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Don’t settle for ‘Scalextric transformation’

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'Scalextric transormation' provides only the illusion of control.

My bank’s mobile app is pretty good. It does what I want it to do. Not all of its functions are intuitively obvious on first encounter but they are easy to learn. Recently they added the ability to pay in cheques by scanning an image. In doing so they removed the only remaining reason for me to visit a branch. Having banked with them since I was sixteen, it’s possible that I won’t ever look them in the eye again.

I’d go as far as to say that the app is the baby bear’s porridge of Fintech as far as I am concerned. It is just right. Not too hot on peripheral features, not too cold on essential functions.

But my bank has missed the most obvious function of the app, the one that is literally staring them and me in the face. The app is a glorified statement. That’s all it is really; a real-time statement with some transactional functionality on the side. Sometimes I do it deliberately, sometimes I do it as a by-product of doing something else, but I check my balance and recent transactions on an almost daily basis.

So, from the moment of its first release, even in its most minimally viable form, the app made old-school monthly statements redundant as a means for me to manage my finances.

And yet.

And yet my app is sending me “unread message” notifications. The messages stay unread because I know what they say. I only get two kinds of message from my bank. One tells me that there is a new monthly statement for me to read (a pdf on an app). The other reminds me that I haven’t read it yet . Why would I want to read again information that I’ve seen several times before, that is out of date, and that is presented in an unnatural and inconvenient format?

Fine if banks are legally obliged to produce monthly statements. Fine if I sometimes need to print or send an official statement to a third party organisation. I might occasionally need to access a statement on my terms.

But the persistent notifications are clearly being sent on the bank’s terms. The level of emphasis placed on this communication by the bank turns those pdfs into statements of the obvious. They make it obvious that the technology has changed but the underlying mentality hasn’t. This is muscle-memory marketing. And it condemns the app to being a modern mixer tap attached to antiquated lead plumbing. My bank has a ghost in its machine. The ghost of banking past is haunting the technology of banking present.

Banks are an easy target for this kind of criticism. But the principles apply to any organisation that manages a high frequency of customer transactions based on legacy principles. Changing technology without changing ideology leads to 'Scalextric transformation'. Your customers have the illusion of control from a convenient handset, but they are still driving along the same old tracks in directions that are not dictated by them.

It takes time for large incumbent institutions, of which banks are the most visible example, to transform their way out of legacy systems and the culturally ingrained practices that come with them. However, that still leaves significant, quick-win opportunities to revisit regulatory communications with a service design mindset. Some optimism and some imagination can turn things that you have to say into things that customers are happy to hear.

Phil Adams is strategy director at Cello Signal Group

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