Guest blog by Andrew Haigh, CEO of Newcastle Building Society
Perhaps more than ever, through these difficult days of lockdown, we have come to recognise just how much we value face-to-face interaction with other humans. We are social beings. We crave real social contact.
That perspective shapes many of the challenges we face as we look to the future and how we will evolve the nature of our retail proposition in the years ahead, beyond the current crisis: how will our offer become more, not less human; closer and more connected, not distant and remote?
Even in this age of so many technological advances, we believe that digital and physical distribution need to co-exist if we are to serve all our customers well. For us, technology is best deployed to enhance the quality of our human interactions, not just to replace them.
Our branch customers are not seeking a slower, less-efficient version of a transaction they can do online or on their mobile – they want something more. They value the human interaction, and never more so than when a request is complex, or a problem needs resolving. ‘Technology is great’ but, as one of our customers eloquently put it, ‘sometimes you just need a human!’
While we may be currently limited to providing just an essential service, prior to our current socially distanced practices, we’ve been evolving our branch experience, based on our understanding of our customers’ needs and we look forward to resuming this just as soon as it is appropriate to do so.
- Our branches are now even more welcoming, and human.
- Customers are greeted with a smile, not a bank of technology; and importantly, that smile is from someone who wants to engage, rather than direct people to a machine.
- We aim to show that time is a commodity we are keen to share. Taking time to interact, to chat and to understand, changes the dynamic and the role that our people and our branches play.
- For the isolated and lonely, we know that sometimes we are more than a provider of essential services and access to cash, we may also be the sole human contact and reassurance they receive in a day, or even a week.
- For the vulnerable in our communities, a branch visit may be the only opportunity to manage their financial affairs. That’s why we strive to make every colleague – not just our branch colleagues, a Dementia Friend, and why we’ve worked with other retailers on high streets across the North East to help them become Dementia Friends too.
- It’s also why we have pioneered work to bring Slow Shopping to every branch – quiet periods where individuals living with a wide range of cognitive challenges have quieter, calmer time to engage with us.
- But this isn’t just about the vulnerable and the lonely. We know that whatever their age, when it comes to the big decisions in life, people want to talk to people they know – face to face – in a safe and trusted environment.
- While under 45s are less likely to visit a branch to make a cash transaction, when they are at a stage of life where they need to make major financial decisions they visit to enquire about products and discuss their more complex requirements. Branches need to accommodate these needs by combining an open and welcoming environment with private space for private conversations. While the current crisis has led us all to make more of video options, feedback still brings us back to face-to-face as the preferred channel when possible, for serious discussions.
None of this is easy or cheap to deliver. At first pass, a virtual, digital only alternative to the expense of having a human spend quality time with a customer might be viewed as a compelling argument. But that not only risks limiting the scope of service delivery, it fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship to be more transactional. Digital and physical need to work hand-in-hand.
Much of our work has been to find new ways to support communities through our physical presence. In some instances we bring communities into our branches, providing space for people to come together in our community rooms, free of charge.
These changes have served to transform the role of the branch and deepen our relationships with our local communities.
Perhaps the biggest transformations have come through our branch community partnerships:
- Our innovative branch in Yarm in Stockton is part of the library
- In Wooler in Northumberland, we share space with the library, the police station, tourist information and business incubators
- In Hawes in North Yorkshire we share space with the library, the post office, the police station and the local bus service
Embedded in the community, we become part of the community, playing an integral role as part of an essential, vibrant hub, at a fraction of the cost of a full scale branch.
The experience of 2020 has taught us all to value our communities – and to value human interaction. We know that there will be yet more challenging times ahead, but we believe branches have a critical, sustaining role to play for our communities and high streets now, and when we finally do progress to better days beyond the current crisis, even more so.
For more information, visit Newcastle Building Society's website here