With a branch in most neighbourhoods, Nationwide has made a virtue of being the bank on the street where you live. So we asked Channel Service Director Carole Layzell how a massive swing to online channels during the current crisis is affecting it.
And, right now, the 130-year-old institution, like most of us, is adapting to a pretty big moment in history.
It’s become known as the ‘best bank on the high street’ – by being just that… on the streets that many of its rivals have already fled. While the big four – HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland Group and Barclays – drove a wave of closures that saw a third of bank branches shuttered for good in less than five years, Nationwide has maintained 96 per cent of its estate and last year committed to keeping a branch in every town that has one until at least May 2021.
But the lockdown and social distancing has triggered a massive change in customer behaviour. The bank saw an 89 per cent rise in people signing up for its digital banking service between mid-March and mid-April compared to the month before. And Nationwide’s channel service director Carole Layzell acknowledges that leaves a question mark over exactly what customers will want in the future.
That Nationwide has topped most customer service rankings over the past few years is something it’s incredibly proud of, she says: “I think it just starts and finishes with our people. Our people are absolutely amazing.”
And they’ve truly stepped up to the plate over the past few months, as the organisation reprioritised services, including branches, to meet changing demand.
“What we’re seeing from members is that what might have been important to them yesterday is very different to what might be important tomorrow,” says Layzell.
At the start of the outbreak, for example, a lot of people with holidays booked were worried about travel insurance and getting refunds. But as lockdown continued, member sentiment turned towards more pressing domestic concerns, such as how to pay utility bills or request a payment holiday on credit card debt.
Nationwide proved nimble in its ability to scale and resource to meet its members’ needs. One of the first things it saw was a reduction in branch-based transactions but, rather than close them, it turned branches into mini contact centres, so that they stayed at the heart of the community.
“They’ve been taking the overflow, because many more people are choosing to phone us for products and services,” says Layzell. “We’ve made sure that we are listening to our members and that we’re there for them every step of way – to reassure them and then, obviously, change our products and services in response.”
The crisis has highlighted the need, for example, for members to be able to go in and out of physical and digital channels seamlessly – starting in one and finishing in another.
“We know that our members really value face-to-face contact, but when it comes to the fast and simple stuff, they want those digital channels there as well. One day, they might choose to interact with us through a digital channel, but then there might be a moment that really matters to them, or there’s a bigger financial need, and that’s when the human touch is really, really important, says Layzell.
Nationwide had already been examining ways in which it could serve its members digitally ‘with a human touch’ prior to the outbreak; it trialled last year and is now extending its Nationwide in-branch video service, available since 2015, to members ‘on the go’, allowing them to access Nationwide specialists from wherever they are via personal and handheld devices. The service will initially offer appointments for protection and investment advice – what Layzell calls ‘more in-depth conversations’.
The Society has also started to use experienced frontline staff to train its IBM Watson-driven smart agent, Arti, to respond to coronavirus-related queries, such as how to request a mortgage payment holiday. Between the end of March and early May, Arti had participated in more than 10,000 online chat conversations about that one topic alone.
“These opportunities have become more relevant as things stand today, but they are technologies that we’ve been looking at for some time,” says Layzell.
Now, the question is how they can be scaled up quickly and what it means for Nationwide’s traditional model.
An ongoing branch role
While the pandemic has undoubtedly caused Nationwide, like its rivals, to pivot its resources towards digital services, Layzell remains confident about the ongoing importance of the bricks and mortar branch to its customer service.
“Because one thing that has come out of Covid-19, whether or not it’s permanently changed people’s banking behaviour, is that community has been more important than ever,” she says. “For Nationwide, the future is going to be about the role we play in that community. And I think our branch becomes pivotal in that, in terms of connecting the community and offering services in a very different way.”
While it might not see as many across-the-counter transactions as it used to, for example, that frees up in-branch staff to have more in-depth conversations on matters such as income and expenditure; issues that come to the fore in times of crisis.
“I think so many people have been caught out because they didn’t have enough savings; they haven’t had enough to fall back on,” says Layzell. “So, we need to consider what role we can play to help them make sure they that cushion; that they are budgeting in the right way.”
With so many members moving online, branches could also take the lead in education, such as around digital skills and fraud awareness, she suggests.
Branches aren’t the only more traditional form of banking that Layzell expects to still have a place beyond the pandemic. She thinks physical cards will remain a primary method of payment, not least because they cement the bond between customer and bank – something at the heart of the Nationwide ethos.
“And consumers still trust the card, whether it’s a physical or virtual card through their mobile – because it’s almost as though they have their bank, or their building society, in their pocket,” she says.
Out of adversity comes triumph and, overall, Layzell sees this as a time not only to adapt and embrace change, but also one in which Nationwide needs to stick to its roots. It remains committed to its core purpose of helping its 16 million members buy their homes and save for their futures.
“The values that Nationwide was built on 130 years ago still very much form who and what we are today,” says Layzell. “We want to make sure that there’s a roof over everybody’s head with affordable housing, that we can support our members in being able to achieve their dreams.
“I see this as an exciting time for us to say ‘how can we start to have some really great conversations with our members?’. And to obviously invite more people to come and join us.”