It’s time our virtual banks opened virtual branches

For all the innovation in digital banking, one aspect of the finance industry seems immune to the advances of the 21st century – the humble bank branch, writes Alan Brown.

For all the innovation in digital banking, one aspect of the finance industry seems immune to the advances of the 21st century – the humble bank branch, writes Alan Brown.

At the end of March, the British Banking Association survey ‘The way we bank now’ revealed that the number of banking transactions from mobile phones apps had doubled in the last year to more than 18m per week. Through their ATMs, websites and mobile apps, banks have embraced the idea of putting the customer in control, giving them access to their financial information when they like, where they like and from whichever device they like. But for all this innovation there is one aspect of banking that seems immune to the advances of the 21st century; the humble high street branch.

Face-to-face banking is still a necessity

Walk into any bank branch and you’ll see a queue of people. Why? Because for all the innovation in the industry there are some things that mobile apps and websites just can’t do or that customers, young and old, simply prefer to do face-to-face.

For those people, time has stood still. Bank branches still predominantly open Monday to Friday, from nine till five. Branch opening times have always clashed with working peoples’ schedules but in an age of mobile banking, 24-hour supermarkets, free international video calls and follow-the-sun support they seem like an anachronism. And whilst it’s clear that young people are embracing the vast range of modern, automated banking options available to them that doesn’t mean they’d always prefer to deal with a computer. An Intelligent Environments survey recently revealed that 43% of young people would like to speak to their bank over a video call when they have a question. That would be a great start.

They know that communicating face to face with someone is often the best, most efficient and most reassuring way to solve a problem. Amazon have addressed this in the tablet/e-reader world with their Kindle Mayday feature, with a quick button spawning a live video session to a customer service representative.

Virtual banking is not anonymous banking

If 43% want a video call with someone who can answer questions, explain how to open an ISA or discuss the intricacies of applying for a business loan, they’re not looking for a faceless bank.

Virtual banking shouldn’t have to mean anonymous banking and the technology to make it personal already exists today on the devices people are using to access their bank. Almost every new phone, tablet & laptop has an integrated HD camera and these are routinely used in communication with friends & family, but not yet the Customer Services Representative.

Privacy concerns are being addressed in other industries, with several NHS trusts planning to offer medical consultancies over video links. The extra dimension offered by video, could be turned into an advantage for user authentication, with the use of face-recognition an obvious extension.

A virtual bank branch could embrace live chat and video messaging, online authentication, shared screens and collaborative documents & form-filling to provide all the services that the traditional high street branch provides but with the convenience of being open for business 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

It’s time for branches to catch up with the modern, mobile world of banking and start providing access to virtual branches that offer face-to-face communication customers need with the convenience they’re used to.