RESEARCH FOR THIS ARTICLE WAS CONDUCTED IN THE AUTHOR’S CAPACITY AS AN HONOURS STUDENT IN STRATEGIC BRAND COMMUNICATION AT THE IIE-VEGA SCHOOL, A BRAND OF THE INDEPENDENT INSTITIUE OF EDUCATION.
The digital revolution is redefining the banking customer experience. This study sought to explore what the role of the bank branch (human interaction) plays in the banking customer experience of the digital age – particularly within the South African banking context. Furthermore, the study compared the customer experience strategies of two major South African banks, namely: Standard Bank and Capitec Bank who developed two contrasting experience strategies as a result of digital transformation.
Few studies have investigated how the customer experience has evolved in the South African banking environment. This article presents the research findings concluded in 2019 in which a qualitative, multi-case-study approach was adopted. Data was gathered from ten participants – five from each bank. The bank branches chosen were geographically located in the city of Cape Town and more specifically in the Cape Town CBD. The sampling design incorporated both internal and external stakeholders as participants, as the researcher deemed this approach would embrace a more holistic understanding of the banks’ customer experience strategies. Thus, the sample included five participants from each bank comprising:
- One Customer Experience Manager
- One bank consultant; and
- Three customers.
The data was gathered during ten semi-structed interviews in total. Although the sample was not representative of the whole population and findings could not be generalised, the data highlighted key factors that may contribute to the understanding of banking customer experience in the age of digital transformation.
During thematic analysis, several key factors emerged, namely:
- Defining customer experience;
- Understanding target market needs;
- Maintaining bank trust in the digital age;
- Brand switching;
- Addressing banking in the digital age; and
- Identifying the role of the bank branch.
Defining customer experience
The general customer experience strategies of both banks – Standard Bank and Capitec are similar in that they engage the consumer in both physical and digital channels to create an omni-channel experience. This holistic view is reminiscent in Verhoef et al. (2009), who define the customer experience as holistic in nature across multiple touchpoints.
Bolton (2015) illustrates physical interaction with a brand can evoke emotional feelings towards the brand. This is evident in the study where both positive and negative feelings were evoked towards the banks. Participant 1’s negative experience with a consultant and Participant 5’s tedious process resulted in both participants having negative feelings towards Standard Bank’s branch experience. On the contrary, Capitec’s Bank branch received positive feelings with Participant 1 and 2 reiterating their positive sentiments towards the bank branch within the customer experience.
Understanding target market needs
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the target market needs and expectations of the bank and the bank’s customer experience strategy. In the study, it was evident that Capitec Bank places a strong emphasis on the bank branch as one of their integral brand touchpoints. Whilst Standard Bank emphasises and encourages migration to digital channels. These two banks display different strategies that ultimately resonate with their customers.
Camarate and Maritz (2017) indicate that for South African banks to stay relevant and competitive, they need to have a thorough understanding of their consumers’ banking needs in order to deliver products and experiences that are relevant and meaningful to them. From this study, the needs of the Standard Bank customers related more with digital banking. Participant 5 cited “I don't see the value or the purpose of Bank branches anymore”. Whilst Participant 1 from Capitec argues that “… a bank branch is something that has to be around. Yes I might only go there once a year, but I do have to go there and my customer experience matters too.”
Findings of this study show that ultimately, the participants can do without the branch if it is necessary but ideally, they would like the luxury of having the option of it being there in the case the need arises.
Maintaining bank trust in the digital age
The research displays that trust is an important factor in the banking experience, particularly in this digital age. Participant 6 explains that despite being a digital native, there is still an aspect of worry he feels with digital banking as he feels that accounts are more subject to being hacked. Participant 1 shares the same sentiment. Moreover, Participant 1 intimated that outdated systems also affect the level of trust. This observation could be symptomatic of additional out-of-date features. The participants reported that the bank branch does offer a sense of security and support within the banking customer experience, which helps build bank trust in this digital age.
Minimising brand switching
The participants displayed a lack of emotional connection towards their bank. Participant 1 commented “I don't feel in any way emotionally connected to them [Standard Bank]. If anything had to happen I would change to another bank in a second”. With such a greatly saturated bank market, high customer needs and expectations, bank customers are very willing and capable of switching banks as soon as they experience something wrong. “Customer satisfaction is considered a positive determinant of how strong the relationship between the customer and the product provider is… ” (Abdel Hamid Saleh 2015, p.63). Furthermore, there is a higher likelihood that unsatisfied customers will search for what satisfies them in services offered by competitors. Service quality is considered a positive driver for behavioural intentions of leaving, switching or remaining (Saunders and Petzer, 2010).
This lack of emotional connection to a particular bank indicates that banks need to work even harder to retain clients as they are not emotionally connected and are therefore more susceptible to bank switching.
Addressing banking in the digital age
This research implies the digital age has changed the way customers bank. The convenience and autonomy that digital banking offers customers has resulted in them feeling more control over their finances and a lesser need for branch visits. Accessibility and convenience are integral to the definition of banking in this new age. This refers to both the digital and physical touchpoints of the customer experience.
Identifying the role of the bank branch
From the study, it is evident that the role of the bank branch has changed. As stated by PWC (2014), the branch strategy has evolved and takes on a new purpose of “advisory and engagement hubs”. Digital technology is used and will continue to be used to enhance the branch experience (PWC, 2014). Participant 1 cited “I think they [Capitec Bank] have really infiltrated the digital age in their store approach which is why I feel like it is so much more convenient”. Participants 3 and 4 explain that human interaction should still be made available to customers as there are customers who do need it and it allows the bank to personally check-in with their clients. Capitec views their branches as an integral element to their customer experience and a competitive differentiator amongst other South African Banks.
We are currently facing a new world – one where people are scared to leave their homes as this may lead to life or death situations. COVID-19 has limited our movement and we are encouraged to stay home. Thus, some of the ways in which we communicate, interact and complete everyday tasks is impacted. Face-to-face coffee shop meetings are scheduled to a lesser extent. Rather, meetings occur digitally via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Grocery shopping happens less often at the local grocer. Instead, home-delivery orders are placed via mobile phone apps. Will bank customers now resort to digital strategies in response to this pandemic environment? The increased adoption of digital banking behaviour does offer safety and convenience benefits. This perceptual trend emphasises the value of this study. Additionally, the researchers suggest the importance of future research – specifically exploring how this Pandemic may influence the future of South African banking. The existence of bank branches is questioned.
In closing, the following question is posed: What steps are being undertaken by banks to expand the current use of digital technology to further simplify, develop and hence improve the banking customer experience?