Blog: A human-centred future of banking?

“It’s a capitalist society and we’ve lost that air of caring for each other, and if we can get that back into corporates and banks, it would mean much better service.”

A ‘lived expert’ with a neurodiverse condition.

When you think about the future of banking, what comes to mind? More services on apps? Artificial intelligence? A cashless society?

For many of us, these developments make banking intelligent, responsive and accessible.

But there are some people for whom these sorts of ‘advances’ simply don’t work.

Think about everyone who might need a different, more human-centred approach (and here’s a clue: it’s not just older people fed up with branch closures).

Here goes:

  • Some neurodiverse people who need to see someone’s face (even if only online) in order to process information more easily;
  • People who lack financial capability who appreciate conversations with real people to help them understand their options;
  • Those who feel digitally excluded because of lack of capability and confidence, or cost;
  • People with reduced or fluctuating mental capacity, because of a disability or early-stage dementia, who want to run their own finances but find technology difficult;
  • Bereaved people who are dealing with their deceased loved one’s finances;
  • Gambling addicts losing large sums of money in short spaces of time;
  • Isolated and lonely people for whom a conversation with the bank might be their only interaction with another human for days at a time…

I could go on.

And if you think “vulnerable” people like these are a small minority, consider that the FCA predicts that half of the UK adult population is ‘potentially vulnerable’. Personally, I think that the figure is more like 100%; vulnerability is just stuff that can happen in life, to any of us, at any time.

For some it’s lifelong and highly debilitating. For others it’s transient. But when our needs are at their highest, whether permanent or temporary, we need humans, not machines.

This seems to be the case particularly when it comes to banking. I think it’s because people’s relationship with their money is important and complex – so we feel that whoever looks after our money has a role that goes well beyond the transactional provision of services. They’re not just safeguarding our money; they’re safeguarding us.

In a series of conversations between ‘lived experts’ in all sorts of circumstances, and a major bank, we asked the question: ‘What is the role of the bank?’ Encouraging people to respond through the lenses of their own situations, we rarely heard answers that focus on basic service provision.

Here are some of the things people have said:

“To be personal and human.”

“To help us learn about digital.”

“To play a valuable role in society, not just think about profits.”

“To keep us safe.”

“To provide a warm space.”

This last comment was made at the beginning of winter 2022/23, when the cost-of-living crisis was taking its hold. “Warm space” was not a metaphor; the lived expert was looking for an actual warm space to go to on her high street because her house was so cold.

A story told by a lady with early-stage dementia has stuck with me. She explained that she is not ‘allowed’ into town by herself because she might get lost or confused, but sometimes she breaks the rules and ventures out nonetheless. “If I get confused”, she said, “I go to the bank. That’s my safe space. They know me there and they’ll call my husband, who’ll then come to collect me.”

Brené Brown said that “maybe stories are just data with a soul”. This is the kind of data that could help shape the future of banking.

We’re not the only ones seeing a need for a more human-centred approach. In The Human Experience, John Sills explains that in terms of customer experience, the human element has become neglected, despite it being just as important as the functional experience.  And Philippa White, in her forthcoming book Return on Humanity, Leadership lessons from all corners of the world (to be published in April 2024), will argue with compelling evidence that a more human approach to leadership and business will give us all a better future.

But of course, it’s not a binary case of human or digital. We know that the latter can work brilliantly for many ‘vulnerable customers’, like some neurodiverse people who might find human interaction tricky. We also know that people need a choice of channels; some days a digital interaction is fine, other days a conversation is needed.

The real point is that when life gets tough for people, banks have a role to play that goes well beyond the provision of transactional services; in return for the privilege of looking after people’s money, they’re expected to support, to go the extra mile and quite simply to help – on a deeply human level.

If they do, the future of banking will be intelligent, responsive and accessible, in many more ways than one.  

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