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The Power of Empathy in Digital Banking

  • Last Updated: December 14, 2023

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As customers around the world increasingly adopt digital banking channels, banks face the challenge of providing empathetic service in the absence of face-to-face interactions.

This is not an easy task, but the stakes are high. In a recent Accenture survey, just 3 in 10 banks were confident about their ability to understand their customers’ emotional outlook about their financial and personal situation.

These banks saw their revenues grow by an average of 1.3% in 2020, while banks who were less empathetic saw their revenues contract by 0.6% on average.

Use surveys to understand your customers emotionally

The best way to understand what your customers are thinking is to ask them.

And while you can’t necessarily always do this one on one, surveys are an efficient way of “speaking” with a wide cross-section of your customer base as scalably as possible.

A good place to get started is the Net Promoter Score (NPS). Your NPS consists of one key question on a 1-10 scale: How likely is it that you would recommend [our bank] to a friend or colleague?

Respondents are categorized into one of three groups:

  • Promoters have a score of 9-10. These are your most loyal and enthusiastic customers, who will not only keep using your services, but also refer others in their personal and professional networks.
  • Passives have a score of 7-8. These are satisfied customers who don’t necessarily love your brand. They’re unlikely to refer others and may be easily attracted by competitive offerings.
  • Detractors have a score of 0-6. These are unhappy customers who are not likely to continue using your products in future, and may even tarnish your brand by spreading negative word of mouth.

Your NPS is calculated by subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. Ranging from -100 to 100, your NPS can be a simple yet powerful metric for evaluating the health of your brand.

But while the NPS is a good starting point, the most empathetic banks will go beyond this, to more comprehensive surveys that allow them to deeply understand their customers’ emotional experience. Such surveys should include a mix of quantitative and qualitative data.

For example,a recent survey from Ipsos found that many bank customers feel anxious about their financial health due to COVID:

While this is not surprising, qualitative comments collated during the survey indicated that this was the case even for respondents who had not lost their jobs or experienced much direct financial impact, and were much broader in scope.

Several respondents were concerned about the overall financial health of their banks, making comments such as:

“If I could talk to the leaders of my bank I think that I would ask them if my money is safe in the bank due to what the coronavirus is doing to the world and our economy or if they suggest for people to take their money out of the banks while they still can.

Such nuances would not have been easily uncovered through a purely quantitative survey, and banks that go the extra mile in gathering qualitative feedback will be able to better understand their customers’ emotional needs.

Use AI to personalize experiences

One of the best ways to demonstrate empathy is to personalize your offerings.

By providing customers with an experience that’s tailored to their specific circumstances, you show that you care about them as individuals.

However, personalization can be challenging to get right for financial products.

Unlike other consumer products, which are mostly discretionary and dependent on personal taste, financial products often require serious conversations about long-term goals, complex trade-offs, and tough budgeting decisions.

Advice about life-changing commitments such as mortgages and personal insurance policies cannot be made as cavalierly as a Netflix movie or Spotify song recommendation.

And your customers should not be swiping away a low-balance push notification from your banking app the same way they would for a new post alert from Instagram.

In other words, digital personalization for financial products must strive for a much higher degree of user trust.

One successful example of this is TD’s mobile banking app. The app leverages AI to present virtual “cards” to users notifying them of actionable items.

These cards are customized based on the user’s specific portfolio of products, goals and past behaviors.

For instance, if the customer has an electricity bill payment due soon, the app will display it on the very first card.

If that user has the habit of reviewing the past three months’ electricity bills for a quick check on the new bill total, the app will also automatically serve up those past statements in a separate card.

Not only does this make for a more personalized experience, it also greatly improves the customer’s compliance rate by making next steps as convenient as possible.

Rizwan Khalfan, TD’s Chief Digital and Payments Officer, stresses the importance of empathy in designing these user experiences:

“What we did through the pandemic using AI to predict low balances has been received really well. We were skeptical because we don’t want to be blatant about it—you want to be thoughtful and deliberate and subtle about saying things like, ‘Hey, we see your balance might be low, here are a few options to consider.’”

Over the coming years, he believes that banks who are able to provide the most empathetic personalized experiences will be the ones who win in the digital channel.

Scale the human touch with digital technology

While AI is a powerful tool, many digital banking experiences will still require a human touch. Banks need an efficient way to deliver on that need for human contact at a digital scale.

In order to accomplish this, leading-edge banks have developed a three-tier model for customer service that balances efficiency and an empathetic digital banking experience.

In Tier 1, AI virtual agents help customers with basic questions such as:

  • How do I find my account information?
  • How do I set up pre-authorized debit payments?
  • What is my bank transit / routing / branch number?

Customers asking these general questions are usually not looking for a human representative per se, but are just looking for a quick, efficient answer without having to wait in line.

That makes an automated AI-powered answering service the ideal solution for these queries.

In Tier 2, more complex questions and requests are directed to human chat. Examples include:

  • Could you please explain these charges / fees on my account?
  • How do I prove a change of address?
  • I didn’t make these purchases with my credit card, could you please look into this?

These queries often require the sharing of personal information or supporting documents and files, so it’s often appropriate for a human representative to be involved. Using chat allows a single rep to handle multiple service requests at once, and is a lot more scalable than voice calls.

In Tier 3, the most sophisticated or sensitive queries are handled via a phone or video call with the relevant in-house domain experts. These include:

  • How can I delay my loan payments?
  • What should I do with my investment portfolio during COVID?
  • Which type of mortgage is right for me?

Empathetic banks seamlessly combine resources from their call center, physical branches and various front and back office departments to form distributed customer care hubs that are able to address the customer’s most complex queries.

Live calls are appropriate for these conversations as a holistic understanding of the customer’s circumstances, goals and emotional state is often essential for empathetic service.

This three-tiered approach can help banks provide relevant human interactions to the right customer queries at scale, thus improving both efficiency and quality of service.

Relationships are a two-way street

Customers care about brands that care about them.

By providing an empathetic digital banking experience, you can set yourself apart from competitors and cultivate loyal customer relationships that fuel growth through good times and bad.

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