The spike in demand for digital banking experiences caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has already reshaped the global banking industry.

As our recent Global Banking Consumer Study found, the pandemic has driven  a huge shift towards digital interactions in every market.

For example, some 50 percent of consumers now interact with their bank through mobile apps or websites at least once a week. Two years ago, just 32 percent did. In the US, the volume of in-branch transactions has decreased by up to 40 percent.

Banks around the world responded to this surge in demand with a range of improvised and remarkably agile changes that accelerated product roadmaps and enabled new digital experiences. With vaccines now going into arms in many countries, banks now face the challenge of figuring out how much of this new digital demand will stick around post-pandemic.

My sense is that digital engagement is unlikely to persist at levels observed during the pandemic’s peak and some reversion is inevitable. However, a return to pre-pandemic levels of digital engagement also seems unlikely. Demand for digital banking has, I believe, gone through a step-change.

Which means that one of the most fascinating questions in banking today is also one of the most urgent: how can banks deliver digital experiences at scale that maintain a human touch and resist commoditization?

To explore this question, I reached out to my colleagues Alex Trott, Banking lead for Australia, and Kieran White, one of the co-authors of the Global Banking Consumer Study.

Not everyone using digital today loves it

While digital banking advocates were no doubt excited to see the surge in demand during the pandemic, Alex and Kieran both feel strongly that banking leaders must keep in mind that a good chunk of the consumers who moved to digital did not do so by choice. They point to our research findings in Australia, where 27 percent of the market is made up of the digitally-wary segment we call Traditionalists, compared with 16 percent globally.

“People who are not digital but have been forced there—I don’t think their enthusiasm has grown in the last 12 months,” Kieran says. “But familiarity may breed comfort.”

Some of these “people who are not digital” will go back to in-person banking as soon as they can and we are already seeing some of that bounceback as restrictions on in-person interactions are lifted. Savvy digital banks can minimize this number by providing digital experiences that equal or surpass what is available in the branch.

One tip from Alex for bank leaders so inclined: stop thinking of in-person and digital channels as separate.

“We shouldn’t really have a human channel and a digital channel,” says Alex. “You need to bring the feeling of the human touch into the digital channel.”

Doing that will mean doubling down on digital investments—though not always in places that a customer can see.

Alex pointed to the investments required to digitize a customer contact center as an example. Quite a lot of hard work and advanced technology needs to line up to allow a customer service rep to efficiently pull up current account information for a specific customer in real time, help the customer, and then record the interaction in the contact management system (CMS). If you want all this to happen with seamless handoff to and from other channels, like an online chatbot or in-branch conversation, the technology gets even more complicated. But the customer most likely thinks they are making a simple phone call when they do this.

Another note—bringing a sense of human connection to digital experiences should never mean tricking customers.

“Banks should absolutely not be developing a chatbot that pretends to be a person,” says Alex. “Consumers hate feeling misled.”

At the same time, digital interactions can still have personalities that reflect the broader brand positioning of the bank and injecting that into the experience can make it stand out in the marketplace. It’s a delicate balance.

The trust issue

Bringing a human touch to the digital world will require building and maintaining trust with customers. The data here from our research is very interesting.

We found that the rush to digital seen during the pandemic has exacerbated the longer-term, pre-COVID-19 trend of diminishing consumer trust in banks. Just 29 percent of the 47,000 customers we surveyed around the world trust their bank “a lot” to look after their long-term financial wellbeing. Two years ago, that figure was 43 percent. The numbers in Australia, where Kieran and Alex are based, were identical to those in the rest of the world.

Yet, we also found that banks are more trusted on this front than many other institutions. For example, just 11 percent of consumers globally trust big tech or telco firms to look after their finances. For social networks it shrinks to 9 percent. Banks are also more trusted than insurers and online payments companies in this regard.

So, what’s going on here? In Kieran’s view, to see past this we need a more detailed perspective on what is meant by “trust.”

“In general, banks enjoy a lot of public trust when it comes to safeguarding their money and processing transactions,” he says. “Banks should be quite pleased about that. This is an advantage they have over neobanks and also big tech!”

“But I think they sometimes make the mistake of conflating that reliability with a more emotional version of trust—the idea that my bank is there for me, on my side, will do the right thing for me… that they care about me. That’s a dimension of trust that is more emotional. It matters quite a lot for loyalty. And it matters when it comes to recommending to friends and family.

“Faith in a bank’s solidity only goes so far. Over time, people will start to build faith that digital institutions and smaller players will be around long-term too and are capable of handling the transaction side of banking.”

There’s a lot to be said about trust and banking in 2021. In my next post, we’ll take a deeper dive into the topic with my colleague and co-author Peter Kirk.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the study. I can be reached on LinkedIn here. You can also find our full global banking consumer study here.