Financial Services: A Call for More Humanity

M.S. Kirkpatrick
Apr 20 · 6 min read

Very early in my working career, I worked at a sandwich shop for a gentleman named Spiro, an affable Greek immigrant with a wry sense of humor and perpetual smile. Spiro was a master of customer service and it came naturally. Spiro knew many of his customer’s names, their children’s names — where they worked, where they lived and so on. He’d often check in with folks no matter how busy the restaurant was. People really enjoyed the visit, not just the food. Spiro was delivering “relatedness”, an inherent human quality explained well in the self-determination theory of human behavior. We all want this human connection — it’s built in. Spiro unknowingly tapped into this by demonstrating an authentic caring about his customers.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to lead digital at another sandwich shop of sorts — but this was a large regional player. Through the process of investigating the opportunity with their leadership, I was pitched the sandwich shop experience of the future. As they described an experience full of tablets and automation, I realized quickly that even though I was often the eager advocate for digital products and experience-enhancing technology, in this case it didn’t feel right. I remembered Spiro and realized they were engineering out one of the best parts of the experience. The human part. I didn’t take the job.

That was an epiphany of sorts and since then I’ve built my career helping companies focus on being more thoughtful and intentional about incorporating digital products into a bigger picture and total customer experience journey. As I often say, if your CX is like a dining experience, it’s never about any single component, it’s about the total experience and includes a blend of technology and humanity. Adding technology to make payment easier is smart. Replacing the warm and friendly host with a kiosk is not. Today, world-class customer experience requires this artful blend of human and digital talent. And in financial services where money matters are intensely personal and often emotional -or- highly transactional, it’s good business to deploy the right talent for the given challenge.

So where specifically should you deploy human talent to enhance the customer experience within the financial services organization? Well first, I need to ask — have you fully mapped your customer’s journey? If not, you need to start there.

A comprehensive journey map that shows how your customers flow through your services over time is essential. These days, most financial organizations — especially banks and CUs have this covered. Pro-tip: Financial institutions should also remember to incorporate the emotional context of the customer at key milestones in the journey. For example, a customer is in a vulnerable and anxious state after suffering an unfortunate overdraft just prior to an impending automatic mortgage payment out of sequence with their paycheck. Does your organization have a plan in place for moments like these? Or do you rely on spontaneous solutions by your team?

Spontaneity can be a good thing. Employees can sometimes “call an audible” in ways a computer never could. And designing for emotional state of your customers is key to showing customers you really do care — which garners loyalty. How good does it feel when you visit a friend and after the long trip, he or she takes your coat, shuffles you to the chair and hands you a cocktail? I feel a sigh of relief thinking about it. Thank you very much.

These days, let’s acknowledge that humans remain superior at delivering empathy and caring to customers. Your website or app can’t do that quite yet. Humans also remain superior explaining matters of finance/money that are complex and sometimes best answered through dynamic conversation, although that’s continuing to change and evolve. Certainly, when something goes wrong, the tenor and direction of a conversation can changedramatically when taken out of digital channels and served by humans with high emotional intelligence (EQ).

Are you well-versed in the moments of the customer journey that might be especially emotionally charged? Those are great candidates for humanity. Unfortunately for financial institutions, these are often negative incidents. Beyond those, consider other moments such as an application for a small business loan or a first-time home purchase. Those transactions are highly emotional, and your best humanity could make a friend for life if handled with care and respect.

In banking especially, this focus on human empathy starts with the call center — likely your largest concentration of humanity interfacing daily with your customers. To build a great team you must hire for high EQ. Emotionally intelligent people ask questions, listen deeply to others, and are genuine and honest — all characteristics of likability. Why does likability matter? In a study by famed Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman it was found that people would rather do business with someone they like and trust — even if the less likeable person is offering a better product at a lower price. Customers that like your employees will do more business with you. Want to compete with “no fees” — be nicer.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with USAA for years and have observed their best-in-class call centers firsthand. It’s no secret to say they truly understand the importance of EQ and building customer rapport. I was impressed to see their innately curious member service reps (MSRs) spending the required time to understand the member situation and artfully make a true personal connection while whizzing through what seems like a dozen screens to complete a transaction. USAA has the same operational pressures as most to be more efficient, but it never comes at the cost of listening and understanding. They’re deeply mission focused. And their customers appreciate it as evidenced by top JD Power satisfaction rankings and industry leading loyalty scores.

Call centers are expensive to run, and that’s often why organizations are pressured to drive call volume & call time down. It is stressed to complete calls quickly and most financial organizations are looking to offload as much as possible to digital. A smart business strategy would entail investing energy in making sure your digital products excellently handle all the transactional stuff (like change-of-address) to allow your human talent to focus on things of higher value that are better served by people. For example, helping customers understand their credit options… or dealing with an unfortunate fee situation. Deploy digital to drive higher value calls that benefit from the human touch.

Don’t waste your human talent on transactional stuff. You may need to organize and motivate your employees on different metrics to get there. A big cell phone company offers some inspiration.

T-Mobile is receiving a lot of attention for their own revamping of the call center operations. They’ve gone against the grain and organized for better service by creating customer pools managed by consistent care teams organized geographically. That consistency means when a customer calls, they are routed to their pool of reps — not a round-robin based on availability across the country. Because of this, you may get the same rep if you call back and customers love this. Relationships are formed and customers feel well-served. Most cleverly, T-Mobile teams are truly invested in the success and happiness of their customers because T-Mobile has organized the business to allow teams to manage their customer pool like a mini P&L. Customer satisfaction and profitability are directly connected to the employee compensation and progression planning. The organization is built to encourage employees to spend time with customers, and they’re reporting 9% cost savings with 20% customer satisfaction score increases. T-Mobile’s approach is very distinguished amongst their competitors and helping this third-place player gain significant marketshare in a highly undifferentiated market (more on T-Mobile here).

Back to the sub shop…

Spiro paid us by the hour and obviously the focus was on creating and delivering great food quickly. However, he also modeled behaviors he knew as important and wanted us to also exhibit — caring about the customer as a person. Recognizing the look on a face when a customer stops in mid-commute and just wants to get home. We were trained to recognize this, remember their regular order, find it and begin ringing them up without even being asked — in this case even dialing down the banter.

Human connection and empathy in customer experience sounds hokey and may feel out of place when designing experiences to achieve business objectives measured in metrics often ruthlessly based in logic. However, world-class CX requires this line of thinking. In a world where more things than ever can be done automatically, remotely and by machine — it’s important to deliver humanity.

Especially in matters of money.

M.S. Kirkpatrick

Written by

Design, UX, Financial Services — I work @MadPow and head up Client Experience and the Financial Services practice.