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The human face of self-service: Barclays Bank gives its cash machines names

5th Apr 2016
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Branch service versus self-service in retail banking is a delicate balancing act.  Putting in relationship-building face time with the customer, to discuss complicated or sensitive issues such as mortgage or loan applications, while encouraging them to use cheaper self-service channels when appropriate is often a question of judgement.

Barclays Bank has been criticised recently for giving human names to the self-service machines in some of its branches. In future, visitors to these branches will be greeted by ‘Digital Eagles’ – staff equipped with iPads – who walk around the branch directing customers to either ‘Mike’, ‘Sally’ or ‘Jake’ if they want to pay in a cheque, withdraw money or amend a direct debit. Traditional cashiers seated behind screens will be retrained as 'community bankers'.

The machines, known as ‘Assisted Service Counters’, even have name plaques, with a list of transactions they can help with written underneath.


Having machines with a human name, if not a face, are all part of Barclay’s plans to present a friendlier, more human face to customers entering their branches. Only those with more complicated enquiries, such as taking out a mortgage or applying for a loan, will be directed to a real-life member of staff in a private room for a face-to-face chat.

Barclays has said it is testing out its self-service machines at five of its 1,488 UK branches and the aim of the naming is to make it easier for customers to distinguish between the different types of machines that are available.  (Apparently all the machines have different ‘personalities’ as well as doing different things.) The bank has also said that it will retrain 6,500 of its cashiers to play this customer advisory role, so that simple, straightforward transactions can be processed digitally. However, branch staff will still be able to process simple transactions, if customers don’t want to use the new machines, such as opening new accounts. If these trials are successful, then they could be rolled out across the country.


The criticism highlights the frustration and annoyance that customers – especially, but not exclusively, older people - sometimes feel in banks, supermarkets and train stations when forced to deal with self-service machines rather than a real person. And it’s all part of the move away from real people in physical buildings to more distant, digital channels. Around one in three people now carry a smartphone and the average customer interacts with their bank at least once a day for payment-related matters, such as buying a financial product, checking on a payment, or paying a bill.

According to a report released by the British Bankers’ Association in July 2014 ('The Way We Bank Now: It’s in your hands') there are now £1 billion worth of transactions made through digital channels each day in the UK. (The report also claimed however that banks will still continue to have a physical high street presence however, with around 2,200 stores refurbished over the past two years.)

It seems as though most everyday activities seem intent on removing human beings from their process: supermarkets now have a self-service machine option (which seem to delight in telling you there’s an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’); Amazon say they are going to be delivering parcels by drones in the near future; petrol stations offer the option to fill up the car by a card inserted into the pump without going to a till; train tickets come out of a machine; if you’ve got a microchip in your new-style passport, then you can go through an automated passport control much more easily.


So what do these activities have in common? Well, they are all fairly basic, routine tasks that can usually be safely handled by machines; anything more complex and they may need to be escalated to a human being. The skill is in making sure that that this transition is not an annoying and alienating experience.

Retail banks need to align their branch strategy with changing consumer attitudes to boost their ROI and position themselves for the future. Bricks and mortar branches, with their high overheads, would seem to point towards a decreasing ROI, but decreased traffic and cost inefficiencies shouldn’t signal the demise of branches altogether.

Branches are still an important interaction point, playing an essential role in complex product sales and relationship building for both retail and small-business customers. It’s just a question of choosing the right channel for the right activity and knowing when to offer what and to whom.



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