After years of living in a three-bedroom apartment in New York, my wife and I moved back to Milan last year. We began thinking about buying a house to have more space for our two daughters and perhaps a garden to gather with family and friends. We found our dream home more quickly than we’d imagined and started pursuing a mortgage just one week before the initial COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020.

Once we were locked down, I assumed we could continue the mortgage process online, but soon I discovered it wouldn’t be so easy — the system didn’t recognize my tax returns form. In addition to all the early stresses of lockdown, pursuing a mortgage caused even more worries.

I tried the call center, but after wasting two hours, they suggested I visit my local branch. I spent the next 10 days chasing the people at the branch, asking which paper documents they would need for this critical meeting.

I had very low expectations for customer service going into this meeting, but once at the branch, I was surprised by how prepared they were. They gave thoughtful advice and had much-needed empathy to deal with someone like me, going through a huge life moment during extraordinarily tough times.

The meeting went well; they offered a solution and their apologies for the wait time.


Merging the digital and human experience

Coming home, I began to realize how unbalanced my experience was across the bank’s different channels. It was easy to reach the bank online, but they had limited capabilities on their digital channels. Meanwhile, it was hard to reach staff at my local branch, but once there, they had great empathy and could provide a nuanced response to my particular needs.

Personal touch and digital communication should be compatible, not mutually exclusive.

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I began to realize how unbalanced my experience was across the bank’s different channels. It was easy to reach the bank online, but they had limited capabilities on their digital channels.


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I continued to think about my experience, especially as I worked on recent research, Banking on Empathy. This report looks at how to make banking more empathetic by advancing customer engagement on digital channels, while redesigning the branch network to fit the post-COVID 19 reality.

Our research also revealed that banks trying to infuse empathy in their transformation journey had better financial performances during 2020.

Empathy should be a desired outcome of digital transformation programs. As COVID-19 government support programs expire, banks will face more customers under personal and financial distress.

Serving people with the right tone will be critical if banks want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Here are three transformative findings from our research that would have made my mortgage experience so much smoother.

Use customer insights to anticipate customer needs and take proactive action

For years, banks have claimed to understand the importance of a single, real-time view of the customer. Still, only 12% of consumers think their bank’s customized experiences are spot-on.

There’s always room for improvement to ingest, collect and combine data across channels, whether data are internal or external, structured or unstructured.

Our research shows that empathetic banking leaders are twice as likely as laggards to already be using technologies like voice recognition, speech analytics and text analytics. With those digital tools, they can grasp customers’ emotions and enable empathetic interactions at scale.

Transform contact centers into empathetic customer care hubs

Making the contact center the main point of customer interaction is a natural step towards a new customer service model. Because this model relies on remote access to the bank, it scales better than the branch network; customers can rely on chats or even virtual agents to get immediate help.  

Seventy-two percent of banks expect interactions through human chat to increase in the coming one to two years. Empathetic banks will make human chat the primary way that customers interact with their contact centers. Human chat is more convenient for customers because it spares them from holding in phone queues.

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Making the contact center the main point of customer interaction is a natural step towards a new customer service model.

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Artificial intelligence (AI) virtual agents can also help contact center advisors provide relevant customer service as they manage growing contact volumes. The virtual agents could help advisors quickly access customer information and reduce wait times.

Reinvent branches as empathetic experience centers

Branches will exist in the future, but they can’t be the primary place customers go when other channels fail.

Ninety-seven percent of banks agree the branch will need to be redesigned in the next few years to meet new demands. Post-COVID, some branches in strategic locations might become experience centers that offer friendly spaces for customer engagement. These places could have coffee areas to inspire conversations that wouldn’t happen in a more formal setting­.

Others might be designed as networking and training hubs for the local small business community. Or they could become personal finance educational centers in neighborhoods where fewer people have financial literacy.

Banks might also use branches as decentralized offices for call center operators and other head-office employees. This would enable them to maintain a branch presence while downsizing their head offices.

A new service model is a better service model

The research we conducted and my personal experience getting a mortgage revealed that banks need new ways to serve customers.

As we move into a post-COVID world, this will only become truer as customers will likely have new levels of personal and financial distress. Old service models won’t work.

Our research revealed that banks could use data to begin to anticipate customers’ emotional needs without asking them. Yet only 32% of banks we surveyed said they’re very confident in their ability to understand customers’ emotional situations without asking them about it. This must change.

There’s an enormous opportunity here for banks to improve the in-person and digital experience so it is seamless for customers. Once that begins to happen, mortgage seekers won’t face the frustrations my wife and I dealt with to finally buy our dream home.

Luca Gagliardi​

Thought Leadership Senior Principal – ​Accenture Research

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