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Banks That Treat Customers Like Friends Now Set to Reap Benefits Long Term

There’s so much suffering going on right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged this world in more ways than one. People have lost loved ones – some of those loved ones served as the main breadwinner for their family. People have lost their jobs. Some have lost their businesses. Some who survived the virus continue to suffer from long-term physical effects and cannot return to work. Savings have been drained; 401k plans and investments have declined. The future looks bleak to many, and this pandemic isn’t over yet.

During this time, a lot of people are experiencing a myriad of financial difficulties – from not having enough money for food to failing to make routine payments, finding the funds to bury a loved one, or cashing in stocks or retirement plans to pay their bills – just to name a few.

More than ever before, people need the help of a good financial institution that understands how to empathize with its customers – a bank that can put itself in customers’ shoes, feeling their pain and proactively understanding their needs. In a recent podcast on this very topic, Design is Everywhere host Sam Aquillano commented that during this COVID-19 crisis, some companies are pretending that a pandemic isn’t happening, which comes off as “tone deaf” when compared to reality.

On the same episode of Design is Everywhere, Russ Wilson, Chief Experience Officer of Fidelity Investments, discussed the need to empathize with customers regarding 401k withdrawals. Under current circumstances, it’s important to understand that traditional financial advice may not apply. “Whereas you might typically say, ‘that’s not really a good idea;’ you have to support them and not make them feel bad about it either,” said Wilson. “A lot of people don’t have that choice at this moment.”

The human component is essential. Banks need to ask, “how would I want to be treated or how would I treat a friend who lost her job and isn’t able to pay her car loan or mortgage payments?” During the pandemic, PNC Bank, Bank of America and TD Bank have delayed payments and waived late fees for customers in need.

What is your bank doing? Is your bank like PNC Bank, TD Bank or Bank of America, or is your bank adding insult to injury saying, “Sorry to hear that, but if you don’t make your payment, your credit score is going to be impacted, and we’re going to repossess your car”?

Financial institutions can make themselves relevant at this specific moment by being more than a bank – even more than a trusted advisor – they can be a friend, and make the world a better place by changing their approach and focusing on the relationship with each customer.

This will require a mind shift. To build a relationship, there has to be trust, which starts with transparency. Wilson is an advocate for honesty. “Why not just say, ‘we make money this way, but we’re going to do something really great for you in the process.’ That’s a win-win scenario.”

Empathy, which involves deeply knowing and understanding customers is also really important. What do they value most? What are their hurdles, their frustrations, their goals? If withdrawing funds from a 401k isn’t that next best action, what is? What can the bank do to help? Is there a loan with lower interest rates? Can payments be delayed? How can customers be kept out of bankruptcy? Because when a customer files bankruptcy, that’s one less customer for banks.

Forgiveness applies to relationships with customers, not just relationships with friends. People need to be given the benefit of the doubt; they genuinely want to do the right thing. They don’t want to overdraw; they don’t want to be late on payments. Financial institutions and their personnel need to be trained to see the world through the eyes of their customers so they can relate and help identify, based on a customer’s current circumstances, what is this customer’s best next action.

Exceeding expectations is a great way to delight customers. Customers need help in this moment to meet basic needs, but imagine if organizations went above and beyond? How might companies ease the burden their customers are experiencing and extend their focus and services to support them along their journey in ways both large and small? Focusing on customer relationships doesn’t just benefit the customers; it also benefits the financial institution. People bounce back, and they’re going to appreciate the help they’ve been given. In turn, they will give that bank their loyalty. They are going to tell their friends what their bank did for them, and that’s a business strategy with longevity.

The pandemic offers the perfect opportunity for savvy financial institutions to transform the financial services industry – prioritizing customer relationships, investing in individuals, and reinventing the business of finance in the spirit of friendship.

Amy Heymans, Founder and Chief Experience Officer, believes that design can help improve the human condition. It was with that mission and vision that she founded Mad*Pow in 2000 with Will Powley, and together they’ve created an award-winning agency that takes a purpose driven approach, partnering with clients to deliver social impact and financial return. 

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