1,000 banks vanish
That was the headline of a small article in the paper this morning outlining how over 1,000 bank branches have been closed in the last 2 years as more and more customers get on-line.
On average, people visit a bank branch about once per year. They call their bank about once a month, they check its website about once per week and they use their smart phone to check balances and payments constantly. So the rush to Digital is certainly happening.
I’m not sure how they arrived at the figure of 1,000, but you get the message. People are rushing, like wildebeest across the plains, towards a digital future.
Interestingly, mBank in Poland have recently started opening branches. Really? The same mBank whose customers can secure approval for loans in 30 seconds and who use Skype to take out mortgages?  Something strange must be happening.
So, what do consumers want?
Our recent report, Demanding Digital, analyses the rise of the digitally discerning customer. Critically, no two customers are alike. While 18% of our survey respondents are eager to jump onto anything new, a larger cohort (39%) do so because they are open to exploring digital options. Another significant group (29%) will go online when there isn’t an option to chat to a human and the last 14% will use digital services only when there is absolutely no choice.
So while customers clearly rely heavily on digital services for simple, repeatable functions like checking the balance of an account or making a payment, we tend to feel much more comfortable when real humans are there in the background. Most of those Polish mBank customers will continue to use digital channels most of the time. But they’ll feel a lot more confident knowing there is a branch not too far from their home or their office.
We read all the time about digital channels for taking products and services to market faster and more effectively. But what about our interaction with public services such as government, education or healthcare? We don’t bat an eyelid when our children submit their homework online and great examples of digital interaction for citizens are emerging almost daily. Like, for example, the project run by Oxford University Hospitals recently to provide better care for women with diabetes during pregnancy. In collaboration with the University of Oxford, they developed a smartphone app to enable diabetes specialists to keep closer tabs on their patients; reducing the number of tiring, time-consuming and expensive hospital appointments. 
Digital technology is a disruptive force, giving organisations the power to change the way that they do business. We often hear how some organisations have failed to keep up with their digital competitors while others were able to re-invent themselves and have achieved spectacular success in the new, digital world. For most of our customers, the reality will lie somewhere between those two extremes so we need to be every bit as discerning as our customers as we seek continually to improve.
As customers we tend to be extremely clear in our own minds about the difference between a physical product and a digital one. If we buy a cola from the corner shop then that’s a physical product and woe betides the global fizzy drinks manufacturer who changes their recipe.
Conversely, most of us will have booked holidays online and we expect to find these digital offerings innovative, accurate and bang-up-to-date. So customers expect their digital services to get faster, simpler and more reliable with every update.
Even the very best digital companies have to keep on their toes. Savvy customers are tolerant to a point when an online service fails, but it had better be right the next time. More than half of our survey respondents felt that organisations design services for their own convenience rather than that of their customers. So when a digital service is poorly designed, or fails, the majority of consumers will give organisations just a couple of chances before they go and look elsewhere.
So, what does this tell us about how we should develop digital products and services?
First and foremost, the service has to work. Always. Secondly, there has to be a benefit to the consumer. What would I do with a digital version of that fizzy drink? Of course it helps to be better than your competitors and the service needs to be secure too. But it has to work. Remember, three strikes and you’re out!
Remember those wildebeest rushing across the plains? Well, it turns out that the evolution of a digitally discerning customer is a more complex picture than conventional wisdom suggests. Despite our perception that digital-native millennials are the people using these new services, it is not age or gender that dictates our behaviour but our personal preference. It’s no surprise that the richness and complexity of consumer behaviour will only become more pronounced as digital services develop.
So what does this mean for organisations that are considering the future of their digital services?
First and foremost, we can all learn from the online retailers. Customers expect great products and good value for money, offered through simple, attractive and reliable digital channels. So why would a healthcare provider, a local authority or a utility company think their customers are any different?
Albert Einstein is often mis-quoted as having said that if you cannot explain something to a six year old it is probably because you haven’t understood it sufficiently clearly yourself.
But imagine for a moment that you understood your own organisation so well that you could explain all of your products and services simply to your customers. Surely then it would be possible not just to provide a better digital experience but also to strip out any waste and inefficiency inherent in the current business model.
So before rushing, like so many wildebeest to keep up with the herd, maybe now is the time to stand back and think deeply about what our customers want or need or expect from us. And then, once we really understand the things that we are here to do, let’s think about new and imaginative ways to do them.
 Metro, Weds December 14 2016  British Banking Association, The Way We Bank report, 2014  Digital Banking Club, live debate.  FT Website  http://www.eng.ox.ac.uk/about/news/national-award-for-project-providing-better-care-for-women-with-diabetes-during-pregnancy