Banks in the digital age: It’s still about humans

This opinion piece was published in American Banker online on March 24, 2017. 
Written by Michael Rhodes.

As a frequent business traveler, I thought I'd seen it all. That is until I found myself stuck in line behind a fellow traveler who was pecking away at his smartphone while we waited to check out of our hotel. When he approached the hotel counter, he flashed a scathing online review at the clerk and threatened to publish it if his complaints weren't addressed. Needless to say, the hotel was very accommodating.

The digital age has democratized communications, ushering in a new age of transparency and mass data sets. The repercussions of negative (or positive!) customer reviews are both instant and far-reaching, and the effects can be lasting.

Today's savvy companies understand that they can no longer control the message; they can only help shape the conversation. It’s important for business leaders to recognize that the same platforms that enable consumers to evangelize or pan our brands also empower us to understand and anticipate our customers' needs. And that's a powerful toolkit.

I’m a banker in my day job, but I’m an engineer by training. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes this new digital economy tick. I've concluded that we are entering a third era in the digital age. We began online (dial-up, no less!), and then migrated to mobile phones. Now, we are entering a new era with more sophisticated tools like speech recognition and machine learning. Like the previous two, this third phase will be Darwinian: Only the nimblest will thrive. To evolve and flourish, companies should follow these three guidelines that put the consumer first.

Design human-centered experiences

While today's consumers expect excellent service at physical locations, they also want a blended online and offline experience. One example of an innovative approach to meeting these demands is Nordstrom's Reserve & Try In Store test. This capability lets customers select clothing on their mobile devices and then Nordstrom puts those items in a dressing room so they are there when the shopper arrives at the store.

Banks can and should connect the online to the offline experience. At TD, we recently introduced a feature that lets our customers seamlessly move from accessing the TD mobile app to getting support from a contact center agent without reauthentication, for example.

As an industry, we should commit to taking a human-centered approach to convenience.

Solve for basic human needs

Instead of focusing on hot new technologies, our goal as bankers should be to solve simple human problems. That's what Uber did for transportation, Venmo did for moving money and Airbnb did for finding a place to stay.

Like many industries, banking has typically followed the money and focused on device-specific experiences, rather than using technology to create simple solutions. This left room for fintech companies like PayPal and Venmo to seize market share by creating simple and intuitive experiences that made paying and transferring money simple for consumers.

While banking is a complex business, it's based on people needing access to money, either their own or through borrowing. The business of money is emotional. If we can make access easier through one less click or with one more wallet option, it reduces friction points.

Take a simple and intuitive approach

Take a fresh look at your products with an eye toward creating seamless and intuitive experiences that allow consumers to share resources and information easily and securely wherever they are — home, office, car or on foot. Technologies like voice biometrics can check many boxes for customers — the convenience of voice recognition saves customers time, and the added security features provide peace of mind.

But that’s just the beginning.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are making huge bets on non-tactile, human digital interfaces, such as Siri, Echo, Nest and Google Home.

New, unlikely partnerships surfacing between car manufacturers and payment providers are removing barriers to banking. Banks may not launch “the next big thing,” but we should be paying attention. Exploring the value of conveniences, such as hands-free banking, and integrating our banking services with digital assistants like Alexa or Siri will be time well spent.

No matter how technologically advanced we become, every app, algorithm and touch screen is still being created by humans, for humans. Let’s remember that.

Michael Rhodes

Group Head, Innovation, Technology and Shared Services

TD Bank Group