Bank Watch

Questions about BofA’s app? There’s a ‘digital ambassador’ for that

Cecily Clark, a digital ambassador for Bank of America, works at the bank’s branch at Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. The Charlotte-based bank is staffing its branches with the ambassadors, who field questions from customers about how to use its expanding mobile and digital technology.
Cecily Clark, a digital ambassador for Bank of America, works at the bank’s branch at Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. The Charlotte-based bank is staffing its branches with the ambassadors, who field questions from customers about how to use its expanding mobile and digital technology. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

The next time you set foot in a Bank of America branch, chances are you’ll bump into its growing fleet of “digital ambassadors.”

Nationwide, the Charlotte-based bank has been steadily staffing its branches since late last year with the ambassadors – bankers trained to field customer questions about its expanding mobile and online banking technology. It’s the latest example of the bank’s deepening push into online and mobile banking, in a shifting landscape where droves of customers are conducting fewer transactions in brick-and-mortar branches.

So far, Bank of America says it has deployed about 3,800 of the specialists nationwide, including in branches in the Charlotte area. To identify themselves to customers, they wear lanyards around their necks that read, “I’m your digital ambassador.”

Bank of America is hardly the only bank to train employees on its digital technology. The bank is going further than some of its peers by bestowing the bankers with a title – which it has trademarked.

Wells Fargo, for example, says it trains all of the bankers in its branches to answer customer questions about mobile and online banking, but the San Francisco-based bank does not have a special designation for those employees.

Michelle Moore, Charlotte-based head of digital banking for Bank of America, likened the initiative to Apple’s Genius Bar or Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

“When you come in, if you have a specific issue you need help with or you want to download the mobile app, we can say, ‘Great, we have these digital ambassadors who are here to help you,’” Moore said.

Bank of America’s moves come as it and its peers continue to see rising numbers of customers rely on smartphones and other devices to perform transactions once conducted at teller counters. Bank of America says its number of mobile banking customers grows by about 5,500 per day.

Mark Schwanhausser, digital banking analyst for California-based adviser Javelin, said the new digital assistants reflect Bank of America’s efforts to expose customers to technology in which it has invested heavily.

“The challenge for banks like BofA is they roll this stuff out, they spend the money on it and many customers don’t know it exists,” Schwanhausser said.

CEO Brian Moynihan has tallied the bank’s spending on mobile technology at about $700 million over the past five years. Bank of America said Tuesday it plans to triple its investment in digital banking this year, but it declined to give a figure.

On Tuesday, Bank of America unveiled a variety of changes to its online and mobile services.

Those changes include the ability for customers to place a temporary lock on their debit cards, a feature a person might use if their card goes missing. Another upgrade allows a customer on a mobile device or online opening a checking account to save their progress and complete the process later.

U.S. banks are introducing more digital technology for customers as cost-cutting remains a big focus for banks at a time of low interest rates and a still-recovering economy. In November, Bank of America told investors that mobile and online transactions cost it one-tenth what it does to conduct the same transactions at a branch.

Schwanhausser said banks are also under pressure to improve their digital offerings as they face growing competition from nonbanks, such as Apple or Amazon. Both companies offer payment services.

“The banks, in many cases, it’s their game to lose,” Schwanhausser said.

“There are others out there that are more innovative, that move more nimbly, that can turn on a dime.”

Bank of America has also become more dependent on mobile technology as it has simultaneously reduced its number of branches. Moynihan has said that if customers were to stop using mobile phones over security concerns, the bank lacks the capacity to open 700 branches – the volume of checks being deposited on the bank’s mobile platform alone.

Last year, Moore said, Bank of America opened a laboratory on top of a branch in Silicon Valley to experiment with new digital technology. The “customer experience” lab, the first of its kind for the bank, comes up with innovations that are then tested on customers in the branch below to get their feedback.

Moore said the bank is currently exploring the idea of providing a “virtual banking assistant” – think a Siri-type voice service that tells you your account balance.

“My mindset is I look at competitors differently,” she said. “I’m not always looking at what (JPMorgan) Chase and Wells are doing. I’m looking to see what is Apple doing, what is Nordstrom doing, what is Best Buy doing, what is Amazon doing.”

“The entire industry is just chasing ease of use from multiple different angles.”

Deon Roberts: 704-358-5248, @DeonERoberts

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