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The Digital Paradox

Alex Carriles, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Simmons Bank
Alex Carriles, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Simmons Bank

Alex Carriles, Executive Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Simmons Bank

Alex Carriles serves as executive vice president and chief digital officer for Simmons Bank, where he oversees Simmons’ digital banking strategy, customer experience through digital channels and customer acquisition through digital tools.

Not too long ago, as a banker, it was easy to segment customers based on a few criteria such as where they lived, their life stage, and income. At the end of the day, there were only a few channels that could serve those customers: the branch or – for simpler tasks – an ATM or call center.

Yes, there were more exclusive branches for high net worth or ultra-high net worth customers, and personal bankers for some of them, but really, there was only one place to serve them.

Now, with the proliferation of digital channels, we have online, mobile, text, smart watches, and voice devices such as Alexa and others. I have even played with a smart TV banking app that has long been forgotten. But here lies the problem: not all users feel comfortable with these platforms, and many times financial institutions approach servicing the wrong way by trying to steer users to the lowest-cost channel (mobile) and away from more expensive ones, such as branches and call centers, without considering the preferences and needs of their customers.

In recent years we have seen the relentless push towards mobile banking, given its ubiquity, low cost, and available services. However, the reception has varied across demographics. If we plot a graph between age and usage, we can see that mobile adoption is inversely proportional to age, while branch adoption is directly proportional.

The interesting thing is that, for bankers, some of the most valuable customers tend to be older, with a well-established credit history, higher disposable income, and more complex financial needs. Despite this, few features in today’s mobile banking apps are designed to give these older customers an appealing experience. Instead, banks often push aggressively towards digital channels in ways that attract younger demographics with limited income, and in many cases, incipient creditworthiness.

Here lies what I call ‘The Digital Paradox’: while young users are attracted to digital channels, banks give them the lowest approval ratios for new accounts online; this means young users fail the traditional identification processes used online at considerably higher rates than do older users, and have a harder time completing the funding process (especially when applying for their first bank account). Conversely, older users who are more likely to pass online identification checks, are not as comfortable opening an account online by comparison.

At the crux of this paradox is a lack of clear focus on the user’s needs. With the help of a User Experience Lab, which invites users to experiment with digital offerings during the development stage, I have seen firsthand the real struggle young users have with the language some banks use. For example, young users are discouraged by phrases like “Learn More” or even “Apply” preferring straightforward language like “Open an Account.” I’ve heard Millennials complain that they didn’t want to “learn more” (they already knew what they wanted), and “apply” in their own words, sounded like a “long and complicated process, instead of a simple task.” To add insult to injury, we also have “the forms.” Why in this day and age, do we still force users to complete online forms instead of asking simple questions through an interactive process? Because “forms have been used for a long time and customers are used to them.” Which customers, I ask? The answer is older customers or those that are least likely to apply online in the first place.

And then we get to funding a new account. If these young, potential customers don’t have an account with another financial institution already, how are they supposed to fund a new account if the only options available are via an electronic transfer or by using a debit card from an existing account? They are out of luck. That is why the abandonment rate is much higher at the funding stage with younger users than older ones. 

Points like those explained above make me believe that we really need to segment our digital channels with more finesse, focusing on the differences in our user’s preferences and what they find convenient. For example, why not allow users to fund an account via mobile deposit, so young users can open their first account with their paycheck? Or allow them to use social media — where Millennial and Gen Z customers already have a strong digital footprint— to identify themselves instead of asking stale “out of wallet questions” that rely on credit history information that no one seems to remember!

And just like the younger users have problems using the channel of their preference, the same happens to Boomers and Gen X’s. For instance, most Certificates of Deposit (CDs) are opened by 70 plus-year-old customers at a branch. But when it’s time to renew these CDs, customers are forced to return to a branch, which is not always convenient. How about a simple push notification, or even a text message to allow them to reply with a “yes” if they want to renew their CD at maturity and save a trip to the bank?

I suggest that it is time to stop thinking of simply adding “cool features” to digital channels and start focusing more on who is going to use them and what will attract each segment we want to serve. Let’s design the full end-to-end user experience and deliver real value to our users.

With the advances of Artificial Intelligence, we can better identify specific user trends, helping us to focus on the needs of each customer instead of trying to deliver a one-size-fitsall solution. Ultimately, listening to our customers will help us better serve them — while also equipping us to solve The Digital Paradox. 

 

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