What Not to Automate

There is no question that automation can provide banks with benefits beyond efficiency. However, in the excitement around the new possible efficiencies that more intelligent machines can offer, banks may be inclined to jump the gun and invest in a “smart” system that will end up costing them in the end.

Not only is there an enormous cost involved in unravelling and reconstructing entire IT systems, but when it comes to automating the customer experience, we would assert that there is a danger in removing human beings from every touch point. The danger is that big banks will lose out on a key opportunity: as online-only competition rises, simpler transactions will become par for the course. What will set traditional banks apart in the future is an experience only they can provide: a personal, connected relationship with customers.

The customer journey can be streamlined, enhanced, and simplified through digital processes. Removing personal interactions entirely from basic banking processes is certainly preferable for simple transactions such as bill payments or deposits. However, when taking a long term view of the customer relationship, what will determine a customer’s loyalty to one bank over another?

Given the rise of slow hidden customer defection occurring with clients who may keep their primary accounts with one bank, but then purchase higher-return products such as credit cards elsewhere, it is clear that customer loyalty is eroding in the banking industry. Our recent Stealth Attrition study pointed out that a big culprit is the push to transactional banking, which banks have been happy to adopt because of its positive effect on the bottom line. By placing such emphasis on getting things done quickly and easily, something has been overlooked: how customers feel about their banks.

We think emotion plays a much more important role than most banks are currently leveraging. While automation can provide banks with extraordinary opportunities to improve their bottom line and make the customer journey faster, we strongly believe human interactions must play a key part if big banks want to differentiate themselves and earn customer loyalty. Here are some key points in the customer journey where we believe automation can take a back seat role:

Financial advice

Although automation can provide extraordinary benefits in improving the kind of information available for investment opportunities and tailoring them to specific needs in a fraction of the time, the reality is that there is a huge perception gap when it comes to trusting a machine. According to HSBC only 7 percent of Canadians would trust financial advice from a robo advisor, and Accenture reports that only 14 percent of front-line bank managers would trust the financial decisions of intelligent systems. While these numbers may gradually increase over time as systems become more robust and develop a history of quality performance, closing such an enormous trust gap will not happen quickly or without a great deal of effort.

Additionally, important financial decisions come with a great deal of emotional stress for the consumer. Although AI is becoming more capable of responding in a human-like way, there is significant mounting evidence that people will reject robots and artificial intelligence in social interactions, including robots that are produced to look human, or perform specifically social tasks, such as teaching children. As more jobs are lost to automation, our attitude towards artificial intelligence may well become more antagonistic. For these reasons we caution against providing financial advice through any other means than a human-to-human interaction. While automated systems can work behind the scene to provide information for the advisors and make their job easier, Siri cannot replace an empathetic human being who can relate to the stress of financing a home or saving for retirement.

VIP zones

A check-in kiosk can replace a human greeter at a branch entrance with great success, ideally leveraging best-in-class technology to personalize the experience. However, when it comes to your most valuable customers – those with whom you hope to build long-lasting relationships – a personal touch is critical. We strongly advocate for banks to create tiered customer journeys, including VIP zones in their branches.

Those zones would ideally have a full time host who can ensure the comfort of guests and assist in any preliminary processes while they wait to meet with their financial advisor. Why not automate this role? Again, because the emotional impact of being served a cappuccino by a friendly person who will get to know a customer over time and create a bond with them is more valuable than the increased efficiency or cost savings a self check-in kiosk might provide.


Big banks are well aware that a customer with a problem is the most likely customer to switch to another bank, depending on how their problem is resolved. A problem solved efficiently and to the customer’s satisfaction will strengthen the relationship, while a customer who struggles to get to the bottom of their concern is not only at risk of leaving, but of sharing their frustrations with friends, family, and their online community.

Automation can serve to triage customers by issue and location, and direct them to a staff person who can solve the problem, but the triage system needs to be short and effective in order to avoid exacerbating the concern. A customer who spends five minutes on the phone or online only to be bumped back to the beginning of a form is going to become even more frustrated. Though chatbots can be useful in triaging frustrated customers, they should not be used to resolve a problem. When a customer is frustrated, they need to be connected to a helpful human who can empathize and reassure them as quickly as possible.

The vast majority of simple transactions have already been migrated to full automation, now leaving more complex tasks to be considered. Many of these tasks can benefit greatly from varying degrees of digitally automated support or even complete automation, especially processes like credit card or loan applications. Determining which aspects of a complex transaction can be automated without subtracting from the customer experience will require research and tweaking, and in many cases a semi-automated process may be the ideal solution.

Another important aspect to consider when automating complex processes is to ensure management and staff have the requisite training to make effective use of the new system. Accenture reports that while machines have gotten better at their jobs, humans don’t feel equipped to work with them – in fact, 57 percent of first-line, mid-level, and executive-level managers reported that their current knowledge and skills are insufficient to work well with new automated systems. Banks must plan carefully and onboard managers and staff to make the best use of new automated processes, otherwise those processes will frustrate staff and customers alike.

Automation can provide extraordinary benefits for banking customers if approached strategically, remembering that emotional connections are the one area of opportunity banks are underutilizing, which they must tap into in order to stay competitive.