Bridging the digital and physical divide in banking

Give your customers the best of both banking worlds by bridging the physical and digital divide
Jun 29, 2022
Laura Caseley
Content Writer

Would you encourage your customers and members to bank in-branch or online? If the question makes you pause, it should. Each approach to banking has its own benefits and limitations, and choosing between them can feel like having to choose between security and efficiency, personal connection and convenience – things that really shouldn’t have to be choices at all. 

Instead of thinking of it as a binary decision, what if financial institutions melded the best of both experiences for a hybrid approach? Digital banking is certainly the way of the future, and while it will become increasingly prevalent, it may never fully replace the in-person experience.

When the digital banking experience is in harmony with the experience in-branch, banks and credit unions can harness the best of both worlds, combining the high-touch personalization of a branch visit with the seamless efficiency of digital.  

How the branch-first mindset developed: 

It’s easy to calculate the costs. Evaluating the return on investment for a branch is easy for banking leadership teams because it’s an established growth strategy. It's a concrete investment, and predicting the number of new accounts and products needed to be profitable is tried-and-true. By comparison, the ROI of digital might seem more nebulous, and thus more risky, if one doesn’t understand how it truly works. 

Tradition and comfort have a strong pull. Many current banking leaders started at their branch, and built not only their careers but the institution’s practices on legacy processes and systems. And that’s not a bad thing: banking has remained a stable, dependable industry precisely because of this reliance on the status quo. Banks and credit unions have also earned their places as community centers that care about hard working people who rely on that stability and dependability for their financial lives. 

Relationships always used to start in-branch. Cross-selling traditionally happened in-branch. If someone opened an account, the relationship with a banker started there, as did the opportunity to learn about other banking products. When assessing their digital vs branch interactions, Chase found that despite online options, 70% of Chase customers still went into branches to talk with bankers, implying that physical locations are still a desired option. 

Digital changes the mindset, not the relationships

Even as many financial institutions think through their next steps towards transforming digitally, the affinity for in-branch relationship building remains high. The good news is that they don’t have to choose between the physical or the digital. Combining the two experiences gives customers and members the best of both worlds. It just takes looking at the possibilities in a new light. 

Avoiding change is riskier than going digital. Staying the course might seem like the safest option, but in the case of not adopting a digital-first mindset and practice, it’s actually a huge risk. Berkshire Bank COO Sean Gray encourages financial institutions to question digital risk from a different angle: “What is the real risk of maintaining the status quo to cost and to reputation?” 

Falling behind on meeting customers’ needs for convenience and speed, and forcing them into a poor experience, means very real losses for a financial institution as dissatisfied customers pick up stakes and move their deposits elsewhere. Kirk Wycoff, Managing Partner at Patriot Financial Partners, presses the imperative: “If you’ve needed digital improvements for the past five years and haven’t done it, you’re falling below the survival line and you’ll see deposit outflows."

“If you’ve needed digital improvements for the past five years and haven’t done it, you’re falling below the survival line and you’ll see deposit outflows." – Kirk Wycoff, Patriot Financial Partners

Dependability is not the opposite of being forward-thinking and adaptable. Adapting to a digital-first climate is actually the best way to ensure that dependability for years to come. Greater Alliance Credit Union has been steadily serving its New Jersey community for over 85 years, and they know that in order to keep doing so, they had to pivot in order to harness new growth. 

As GAFCU President Glenn Guinto puts it, “We have a keen understanding that what worked for the past 85 years could still work, but needs to be adapted to the way the modern person deals with their finances.” 

Jason White, CIO of Berkshire Bank describes Berkshire’s investment in digital as a way of continuing their service to their community. “By offering digital elements for self-service capabilities, we ensure we're giving our customers what they need to bridge the gap between human and digital.”

“We have a keen understanding that what worked for the past 85 years could still work, but needs to be adapted to the way the modern person deals with their finances.” – Glenn Guinto, Greater Alliance Federal Credit Union

Preserving the high-touch in-branch experience

For personalized attention that taps into the streamlined ease of digital banking, consider looking outside the typical bank setup. Bringing digital into the branch might draw inspiration from an “Apple store” experience, with available tablets for customers and members to use while waiting for a more personalized meeting with a banker. 

In the same study of customers’ digital and in-branch habits, Chase found that for a branch to be successful, it had to reflect and serve their communities. In 2021, they opened 12 branches in underserved urban locations, staffed with specialists able to meet the needs of those particular populations

This approach provides the best of both worlds: the high-touch, in-person experience alongside the speed of digital banking. If there’s confusion with the digital channels, they can simply turn to a real person for help, but they can also explore on their own. Additionally, this is a great way to introduce the digital platform to less tech-savvy customers and members in a safe, controlled environment with assistance from a trusted professional, empowering them to use the digital platform on their own. 

Greater Alliance saw this when they introduced tablets to their newest flagship branch. GAFCU Chairman Richard Vega describes it as a perfect way to get members interested in and comfortable with the digital option. “We think of it as a training space for those hesitant to go online and do their banking remotely,” he says. “They’re presented with kiosks and iPads. They might be a little puzzled, but with guidance, they learn it’s not difficult and they can start doing this from wherever they are.”

Tying digital banking to the in-branch experience is also a great way to deepen the banking relationship. People can open accounts, pay bills, and manage balances with optimal speed on the digital platform, and then have the time and energy to sit down and discuss larger goals like loans and wealth management. 

Evolving with the efficiency of digital

Using digital platforms even in the branch is a great way to remove the waiting time and stress for customers. And once they’re comfortable with digital, they may realize the bank can be one less stop on their errands and save in-branch visits for important conversations about their finances. New customers can avoid the waiting periods and processing time of traditional account opening, cementing a relationship between them and the institution immediately. 

And this works in the favor of the financial institution too.  With more time to help in-person customers, the stress on branch service reps decreases. During their own journey into digital, Berkshire’s Head of Retail Banking, Lucia Bellomia, stressed the importance of transparency not just for customers and members, but institution employees, as well. “We absolutely need their buy-in in understanding why digital is so important to the client, what the benefit is to them as employees, and what the benefit is to the client,” she says. “Then we can together transform the bank to be a top bank in service, and really enhance the services we are offering to our client without taking away from the branch.”

Building the digital bridge

First steps are always daunting, but having a detailed plan of action is the best way to start making the changes customers and members want. Running an honest assessment of your institution’s processes and measuring the consistency and efficiency of production is a great way to see where you stand – and where you could go. From there, creating a realistic and ongoing strategy to keep up with evolving tech is much more manageable. As Jason White advises: “Plan for a marathon, not a sprint, and plan on being agile.”


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Bridging the digital and physical divide in banking