels, especially digital ones for simpler transactions. There are many surveys saying foot traffic in bank branches is seeing a free fall for routine transactions; however, lots of customers still visit the branches for more complex transactions.

I have long wondered whether branch visits solve customers’ problems with a good user experience. After not visiting a physical branch for months, I walked into one last week. It was an eye opener for more reasons than one in answering my question. While I am based in India, I believe this anecdote has cross-border relevance for those looking to improve customer experiences across multiple channels.

It all started with my need to open a “special” kind of account with the bank that already counted me as a savings customer. Rather than go to a branch, I logged in to the bank’s website and placed the request for opening the new account. Within seconds, I got a text message on my phone saying my request was registered and the bank will complete it within 24 hours. Wow, I thought.

A ticket dispenser
The physical branch is banking's oldest customer channel for seeking services, yet branches are not equipped to solve real problems that customers face or provide a satisfying customer experience. Adobe Stock

The happy thought was short-lived. After a few minutes, I got another message saying the application was declined because my existing account was not “know-your-customer compliant.” It did not say what that meant or what I should do next, so I logged in to my account again. Maybe there was a detailed message in my personal “mailbox” on my online profile? Nothing. How about a message in “track your service requests”? It told me “no open requests found.”

What next? Call the bank’s help line? I hate it as much as most of you. A visit to my branch would resolve it better and faster, I thought. I was also curious to see what really happens in physical branches these days.

When I entered the branch to solve my problem, I was surprised to find some 15 customers already there. I wondered why there were so many customers in a branch of a tech-savvy bank whose customers are mostly IT employees? Maybe it was a bad day? I collected the paper token and sat down to wait until my number was called.

Soon, I noticed a bank employee (let’s say “banker”) walking over to an elderly gentleman who was sitting close to me.

The banker: Sir, can I help you?

The man: I want to deposit a check in my account.

The banker: No need to wait for that, sir. You can write your phone number on the reverse of the check and drop it in that box over there.

The man: But I wanted an acknowledgment.

The banker: You can take a photograph of the check before dropping it in the box, sir.

The man: But that’s not an acknowledgment from the bank!

The banker: You are right, sir, but don’t worry. We ensure that none of the checks are lost or misplaced…

In the meantime, another banker walked over to me and I lost that conversation to focus on my problem.

I showed him the message on my mobile phone about my account application being declined. “OK, sir, please wait. They will call your number,” he told me.

So I waited and watched. I spotted a lady standing at the self-service kiosk at the other end of the banking hall. She was apparently not making any headway. After a while, she started looking around for help. One of the bankers walked over to her. I could not hear the conversation; however, they spoke for a minute before she headed to the machine that spits out paper tokens.

Twenty-two minutes after I took my token, I got my turn. I headed to the counter and explained my problem to a different banker. He took my account number and started typing and clicking. After two minutes, he gave up and called someone else, saying, “Can you get me the details ASAP? The customer is sitting in front of me.” A little frown and he disconnected.

Banker: It will take some five minutes to get the information. Would you want to wait or can I send it to you by email?

Me: I prefer email. [I wasn’t sure how long “some five minutes” would actually be.]

Banker: Can you give me your email address?

Me: That should be available in my account profile?

Banker: Hmmm … yes, here it is. [He reads it out for my confirmation.]

Me: That’s right. By when can I expect the email?

Banker: Maybe 15 minutes. [Yes, longer than five minutes.]

Me: OK, I will wait for the email.

I walked out of the branch 26 minutes after I entered it without a solution to my problem. Good customer experience? Hardly.

Even though I knew the email should arrive in 15 minutes, I became too curious to wait to find out why it was so difficult to find the information in my account. Maybe I did not look in the right place? So I logged in again and after a bit of clicking, I found something promising: My Profile. Under that tab was a field called Aadhar Number. This is a number that is unique to every Indian, and banks are happy to use it as a single form of personal identification. But the field was blank in my online profile, which probably explained why my account application could not be verified. Could that be the problem, I thought? Hiding in plain sight all the while?

I entered my personal ID. The pop-up message said, "Your request will be processed by xx/xx/xxxx[date].” So, my problem could be solved soon, but only thanks to myself for digging around online.

Lessons learned? The information was available the whole time; however, there was no easy way to find it. The text message from the bank did not tell me what to do next. The request to open the account was closed because “technically” there was nothing more to do. The banker at the counter that I spoke to did not know where to find the “missing” KYC information. And probably whoever he called did not know how to find it either, or perhaps was too busy to really try. I may never know.

The “real” lesson learned? We have yet to design systems to solve real problems that customers face or provide that elusive stellar customer experience — even in our oldest channel: the branch.

Chandrashekar Gopalarao

Chandrashekar Gopalarao

Chandrashekar Gopalarao is product manager at Edgeverve, an Infosys company.

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