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Question: Community branch, personal service, mobile banking—which is the odd one out?

Answer: None. Otherwise, the industry is in trouble.

For some time now, there have been discussions about the future of community banks in the age of digital banking. After all, this is a sector of the industry that built its reputation largely on the basis of a personalized form of customer service—as industry observers continue to point out, branch staffers are famed for knowing their customers by name. What happens when this genteel, Norman Rockwell-esque universe gets swallowed up by Tweets and mobile apps?

First, let’s acknowledge that isn’t happening, it’s already happened. Many established banking practices have been radically transformed through digital capabilities, and more changes are coming.  In other words, the premise for this discussion is obsolete, and constant hand-wringing about days gone by is little more than a waste of time.

In fact, that’s why the original question is so relevant: In the world of community branches, why are personal service and mobile banking seen as being mutually exclusive?

To be sure, there’s nothing quite like face-to-face interaction—it’s warm and personal, lending each transaction the ultimate human touch.  By contrast, the very idea of digital communication seems cold and distant and impersonal.

But look at it this way: The unending parade of social media channels and mobile apps, accompanied by the widespread public adoption of each new innovation as it arrives, gives us more information about each customer than ever before. The very notion of Big Data can seem Big Brother-like, but it, too, is here to stay, and it’s in our best interest to make it serve us.

It doesn’t take a police state to piece together nuggets of information from Google searches, Tweets followed, Facebook pages liked, blogs perused, ads scanned and online purchases made (along with every other digital phenomenon) to develop comprehensive profiles of each customer. These technologies were once the realm of multinational conglomerates, but today there are many affordable alternatives available for financial services providers of every stripe.

More to the point, the customer universe is changing in its own way—consumers increasingly expect (and respond to) marketing initiatives and digital apps that meet their own very specific needs. This is an era in which because we can learn more about each individual, we essentially have to learn more about each individual in order to serve them.

To put it another way, this is the new face of personalized customer service. Rather than just greeting customers by name and touching on family connections, as community banks have long done, they can tailor services that are uniquely customized for each member of the community.

In the Information Age, guided by Big Data, community banks with local branches shouldn’t feel besieged by the onslaught of mobile applications. Things are and will be very different, no doubt about that. But with the right strategy and implementation, new technologies can provide an arsenal with which to offer more personalized customer service than ever before.

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James W. Gabberty

Gabberty is a professor of information systems at Pace University in New York City. An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University Polytechnic Institute, he has served as an expert witness in telecommunication and information security at the federal and state levels and holds numerous certifications from SANS & ISACA.

Marisa Mann

Marisa Mann brings over 15 years of experience in consulting and financial services industries to the Solstice team, working on large scale enterprise initiatives across many technologies, including specializing in the digital space – Internet and mobile. Mann is passionate about mobile and the endless possibilities for the enterprise, delivering business value through strong brand recognition and driving to excellence in the consumer experience. Prior to Solstice, Mann worked at JP Morgan Chase, Diamond Management and Technology Consultants, Washington Mutual, Inc, and Accenture.

Zachary Ehrlich

25-year-old writer, and as a native San Franciscan, I am unreasonably loyal to Bank of America, if only for their superhero-like origin story, involving the 1906 earthquake and Italian fruit vendors.

Brad Strothkamp

http://www.forrester.com/rb/analyst/brad_strothkamp