Banks must put customer first and look towards the future

02/02/2018

Opinion Karel Van Eetvelt

There is not a day that passes without us feeling the impact of technological development and changing consumer behaviour on our economy. Striking taxi drivers, restructuring exercises at big retailers but also in other companies … And when it comes to the financial sector, the decreasing number of local bank offices.

Let us establish the facts first. The number of bank offices in Belgium has been gradually decreasing for more than ten years now. Although this should not be seen as a recent phenomenon, Belgium still has one of Europe’s most dense networks of bank offices. There are only 2 countries with a higher number of bank branches per inhabitant.

Belgium is rather an outsider in this respect. Its focus is on strong digital services towards customers, which is included in the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European model, combined with still a considerable number of contact points for citizens, as is the case in the Southern European model. We should say that Belgian consumers get the best of both worlds. Although online (11.8 million subscriptions) and mobile banking (4.5 million subscriptions) are becoming more popular, services are still provided in over 6,000 offices.

Especially in day-to-day banking, there is already a clear shift to digital. We used to go to the bank office to deposit our wage into our bank account, withdraw cash for payments, cash a check, … We hardly ever do that anymore. Instead, we use digital channels, pay by card or with apps and, when we really need some, withdraw cash from an ATM.

As consumers, we expect services provided to be extremely fast and to be available day and night. We want instant, flexible and round-the-clock support. We expect our bank to provide a level of service similar to that of large digital players such as Google, Amazon, ...

The financial sector must take account of those shifting customer expectations. We must make every effort to meet their expectations and to develop a digital platform tailored to the needs of current and future customers. Only by strongly committing to this, the sector will provide itself with a sustainable future and stay a partner for customers hoping to fulfil their dreams, whether it is building a house, starting a business or financing a student loan.

Now more than ever before, we have an absolute duty to focus our efforts on the emerging technological possibilities and, where appropriate, to adjust our business models and working structure accordingly. We are more aware than ever that a client-centric approach is needed.

Nevertheless, we as a sector must also take our responsibility in the search for and implementation of solutions for the effects of these transformations. If tomorrow, we are going to work with employees who have very different skills or roles than the current ones, we must develop solutions today for those who will no longer work in our sector tomorrow. If we close branches, which could potentially create vacancy in our town and city centres, we need to look for alternative purposes with community-enhancing added value. If a two-speed society where part of the population is digitally falling behind is looming, we must find solutions now to achieve maximum inclusion.

We can only create a sustainable and inclusive future if we look into solutions for these problems and, more importantly, if we put customers and their needs first and constantly adapt to this. Ignoring those needs and evolutions and postponing transformations would be the worst possible way to prepare for the future.

Karel Van Eetvelt, CEO Febelfin

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