The branch isn't going away, it's going forward, says a new study released today by Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group.
The study focused on the need for banks to move toward an "omni-channel" strategy of delivering a consistent customer experience across channels, so that customers can seamlessly access products and services when they are needed. Among the different channels looked at in the study, the role of the branch was one of the most contentious and polarizing issues for the customers surveyed in the study. Cisco found that although customers are doing more of their banking activities through virtual channels, they still desire the face time and personal attention offered in a branch.
"Banks are trying to figure out what to do with their most expensive channels, especially with branch visits decreasing around the world," says Philip Farah, the director of Financial Services Practice at Cisco IBSG. "The branch will be a hybrid of a help desk and a place for finalizing major transactions and investments."
[Life Without Channels: How to Provide a Seamless Customer Experience] A large number of the survey's respondents (47 percent) showed an interest in an all-virtual bank, says Farah. In addition, the majority of respondents already use virtual channels for checking their balances, transferring funds and managing their accounts. This would seem to indicate that the possibility of banks going completely virtual is soon to be a reality. But Farah notes that opposition to an all-virtual bank was strong as well, with 26 percent of the respondents saying they would likely switch banks if branches were discontinued.
And just because customers have switched to using virtual channels for basic transactions and account management doesn't mean that they never visit a branch. Cisco's study actually found the opposite to be true. The most tech-savvy customers are also some of the most frequent branch visitors, with mobile banking customers averaging 2.5 branch visits per month, just above the 2.3 visit-average across all respondents.
Customers still value the face time with a representative that a branch offers, with 65 percent of the respondents saying they prefer the branch for personalized attention and advice. The study predicts that the future branch will play a lesser role in transactions, which will be done virtually, and will be more focused on providing the face time and advice customers desire.
"Banks should be looking at expanding what they can advise on as well," Cisco's Farah says. He comments that banks could offer advice and services to customers on adjacent services like insurance, tax preparation and legal and notary services. The study found that 83 percent of respondents would be open to receiving such advice and services from their bank.
This will mean that banks will have to have expertise to offer in these fields, but virtual technologies will make it less expensive for banks to deliver this advice and service.
"Advice and personal attention doesn't have to come at the high cost of branches stacked with experts. Many customers are ok with using high quality video conferencing," says Farah. Cisco, which provides teleconferencing solutions, found that 28 percent of the study's participants would be interested in teleconferencing with a remote expert from their branch.
This doesn't mean that branches would just be kiosks with videoconferencing monitors, Cisco emphasized. Branch personnel would still be needed to field preliminary questions and set up the video conferences. This would give customers the authenticity of real face time with a representative in the branch while also allowing a remote expert to field questions and deliver advice to many customers from multiple branches.
"We are definitely seeing an uptick in interest in video conferencing," says Ed O'Brien, the director of Banking Channels Advisory Service at the Mercator Advisory Group. O'Brien added that financial institutions can pilot a videoconferencing solution at a branch with a high definition monitor for less than $10,000.
O'Brien also agreed with Cisco's study that branches are going to become more centered around consultative services. "You will go into a branch and the teller position will be a conduit for loans and other financial products and will be able to set up an appointment for a more licensed type of associate," he says. O'Brien suggests that videoconferencing would have the biggest impact in rural branches where banks could offer advice remotely with a live expert that customers would have to travel a significant distance to get elsewhere.
Cisco's study was conducted this past May and surveyed 5,300 customers in eight developed and emerging countries. The study also looked at developments in other channels such as mobile and social media and how they will play a role in the "omni-channel" approach outlined in the study.
Jonathan Camhi has been an associate editor with Bank Systems & Technology since 2012. He previously worked as a freelance journalist in New York City covering politics, health and immigration, and has a master's degree from the City University of New York's Graduate School ... View Full Bio