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Can Banks Do More to Support Their Customers Through COVID-19?

In the last few decades, it is easy to generalise that banking has been, like most industries, focused on the quarterly, half, and full-year financial results. While this generalisation is unfair, the pandemic has highlighted that more should, and needs, to be done in terms of focussing on the needs of the customer.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some unforgivable failures in financial services, most of them relating to poor customer service. Many banks thought that they were engaging clients on a 1:1 basis, when in fact the majority frequently shoehorn customers into existing campaigns or service teams, instead of ensuring there’s relevant content for every individual and bank employee when they deal with them.

As well as a spike in enquiries to deal with, almost overnight it became a matter of urgency to provide services digitally to vulnerable businesses and people. To put it simply, banks were not remotely prepared. And they are likely to have to continue their transition to digital as pandemic restrictions will carry on into next year.

But without sufficient modern technology in place to enable these services and tailored customer engagement, banks have been left struggling to serve all their customers, essentially not having all levers at their disposal. Some banks do have the ability to be flexible, but most rely on people-based changes i.e. changes in working hours, changes in service level priorities with little automation and personalisation capability. With many customers in urgent need of financial assistance, how can banks best adapt so they can serve as many people as possible with the necessary level of care?

Redesigning the customer engagement process

Addressing the needs of the underserved requires more than a policy change. Banks should also be looking to redesign the customer engagement process to integrate inclusivity and empathy into each stage of the customer journey. This approach also needs the right organisation structure and process design supported by the right technology. RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) can, as part of a broad intelligent automation approach, achieve this at scale and across all channels to engage underserved customers with messages, offers and services designed for their specific needs.

An example of this would be NatWest Group, who is tailoring outbound messaging to clients and making personalised outbound calls from branches during the lockdown. Or Commonwealth Bank of Australia, who is enabling customers via their app to see what benefits they are eligible for from the bank as well as the government during any pandemic restrictions.

That said, banks do need to strike the right balance between focussing on digital vs. continuing to look after those without access to a computer or smartphone or an ability to use digital platforms. So still enabling usage of phone and face-to-face, even if via video conference from a branch facility that customers can come in and use, is important.

Intelligent automation can provide the agility banks’ need

Understandably, online chat and email have been the channels that have seen the most growth this year. To take them up a notch, banks should utilise automated bots which intelligently analyse customer requests using natural language processing to identify the type of case, prioritise, route and process appropriately internally, whether it can be completed using business rules in a fully automated manner or whether a person is needed to help. This way, internal banking systems and the teams that use them can achieve the flexibility and adaptability needed to accommodate the constantly changing needs of people and businesses.

Using tech to treat customers with empathy

As well as the ability to stay agile to flex with temporary changes in customer circumstances, banks also need to focus on treating customers fairly and responsibly. While many customers will be suffering from financial difficulty, not all cases are identical. In the case of a regional lockdown, access to temporary cash and lending may be a more urgent need. Customers’ finances can also be affected by changes in income, illness or bereavement, and each case should be handled with care, empathy and unique proactive solutions. For extremely sensitive cases like bereavement, banks have a responsibility to handle these cases with care. With modern technology available, it is inexcusable to cause unnecessary trauma to customers. Legacy systems and poor data management can no longer take the blame for unethical customer service.

Balancing automation and people-based change

With all the benefits that technology brings, the mix and balance of automation and people-based change is critical to get right. Banks must allow customers to choose how they would like to engage with their bank based on the situation they are in. For example, being able to open an account and provide basic services for those who do not have them can be fully automated with identification through a smartphone by taking a picture of a driving licence using facial recognition, meaning there is no people contact at all. This will work for many, but threre still needs to be the ability to get help via chat, phone or in person. This becomes more relevant as more high-value, complex services are needed. This is being reflected in branch footprints changing to focus more on, for example, home lending and investment advice, rather than taking out or depositing funds.

Given the unexpected circumstances, banks have done their best to prioritise and empathise with their most vulnerable customers, but there is more work to be done. The good news is that across the board, banks have put the pedal to the metal in terms of implementing the right technology to improve their current efforts. It is not a perfectly scientific process, but many will remember the support the banks got during the 2007-08 financial crisis and will now be watching to see how they behave in supporting people through this health and economic crisis. Time will tell how their reputations fare.


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Steve Morgan

Steve Morgan

Banking Industry Market Lead


Member since

04 Sep 2019



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Customer Service 2015-2019-2025

In the industry of customer service how it will grow nowadays. How was it in past and how it will become in future. Sharing innovative ideas about customer services like call centres, phone answering, business process outsourcing, lead generation, verification service, chat support etc.

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