This is a guest post by Andrew Kerschinske, one of Digital FastForward’s innovation delivery managers. Andrew leads innovation projects for different clients in financial services.

Working for a bank in 2020, I helped design and launch an online application for the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program). We were pleased with it because we were confident that our forms were clear enough to get us the information needed to process the loan.

The launch proved us wrong. Calls for help and support from customers overwhelmed us. Why? We hadn’t fully considered how the application fit into the customer’s — and the bank’s — larger context.

As we learned, innovation in digital banking is often focused on solving one isolated problem. If you are too fast to build an application, you may fail to take the time to understand the context of the problem from your customer’s perspective. So, off you go with your development teams solving your part of the problem in a silo. Rarely does someone take a step back to look at the whole picture and see how it will impact the customer and other areas of the business. If that actually happens, the typical response is that it’s “Out of scope” or “It’s not part of our problem to solve.”

How can you take that broader view? Start with putting the customer at the center and keeping them there, including empathy and a full understanding of their emotional journey.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forced many banks to innovate by creating an online loan application. But what they didn’t take into account was how personal this particular loan was to their customers. I vividly remember talking with a customer who was so confused about the application and had so much anxiety about securing this loan that it brought him to tears. The PPP loan was going to help him keep his 100-year-old family business going and also allow him to continue to pay his employees, whom he cared so much for, including some who had worked for him for more than 20 years. Hearing his side of the story made me reflect: “Who did we actually build the application for? Us or the customer?” It was painful to admit that the customer wasn’t at the center of this solution.

This kind of thinking has costs down the line. At my bank, we had to temporarily triple our customer service staff, and we still couldn’t keep up with the number of questions coming in. The calls ranged from confusion, to wanting a status update, to requests that were very obscure and highly specific. My customer support team did the best they could with the limited training and resources they had.

When building an application like this, you must address three separate things: User Experience, Customer Service, and Customer Experience.

  • User experience is focusing on the customer’s point of view when you create an application. For example, as we built out our PPP application, our primary focus was to ensure we captured all of the necessary information from the customer so we could process the loan. From a data-gathering perspective, we hit the mark, but the language we used was more appropriate for us — bankers — than for customers. We would have avoided many of the customer support calls had we gathered feedback from our customer support teammates on what was tripping people up, and if we had the time to test the application with a few more customers than we did.
  • Customer service is focusing on solving customer problems in a timely manner, through self-service or through direct customer support. With our PPP application, we wanted the customer service team to take all of the PPP application questions because we thought that it would be best to have them become a center of expertise regarding the application. But we didn’t have enough time to incorporate much self-help in the application or to properly train our customer service teammates, which resulted in long wait times, long calls, a lot of apologies, and customer callbacks. In any new application, it’s essential to make sure the customer service team is trained and prepared prior to the launch.
  • Customer experience encompasses far more than user experience. It is about having an understanding of how the customer is feeling throughout the journey. In our case, we focused on getting the online application up and running without thinking through how the customer should feel once their application was submitted and how they should feel as it’s being processed. Not only did customers feel out of the loop, but so did their relationship manager at the bank. Emotions ran high until we held a training seminar and put in place an internal communication channel where branch employees could ask questions and check for status updates. Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and maintaining transparent communication are keys to a successful customer experience.

As I work with different clients today in industries inside and outside of banking, I see many of these same things happening. Innovators are trying to solve business problems from their own viewpoint, rather than solving broader issues from the customer’s perspective. No doubt, taking a customer-centric approach demands more energy and effort. But if you can attain that broader perspective you’ll get far better results.