digital-11-16-18.pngFor decades, banks needed to add new locations to grow, pushing the number of U.S. branches to a peak in 2009. Following the financial crisis, some banks started to close branches in an effort to lower their costs in the face of declining net interest margins and rising regulatory costs. Along the way, lenders realized they could maintain their deposit levels with fewer locations in a digital world where customers often prefer mobile apps and ATMs.

In fact, over the past two decades, banks have purposefully discouraged customers from visiting their lobbies. Beyond simply driving customers to automated channels such as online banking, mobile apps, and chatbots, some banks have even gone as far as charging their customers fees whenever they use tellers or lobby-related activities.

Digital tools are now being used by almost all bank customers regardless of whether they value in-person interactions or not. However, great banking still needs great relationships, especially for complicated transactions.

Today there are nearly 90,000 bank branches in the United States. Last year, according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 46 percent of banking customers said the only way they interacted with their bank was exclusively through digital channels, up from 27 percent in 2012. How do we justify keeping 90,000 bank branches open to support the less than 50 percent of clients who still need to visit a branch for those complicated transactions?

Technology can provide the answer. There are times when banking customers need to work with someone in person, but it’s expensive staffing branches with specific experts who are often underutilized. On top of that, branches are often only open during business hours, a particularly inconvenient time for those of us who are working their day job during those exact same hours and find it difficult to sneak off to the bank.

We think the solution to this problem is a Virtual Banking Expert©—which is a physical system with a video feed and specialized work-station touch-screen that allows anyone to privately interact with an expert at almost any time. This allows customers to work with specialized tools on highly secure channels in their local branches while keeping their personal information private and not requiring that they miss valuable work hours. This also means banks can now bring the benefits of a physical branch to their customers as long as there is a secured room accessible via account-holder cards, biometric security measures, and proper physical safety.

It simply isn’t cost effective to staff physical branches with experts who are available for the occasions when customers need to leverage their specialized skills. According to research by the technology company CACI International, the typical consumer will visit a bank branch just four times a year by 2022, compared to an average of seven times today. However, through the use of new technology like the Virtual Banking Expert© kiosk solution, that highly valuable and skilled banker can service customers at multiple locations remotely, privately and securely, providing a tremendous cost savings to the bank. Even the most heavily trafficked branches with experts on staff would be able to remote-in to other branches.

The consumer financial industry is changing–and a digitally evolving customer base continues to push the limits of what banks can do with increasing demands for convenience and ease. But I don’t believe we’re anywhere close to cutting humans out of banking transactions. In fact, as the CEO of a public computing company, I can tell you that is not our goal. We just think the role of humans is going to get a little more personal and less transactional. It’s easy to make those interactions more convenient and affordable for all parties involved. And as more and more customers demand flexibility and options when it comes to how they do business—whether it’s in-person, online, over the phone or through a live chat–it’s more important than ever to get ahead of this growing trend.

Healey Cypher