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News analysis

Beware of info overload on bank customers

Banks keen to prove they are tech-savvy may risk swamping clients with too many updates

Barely a week passes these days without a bank announcing that it is the first in Singapore to offer some cutting-edge technology, such as a digital wallet or voice biometrics.

Often, these announcements would be relevant only to a select group of customers, such as those who use Android phones.

Or they represent very slight improvements in the way customers can interact with the bank. For example, you can now check your bank balance - and do little else - on an Apple Watch.

Another emerging trend is that banks sometimes make such announcements even before they have implemented the technology.

They simply want to be the first to announce that they plan to roll out some fancy new tech development.

Back in the day, banks were more patient about giving updates on new products, services or business units, usually waiting about a year before announcing milestones reached and results delivered.

We are living in an era where every other day, another 25-year-old develops an app that people can use to get personal or corporate loans, compare mortgage rates or transfer funds... Banks have to show that they are just as nimble, just as technologically adept and just as cool.

Increasingly these days, banks are coming out with such updates within weeks or a few months. They may not have impressive milestones or results to share, but they are happy to talk about the plans in store or the targets they are aiming for. In short, it seems the finance industry has embraced the belief that speed beats substance.

Every bank wants to make sure that customers are constantly reminded they are working on being at the forefront of technology, never mind if they are delivering results yet.

It is easy to understand why.

We are living in an era where every other day, another 25-year-old develops an app that people can use to get personal or corporate loans, compare mortgage rates or transfer funds to each other across the world.

Banks have to show that they are just as nimble, just as technologically adept and just as cool. In an age where so many new financial technology players are coming in and threatening their market share, the banks also have to remind customers that they are truly listening to feedback.

So many banking developments these days are described as having been inspired by the need to solve customer "pain points" or remove the annoyances that banking customers often have to deal with.

OCBC Bank chief executive Samuel Tsien acknowledged that much of the information banks are sharing these days relate to "small features here and there".

But he added that the trend reflects the industry's strong belief that technology - and how it is harnessed to deliver the best "customer experience" in the market - will be the key factor in determining who gets to retain and grow their customer base today and in the future.

He said: "I think client experience is going to be a major determinant of whether you'll be able to get new customer relationships.

"In the future... the customer will have a lot more information on his hands. You cannot compete on products alone."

Every bank knows this, and every bank is working on building that better customer experience, bit by bit. But for the customer - who is inundated with weekly updates on Bank A signing up two more merchants on its latest payment app while Bank B has made it so he no longer needs to remember his first pet's name when he logs in to his phone banking account - information overload is a real risk.

Now more than ever, customers have to filter out the superfluous and focus on what their needs truly are when they are considering which bank to do business with.

As banks develop and deploy their innovative apps and tech fixes, it will be interesting to see whether any will really break out of the crowd and deliver a completely new kind of banking service.

What would also be good, though, is if they also learn to develop meaningful ways of communicating all the work that they are doing to become better banks without adding to the information overload.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Beware of info overload on bank customers'. Print Edition | Subscribe