The Dutch bank has been redesigning its branches to create “a home away from home” for its customers, complete with a digital station, a table for coffee, and even a kids’ corner. The overhaul stems from a certain view of customer service in the digital age, reports Mohamed Dabo

Before the open, airy and well-lit space, furnished like a comfortable modern home; and before the affable suit-clad staff member who greets you at the door with a bow, there was the concept. Not the design concept (that came later), but a core principle of customer service.

It began, naturally, with the customer. “Customers need the human touch,” says Barbara Vanhauter, ING’s Global Transformation Lead, instrumental in defining the bank’s ‘global human channels strategy in digital transformation.’

“When it comes to the urgent or complex needs of customers, the human touch is practically indispensable,” she says, speaking at RBR’s Branch Transformation 2019 conference in London. “That’s when the customer says, ‘I need to speak to somebody to solve this problem.’ At such a crucial moment, the digital channel alone is not enough.”

People are living on their mobile

Then, the concept moved to digital. “People are now living on their mobile. They use it as the touch point to connect with the world,” she says.

“More than 70% of our interactions with customers are through mobile devices.  And more than 30% of our clients contact the bank only through their mobile.”

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The resulting approach lies in the happy middle—between digital-only banking and old-school traditional banking—with the goal of meeting every shade of customer need along the digital-personal spectrum.

“The bank—and the branch—must be a welcoming place for everybody,” Vanhauter says.

Across the globe, retail banking has responded to the digital mania by embracing a mobile-centric customer experience.

However, a potential side effect of too much digitisation (to the extent of substituting for crucial human interaction) is the risk of turning banking into a commodity: a mass-produced product, undifferentiated across the industry.

But today’s empowered and enlightened customers demand products and services tailored to their individual preferences.

ING is implementing chat boxes and putting in place a lot of video conferencing, Vanhauter says. “We’re having advisers sitting in call centres and interacting through, phone calls, video calls, and video conferencing with customers. So no customer is forced to come into the branch when it’s not necessary. Customers know they always have advisers available to talk to them remotely.”

In some countries, ING does not have branches, she notes, but the bank still provides conference centres where customers can call for remote advice.

Only a human will do

The bank also makes it easy for customers to switch from a digital channel to human interaction. “For example, switching from a chat box to a video call,” Vanhauter says, adding that the switch must be as seamless as possible. “We diversify the possibilities for our customers to reach us.”

In the end, there is no substitute for the human touch. When a customer really needs human interaction, only a human will do.

Two years ago, ING rolled out its first human-centric branch in Belgium, with plans to spread them across its other markets. Dubbed ‘Client Houses’ by the company, the homelike branches are designed to make a trip to the bank a pleasant experience.

“There’s a big table at the heart of every branch, where you can settle down, have a cup of coffee or do some work. There are separate booths to get personal advice. There’s also a kid’s corner and a fully equipped ‘digi-corner’ to do your online banking or learn how.”

Unique brand differentiation

The company’s intent is to stand out by its unique brand differentiation, one that customers can experience alike in every one of its markets.

Countries that have already benefited from the design include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Romania and Turkey. More branches are being opened in Luxemburg, Austria and Italy for the rest of the year. The plan, over the next four years, is to introduce the new home-like design in each of its 1,660 branches located in nine countries.

Customers are responding positively to the new look and feel. “They like the friendly interior, which invites them to spend time at our branches,” says Ryszard Broda, channel development manager at ING in Poland.

And according to ING it is not only customers who are happy- branch employees are also enjoying the new environment.

ING feel at home branch