Listening to John Warren and Barnaby Davis speak about branches of the future at the BSA Annual Conference, in a presentation as engaging and interactive as the topic itself, it quickly became apparent that although branches have come a long, long way in the last 30 years, this is nothing compared to what is to come.
As the Account Director of Wincor Nixdorf, John Warren made the important point that although as a society, on the whole we tend to welcome technological innovation; the branch still plays a key role when it comes to both advice and sales. While self-service, when effective, can be quick and pain-free, the needs of the customer are still fundamentally the same as they always have been and a machine cannot replace face-to-face communication within the branch. Indeed, assisted service technologies such as video conferencing, contactless ATM’s and tablets can aid the process of banking, when it comes to the fundamentals, delivering through people is the most valuable tool of all.
So how do we incorporate this important technology, whilst continuing to support the customer by protecting their money and rewarding their custom with speed and convenience? For a start, John Warren emphasises that branch innovation need not always be technological, or at least, not every element of it. Open branch formats naturally invite interaction where necessary, an important factor when statistics show that human face-to-face interaction in financial services still achieves the highest conversion rates at 85%.
Barnaby Davis, Divisional Director of Group Retail at Nationwide is also of the view that transforming the branch needn’t always be technological, but that these advancements are of course, still very much welcome. With 31 branches across the UK waiting to be transformed, many of which are already complete or well underway in the refurbishment process, he emphasises how the branch has been and always will be, a necessary presence for building societies. He remembers the death of the branch being announced back in 1989, but whilst what consumers use them for has changed, they are as necessary now as they have ever been. Statistics show that customers interacting with the society whether face to face or digitally are always within a 9-mile radius of a branch, even if they rarely visit. Separate research by the Darlington Building Society shows that having the reassuring presence of branch nearby makes a critical difference to the decisions customers make about which firm to do business with.
With customers shaping the design of these newly refurbished branches, Davis says: “we help people buy homes, so we should make people feel like they are at home” and with this, he shows images of the open plan and modern branch spaces with an undeniably homely feel. The statistics to back this up? Following the transformation of the Tottenham Court Road branch, customer satisfaction increased from 68% to 92%... in the first week.
Branches are a strong advertising presence, he explains, and it is incredibly difficult to replicate this when the branch isn’t there. In which case, a complete move to interactive would be a significant mistake for banking. Though, while Nationwide welcomes the technological elements of branch innovation, it is about the all-round experience of the customer not just the ability to make those changes. If talking to someone via video does the trick, then so be it. In which a case, virtual reality and face-to-face communication are working so cohesively with the human presence you wouldn’t even know the difference. Indeed a customer making use of Nationwide Now in branch recently apologised for ‘kicking’ the adviser (in Northampton) the connection was so real.