What four things do customers need in times of distress?

Ever since the financial crisis, banks have championed customer care and aimed to put people first. However, in times of distress, what do customers need most from their banks?


1 Revamped communication

Times of distress, like the coronavirus pandemic, can cause confusion for customers, which is why good communication is essential.

Harriet Allner, banking expert at communications agency Common Industry and former communications head of Starling Bank, says: “It’s important to communicate clearly and only share useful or actionable updates.

“There is already so much information, the World Health Organization described there being an ‘infodemic’ around coronavirus.”

At the same time, customers will understandably want to get in touch with their banks. For those with millions of customers, this means inquiries may have to be triaged. 

“We automatically prioritised Barclays phone lines so elderly customers, NHS workers and regular branch users could get through to us quicker,” explains Barclays managing director of customer advocacy and vulnerable clients Sian McIntyre.

2 Targeted insight 

Not everyone will be financially impacted in the same way in times of economic difficulty so banks have to identify who needs their support the most. 

John McMahon, collections and recoveries thought leader at analytics firm FICO, was formerly a global director at Barclaycard and explains how analysis of a customer’s data plays a vital role. 

“One thing banks can do is look at a customer’s transactional accounts and how they are using their current account and where their salary is coming from,” says McMahon. 

“You don’t have to wait for the customer to get in touch as there’s the distinct likelihood that anyone who’s salary comes from British Airways has undergone significant distress, for example.”

3 Trust and transparency

A big part of a bank’s response will be to reassure customers, which makes trust and transparency very important. The Co-operative Bank realised this, which is why it turned to its 3,000-member strong customer panel to make sure it got its messaging right. 

“Trust is critical and you have to earn it,” says Maria Cearns, Co-operative Bank’s director of people and retail deposits. “As soon as we had a sense of the scale of the pandemic, we regrouped across the bank and reviewed all our communications to ensure they delivered what was specifically needed. 

“Customers made it clear to us they were being bombarded and we made a decision to limit our customer interactions and only get in touch when we knew we had information that mattered.” 

However, this is not a case of technology superseding the human touch but instead about figuring out how these two forces can complement one another. New capabilities such as cloud technology, data analytics and machine learning all have the power to enhance a bank’s human touch, as Cearns adds: “Ultimately, it’s about humanising the banking experience.

“Even as a bank adapts and innovates to meet changing demands, customers need to feel their bank is safe, their money is safe and their future is secure.” 

4 New products and services

The past few months have shown that, in times of distress, a bank’s products and services may also have to change. Speed is a crucial part of this, with the pandemic highlighting the importance of organisations being able to respond quickly with products and services that will make the biggest difference. 

Sometimes support can mean education, as Santander’s director of simplification Sue Willis explains.

“We have a dedicated hub on our website with hints and tips on how people can access mortgage holidays, who to contact if they have specialist needs and so on,” says Willis.

“Some of our customers have turned to online banking for the first time, so we’ve offered simple things like using online chat to digital classes on how people can use payment cards. Everyone has to use a card now and for a lot of people that’s still a new thing.”

Meanwhile, the Co-operative Bank has streamlined its processes to ensure access to finance has become quicker for people who need support the most. 

“Our customer panel told us that banks need to take all the work away from customers and make it easier,” says the bank’s Cearns. 

“We revamped the overdraft request process so customers didn’t have to go through any interview first, which made it much quicker, working with our digital and product teams to get a process that cut straight to a decision.”

Other banks are focusing on reimagining their infrastructure to accommodate the speed of innovation for new digital experiences. BBVA recently migrated workloads to the AWS Cloud to meet the exponential growth in transactions that the digital age will continue to bring. 

To find out more, read Consumer Financial Services 2025