When Westpac Met Video Conferencing: What Worked And What Didn’t

Over the last year, Westpac has been trialling the use of video conferencing in its branches to connect customers to small business specialists. What lessons has it learned about when video conferencing can be helpful, and when it’s the wrong choice?

Bank picture from Shutterstock

Westpac regional general manager for the Connect Now program, James Richie, discussed how the project has progressed during a media briefing at Cisco Live in Melbourne today. Having started as a trial for Victorian branches, it is now being extended to Sydney and Perth, and will eventually be rolled out nationally.

This is the basic idea: if a customer comes into a branch and wants to discuss a small business topic, they are connected via a high-quality video conference to a small business specialist in another branch. That allows for more effective staffing and also means more customers can have issues dealt with immediately. “We don’t have to have physically 100,000 experts sitting in every branch,” Richie said. (Westpac’s total head count is around 33,000, so we’ll treat that as hyperbole.)

So far, things are going well. “We’re totally satisfied with what we’ve done,” Riche said. “Customer advocacy has gone sky high in terms of use.”

So what has Westpac learned during the rollout? Firstly, that despite the widespread use of personal video calls through Skype, FaceTime and similar services, customers can’t be left to manage calls on their own. “We always have a branch person to sit there and chaperone the customer through,” Richie said. Many customers are initially nervous about using the conferencing facility, but they generally relax within 3-4 minutes.

Second, there will always be a resistant core of customers who simply don’t want to use this approach. “We do have customers who want to deal face to face,” Richie said. “We still have a team of local business bankers who are situated in branches. If customers don’t want to talk on video, that’s their choice.” What Richie didn’t say, but which seems self-evident, is that any customer self-selecting out of the approach is going to end up waiting a lot longer before they do speak to a relevant staff member, who may well have to schlepp in from another location,

Training is also vital for staff. “Putting a VC in a branch doesn’t guarantee success,” Riche said. “We have to convert our branch staff as much as our customers to understand what we’re trying to do.”

Given the costs of high-end VC equipment, metrics to measure the success of the project have been essential. “The things we measure today are the number of contacts per week, the amount of business generated, and the customer advocacy,” Richie said. “On those three measurements, the acceptance and the pickup has been phenomenal.”

There is one niggling concern. Westpac is rolling out the project very gradually, with just one state fully covered so far. That’s not atypical of large enterprise projects, but I can’t help wondering if it’s a little slow. By the time the option is available nationwide, I suspect many customers will be wondering why Westpac isn’t simply offering access to expert bankers via a PC or tablet, rather than requiring them to go into a branch.

The normal argument made here is that Westpac, as a business, needs to guarantee the quality of a connection, and resist what Richie calls the “Skype effect”: low expectations of performance. But as IBRS analyst Kevin McIsaac reminded me after the session, users happily accept the sub-optimal quality of calls on mobiles as a trade-off for convenience. Getting the service you want is far more important than seeing a high-resolution image of a banker you’ve never met.

Evolve is a regular column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Cisco.

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