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Fifteen years ago banking and financial institutions were amongst the first business sectors to recognise the potential of the online medium. Banks were innovators and customers responded happily. A well-thought out online service was a competitive edge. Today, however, consumers want more and the ability to transact is no longer enough. Consumers want more knowledge and even greater expediency. They want banks to actively engage with them, keeping them informed 24/7. They want a great customer experience.  Brett Waters, Vice President Asia Pacific – South, RightNow looks at the evolving social and mobile desires of Australian consumers.

Back in the nineties online banking was an exciting innovation.  The idea that you didn’t have to spend your lunch hour queuing at the bank but could instead choose to pay your bills electronically at a time convenient to you was a revelation. IT-literate consumers quickly led the charge, happily switching banks to take advantage of the new services.

Since then industry after industry has adopted the online channel. The banking sector’s first-mover advantage has paled as familiarity has led consumers to expect more of their online relationships.  These days it comes as an unpleasant surprise if we find we can’t conduct all our money management activities over the Internet or via our bank’s website.  Consumers have become a hard to please, technologically-erudite audience and they are about to get much tougher.

In the last 12 months Australians have dramatically expanded their online expectations.  For the first time, we embraced social networks for everything from personal conversations to business,  purchasing and banking considerations.  We also became mobile, adopting smartphones and tablets in droves in order to stay connected.   The Internet and social networks have become our first port of call for research.  Available from any location at any time of day, we confidently google terms and turn to Facebook or Twitter before any purchase or service commitment.

The figures speak for themselves

According to RightNow’s latest annual study into Australian consumer behaviour, experiences and expectations, the number of consumers actively using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has grown from just over 50 percent twelve months ago to 69 percent today.  It’s a significant leap that puts social users well in the majority. What’s more, one in four report having made a purchase or service commitment because of a social web discussion.

The report also shows that the nature of social communication is changing, with an increasing number of consumers welcoming organisations into their once-personal online conversations. In 2010 just over half of all consumers (57 percent) said they would be happy for organisations to contact them via social media with special offers and discounts.  By  2011 this figure had risen to 65 percent.

A third or more of consumers also said that companies should be tuning in to social networking sites to listen to customer feedback and responding to positive or negative comments on social sites. Even attitudes towards the once taboo act of sales pitches on social networks appear to be relaxing.

The changes are leaving banks with little choice other than to join in. They must become part of the social conversation to have any chance of reaching and influencing consumers, let alone to fulfil customer expectations.  Fortunately, the act of social engagement in Australia is simplified by the dominance of one site – Facebook. Regularly frequented by 98% of social media users and accessed by all age groups, Facebook has become the critical site for any institution seeking to understand  conversations about their products and services, establish a presence on a social network or to improve their customer experience.

Smartphones Rule

Social smarts alone however, aren’t enough.  Another trend to emerge within the past 12 months is the use of mobile devices in consumer decision making and purchasing. Four in ten Australians use a mobile device to access the Internet and just over half of those people user their devices to search for information on the companies they do business with.  Almost one third (32 percent) go one step further and use their devices to make purchases.

It’s a fair bet that over the next 12 months these figures will rise considerably.  In early September a study by IPSOS and Google found that Australia has the world’s second highest smartphone penetration after Singapore.  What is most startling about the survey is that 80 percent of participants purchased their smartphones within the last six months. This means all these people are still in the early phases of exploring their phone capabilities.

Can you imagine the purchasing behaviours and mobility expectations of these consumers in a year’s time? They’re going to want mobile-enabled websites that offer the full spectrum of customer service. If they sign up for a new product via their mobile phones, they’re going to expect to be able to receive service via the same channel.  Should they decide one day to walk  through the door of a branch to conduct transactions in person, they’ll also expect to receive the same level of knowledge, service and efficiency face-to-face. And if they don’t get what they are after, you’re likely to read about it on Facebook.

What does it all mean?

If a customer visits a branch or trawls through your site looking for investment formation, it’s important to recognise that the visit is quite possibly only the beginning of their research journey.  Once they obtain the rates, terms and conditions they are after, your prospects are highly likely to look at several other sites to find the best terms and use their smartphone or iPad to search for a better deal. If all goes well, they may even be able to conclude their investment before their coffee gets cold.

It’s a huge challenge for banks:  the need to maintain quality service across all product ranges, organisational divisions and communication channels. While good face-to-face service will always be valued, the experiences that customers receive on the web, on the phone, when using their mobile, or when conversing on social media are now just as critical.  Even more imperative are the interactions customers have with other customers.

So perhaps it’s time to stop talking about the likely ramifications of social, mobile consumers.  That era is here, now.  We’ve living it.  Consumers have shown their preference for online interaction with service and product suppliers, and banks must respond by availing themselves of social media and mobility tools.  Indeed, in an era where social consumers have multiple channels to engage with their bank, the pressure is now on for any financial services provider to have a true 360 degree view of each individual customer across all interactions available.  Because one thing’s for certain:  Institutions that use technology to deliver a consistently superior customer experience will reap the rewards.

– Brett Waters is Vice President Asia Pacific South at RightNow Technologies

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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