Smile, You’re On Camera

Do you need to see your banker?

It’s a serious question, and the answer represents one possible bridge between the two opposite ends of the retail banking spectrum.

At one end of, course, is the demise of the local outlet as we know it—new branch construction is the butt of jokes, and existing branches are being shut down in apparently record numbers. However, the transition to all-technology, all-of-the-time is not happening overnight, or perhaps even anytime soon. In fact, while foot traffic is clearly down, there seems to still be a huge audience out there of regular consumers who find reason to visit their banker in person. But for that latter category—the good people who need eye-to-eye contact in sensitive communications—is there a technology alternative?

One such model is being tried out at UMB Financial (UMBF) in Kansas City, which has built a reputation for innovation in its market-facing strategies. While joining the mass migration to mobile transactions and other fresh tactics, the institution is turning to video banking to fill the potential gap.

Videoconferencing capabilities at three pilot sites now connect consumers with tellers at the call center, who help customers negotiate the necessary financial tasks. It’s potentially a win-win—the technology speeds up the transaction and frees up trained branch personnel to focus on more difficult issues.

As we’ve documented on this blog, many institutions are experimenting with their retail models, from cutting back drastically on local branches to building in teller pods and community rooms. However, every new tactic has its own issues, and it will be interesting to see how using video plays out.

This technology actually goes to the heart of many issues currently confronting the modern workplace. As online collaboration tools gain greater sophistication and adoption, the idea of working from home is already going from an occasional luxury to the norm. Of course, home could be on the other side of town, or in the suburbs, or another city or even another country.  But as just about all communication becomes virtual, what effect is it having on trust and camaraderie between co-workers?

This is also playing out on the customer side. The service industry in general (and retail industry in particular) is confronting these issues on a regular basis, as store chains and even mom-and-pop outlets try to develop a balance between in-store and e-commerce models.  The hard truth is that we don’t have the answers yet—this is a movement that’s still moving, and will keep moving for some time.

With banking, the other X factor is that it’s about money—many consumers who might otherwise be considered tech-savvy remain skittish about conducting financial transactions online, and the steady stream of stories about data and identify theft don’t do much to instill trust in the process. Would personal interaction and eye contact, even via video cameras, help?

There are other issues to consider too. Most of the time when calling customer support, we have no idea who we’re talking to, and where that person is. There’s been plenty of media buzz about support functions being outsourced overseas: Will bankers based on the other side of the world now appear on camera? Or will there be a new generation of carefully coiffed financial advisors appearing on camera from designated sites—or even from home, assuming the background is industry-appropriate? On the flip side, banks could save on real estate. Oversized branches will be replaced by smaller sites that have only a few key personnel and a bank of workstations, and of course, there’s less chance of a waiting line.

Bottom line: The financial services industry is clearly in a time of huge transition, just like the rest of society, and banks that experiment with new ideas deserve support and encouragement.  Video-enabled banking probably isn’t a panacea, but it could be one of the answers.

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