The last time I visited a bank branch? Um...

Digital Banking

The last time I visited a bank branch? Um...

By Arun Venkatachalam · · 5 min read

They say we are “creatures of habit.” And as far as humans go, our habits always tend towards the easier way out. And over time, the ‘easier ways’ we find become new habits.

Think about how we pick frozen food over fresh produce; or take the elevator instead of the adjoining stairs; or refresh our wardrobe from our phones instead of going to the mall.

Point is – there comes a time in our lives when we completely change the way we do things. Examples of this are so easy to find that you might not even notice them anymore.

Every taxi driver today – ‘UPI karo.’

Every neighbourhood corner store – ‘I can Dunzo it to you.’

Every place of worship tomorrow – ‘Please donate via online transfer.’

Every teller at a bank branch – ‘Umm…what are you doing here?’

Did that last one hit home? Let’s face it – most of us wouldn’t be able to recall the last time we visited a bank branch. Months ago? Years ago? And even if you have to visit one, it’s not without frustratedly questioning the strange nature of modern life. “Why is this still a thing?”; “Shouldn’t I be able to do this on an app?”; “God I wish banks had delivery executives.”

“Please! No! Anywhere but the bank branch!”

It’s almost certain that the average young person you see in a bank these days is simply there for the ATM; or to get a bunch of papers rubber-stamped; or because someone wants a leaf from something called a “cheque book” – which at this point is the 21st century equivalent of a rotary phone.

And to say nothing of the “take a token and wait in line” system, or the fact that your turn happens to arrive right when it’s lunch time! Honestly, the only token I want in 2020 is one that gets me a plate of Pani-Puri. #GoKaruna

But seriously – do our lives even permit us to go to banks during their so called “working hours”? You know, 9AM to 4PM when we’re usually neck-deep in Zoom meetings? At least when we had offices to go to, we noticed the bank branch on the ground floor of the office building.

And then there’s the concept of instant gratification – Pizza in under 30 minutes; an unlimited library of TV shows and movies; one subscription to all of the world’s music, have all spoilt us to the point of intolerance towards anything that feels remotely tedious.

But you know what? That’s the reality of life and human advancement. Every industry has had its sales channel and mode of delivery up-ended – except banking. So, is it time for branch banking to change, or do we just ignore and work around it?

That question is more important than ever, because something is happening right under our noses, and I’m not sure we’re seeing it.

RSVP-ing to branchless and bringing +1’s 

A leading private sector bank in India, which has had a stellar reputation for being a granular retail bank, has grown its branches at an annual rate of just 4%. Now that’s not a bad thing at all, but its assets have grown by ~19% and this is down to productivity gains that it is proud of (and rightfully so). However, here’s the reality of that productivity: 

Wait a minute. Does this mean we have found yet another habit-forming ‘easy way’? And if so, how do we make it better? What emotional representations of a physical bank branch do we recreate in a virtual setting? Well, here’s our take:

1. Trust: Symbols go from big banners on high-streets to another form of exclusive real estate – front and centre on your phone. Our familiarity with logos makes us believe that the well-known provider of an offline service will deliver an equally measurable service online (needless to say, we have a long way to go on this front).

More importantly, our generation is not just open to, but craves digital advancement. And so we naturally choose to trust digital versions of old physical establishments. After all, almost the entirety of our life now happens online – so trust has to be part of the package.

2. Security: Every time you go to an ATM at night, spare a thought for that security guard who dutifully does his job so that you can withdraw your money in peace. He guards the branch, day in and day out, ably assisted by his friend, Mr. CCTV. 

In this area, online banking is trickier. We expect perpetrators (let’s say, a 4-year-old) of heinous online crimes (inadvertently buying in-app Kandy Coins) to unlawfully charge our card. So what we’re more concerned about is monitoring the unknown, rather than the known. For the modern customer, ‘trust’ might come as standard, but ‘security’ is how you make sure you never lose it.

3. Familiarity: Remember that friendly neighbourhood bank manager? Weren’t they a nice person? I’m sure they were, but these days, banks themselves change branch managers faster than I can binge watch ‘Tiger King’.

As we got accustomed to this revolving door of bank/relationship managers, our idea of familiarity shifted to the UI/UX of the digital products we use. And here, banks have a long way to go. As we become comfortable with managing our own money, the digital tools we use to do so need to live up to our expectations. Today’s friendly and thoughtful app experience is the equivalent of yesterday’s helpful bank manager.

4. Transparency: Perhaps the most important emotion of them all. “Everything must be on the banking system,” “I should have a record of all my transactions,” “Where’s the money, Lebowski?” (I couldn’t help myself with that last one). This trait is perhaps the most obsolete on the list, given our ability today to check, enquire, verify, and reconcile any and all issues within seconds, right at our fingertips.

It’s safe to say that almost 90% of all branch activities have moved to a self-serve model. If you don’t buy that, simply ask a 20-something to recall the last time they visited their bank’s branch. We tried and mostly got long stints of silence as the poor fellow Ctrl+F’ed the last 6 years of his life.

So it’s almost as safe to say that a bank’s need to intermediate our financial activities via bank branches is all but obsolete. Being able to take out a loan without any paperwork is the new easy way. Being able to send or receive money without ever touching a cheque drop-box is the new easy way. Being able to get answers to our questions without having to meet the branch manager, is the new easy way.

We’re finding ‘easier ways’ to do things in almost every aspect of money and banking. And we’re not too far away from the day when we’ll be able to manage our own money, on our own terms, in our own time – when completely digital banking will be the new habit.

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Digital Banking

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