• Joycelyn Dong
  • Published: 13 July 2020

With 2020 devolving into a haze of uncertainty, ranging from the global pandemic to battles against racial inequity, I have re-evaluated the systems and safety nets that make up our day-to-day. The nagging question of “how can I make an impact” is always lingering and seeping into my personal and professional life. It doesn’t seem like it would be enough to share resources on my social media, especially when my network is an echo chamber of similar ideas and beliefs. It took me some time to realize; I have both the unique opportunity and the platform to challenge my professional network to evaluate customer experiences during this especially difficult time.

I work as a user researcher. I interact every day with regular people and seek to understand their current experiences, pain points, aspirations and goals. During times of distress, I think the profession of user research is even more critical to society and especially to businesses.

Currently, I am working with a bank to interact with customers that have taken loans either before or during the COVID-19 period. Many of them are now facing financial difficulty, but not all. It is not easy to listen to their real worries about their ability to repay their home loans. A home loan and owning a home, after all, is the bedrock of the American dream. Many of them fear a repeat of 2008, which for them was a very recent and painful memory of anxiety, loss and further uncertainty. I can empathize directly with this. As a user researcher, I have to apply empathy regularly, but in this case, I had a shared experience. My parents’ small business felt the impact of the credit crunch and financial crisis of the late 2000s.

A consistent question asked by the customers I interact with was, “Why were we not better prepared as a society? Why were we (the bank) not better prepared for another black swan event?” Here, like in Owen Priestley’s Customer Loan Assistance Journey article, “Banks are being blamed for a job they had no option but to accept,” the customers are looking to banks to operate as a bedrock of certainty in times when nothing is certain. While this, as Owen points out, is a responsibility that banks have no option but to accept, is also a once in a generation opportunity.

Banks have done a great job of acting swiftly during this national crisis, but for some Americans, the solutions aren’t perfect. Banks should analyze their response to 2008, in conjunction with their better response to the pandemic, to determine what would be best for their customers during the next crisis. It is certainly not a question of if the next crisis will occur but when. Banks should form a dedicated task force now to avoid losing the opportunity of engaging with and interviewing with their customers during a time of pain.

It is natural to assume that the next great crisis will once again have economic impacts on the majority of Americans, and therefore should be a baseline consideration in the customer personas used to reimagine customer journeys. The task force should bring the needs of this anxious and scared persona to all lines of business and ask, “what can we do for this customer.” As part of the exercise, the task force should present personas with low, medium, and high levels of economic impact due to the next crisis. These personas and journeys should also be made available to the risk modeling groups within the banks. In the future, banks should be capable of quickly mobilizing response teams by impacted customer persona. One critical component of this approach is developing an adequate way to communicate this information and assistance to customers.

As I evaluate the materials currently published by institutions in response to COVID-19, I’ve found that many customers find the resources hard to understand and also challenging to find. In this digital age, we need to ensure that all populations can digest and locate available resources.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that banks take into consideration customers and their needs. Today with the internet, it has never been easier to air your grievances with a financial institution.

Customers will remember the sense of security their bank provided during the current pandemic and will make future banking decisions based on this memory. The opportunity to respond perfectly to the pandemic may have passed, but the chance to do better next time is sitting right in our laps.

Now is the time to act. Banks will continue to be the first institution that people turn to for security in times of hardship. Banks will continue to accept this responsibility, which comes with increasing expectations of better, faster and more tailored service. Now is the time to act.