By Anna Roughley, Head of Insight, Lending Standards Board (LSB)
In an era defined by technological advancements, the banking and lending industry stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, a segment of society embraces the convenience of digital banking, seamlessly transacting using their smartphones or laptops. On the other, there are valuable customers who, by necessity or preference, choose to visit a branch or pick up the phone to ask a question, valuing the human interaction they receive. And, of course, some customers might want to use a combination of digital and physical services, depending on their need at the time.
As the digital revolution continues apace, the industry faces a crucial challenge: driving operational efficiencies and delivering customer convenience without sacrificing financial inclusion. While banks should not shy away from the possibilities that digital services open up – instant account access, swift transactions, and financial tools a fingertip away – progress for the many should not come at the expense of exclusion for the few. Access to financial services helps people play a full part in 21st century society – it supports financial security, entrepreneurialism, and basic day-to-day activity and independence. Access and outcomes must be fair.
To succeed, banks and lenders must embark on journeys of balance and adaptation. The quest for financial inclusion demands a two-pronged approach that acknowledges the diversity of customers’ needs and aspirations, and re-evaluates technology’s role in society. Rather than letting technology become a barrier that perpetuates exclusion, the industry can harness digital tools to bridge gaps while recognising that some customers will never consider them suitable solutions to access financial services.
The value of lived experience in the design process
The importance of lived experience in creating new products and services, whether digital or face-to-face, cannot be overstated. Most firms have formalised product-design processes but may not consider or critically assess who has been involved in developing these processes. Without checking to confirm that diverse viewpoints have been sought, firms risk making avoidable errors, missing opportunities, and embedding exclusionary practices.
An inclusive design process helps to ensure that digital platforms promote accessibility and offer open products and services that work for all customers. This means widening the pool of people involved in the design phase through delivery and feedback so firms better understand the factors excluding some customers. For example, statistics show disabled people have lower smartphone ownership than non-disabled people, so the increased push for customers to interact through mobile-banking apps raises concerns that it could leave some disabled customers without access to banking or lending services. By getting ahead of the game and understanding these risks before a product or service goes live, firms can better adapt their offerings and be more inclusive.
Third parties can help provide diverse viewpoints, or firms can look within and seek the knowledge and expertise of their own employees. Engaging the skills and experience of staff and creating a culture in which they feel welcome to disclose and share their lived experiences can help raise awareness of the different challenges customers face and how to support them – it can also help a firm make its own employees feel valued. Product and service development should be carried out in a way which reflects an understanding of people of different ages, backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, abilities, and disabilities, including those who are or aren’t tech-savvy. Ultimately, adopting an inclusive design process will give a firm a greater chance of designing new services that promote accessibility for its entire customer base.
Human and digital worlds can happily coexist
For new generations growing up with technology as the norm and many others turning to it for everyday needs, the challenge lies in designing digital platforms that offer personalised experiences. Tailored financial advice, interactive tools and easy-to-navigate interfaces can help foster a sense of empowerment while ensuring customers don’t feel left to navigate the financial realm alone.
Meanwhile, face-to-face interaction through branch access remains important. These services also need to adapt to be inclusive, using the voices of those with lived experiences to ensure they are not just ticking boxes but actually listening to and supporting customers’ varying needs. In areas affected by branch closures, the banking hub is an innovative way to maintain access to cash and act as a face-to-face point of contact in a local community. These hubs provide shared services, with numerous banks coming together to allow customers to fulfil their financial needs directly with employees of post offices or banks. It’s one way of filling the gaps left by branch closures and providing the human touch to those who need it.
Giving customers the time they need
The face-to-face interaction given by branch or hub access also avoids disadvantaging customers who need more time or additional support when completing forms or applications. Offering the human touch of a bank branch tailors services to each customer’s needs. For instance, ensuring staff are available to sit beside customers and support them in completing applications and forms at their own pace will provide them with better-quality information and more accessible services.
Firms designing digital products and services must also consider time as a factor in their design processes. Our previous research highlighted that automated processes, such as online forms with a ‘complete by’ date, can create the risk of excluding some customers. Flexibility should be built into processes and products, both digital and face-to-face, allowing additional time to complete certain tasks when required.
Upskilling staff to drive inclusivity
Effective training around inclusion is critical to driving accessibility in banking and lending. This means focusing on raising staff awareness about different customer needs and developing soft skills so staff can understand why some customers interact differently and how to support them. Equipping employees with information on the various ways people experience vulnerabilities promotes a culture of understanding and open-mindedness within the organisation, along with preparing staff to look for opportunities to support those customers who need it.
Staff also require hard skills – particularly the technical skills needed to use digital services – to promote inclusion. Well-intentioned services alone will not ensure inclusivity; staff must truly understand what options are available for customers and how to access and use them, regardless of the channels through which they are delivered. If nobody knows how to use these ‘accessible’ tools, they are rendered inaccessible. When these digital services are developed within inclusive design processes and tried and tested by staff, employees can share their knowledge with customers and feel confident supporting them.
Banks and lenders must strive to forge a unified path encompassing the best of both worlds. The dichotomy between the digital and the traditional is not a zero-sum game; instead, it presents an opportunity for innovation that respects customers’ diverse preferences. By fostering an ecosystem in which digital interfaces coexist with revitalised physical branches, the industry can achieve the elusive goal of financial inclusion: no one is left behind, and all individuals’ financial aspirations are acknowledged and supported.