UK banks’ big tech investment isn’t attracting customers

Traditional UK banks spent an estimated £12 billion on technology in 2021 and yet still saw a loss of more than 120,000 customers* — the same amount gained by digital challenger banks. But this major focus on tech and digital by traditional banks isn’t new. It builds on years of investment in digitisation. In fact, NatWest and First Direct launched mobile banking apps 11 years ago.

Yet, for the past few years, we have become accustomed to hearing the all too familiar reason for switching: ‘The new banks offer me so much more than my traditional bank’. And maybe it’s true. More than half of UK consumers who switched current accounts in the first quarter of 2021 did so for better online banking capabilities. 

So, what is happening to the vast investments traditional banks are making into digitisation? And, given all this investment, how can the challengers still be offering more than any high street bank?

*Research collated from multiple studies: source 1source 2source 3source 4

Incumbent banks are close to reaching feature parity with digital banks

What have traditional UK banks managed to achieve with their investments into technology? A lot, it so happens. In fact, they offer more than expected — you just have to go looking for it.

As a result of partnering with fintechs, as well as creating their own capabilities, UK banks offer almost all the same products and services in retail banking as challengers do. A detailed review of mobile banking features by Minna Technologies scored Lloyds Bank and Starling joint first for card and payment features, and ranked TSB top with digital banks for its savings and investment capabilities. Although, as Starling’s CEO pointed out, these copycat features will likely only get incumbent banks so far — building on legacy technology actually increases cost base (unlike for the challengers).

We picked out some key features of online banking and mapped out which banks offer them. Spend analysis, a stand-out attraction of online bank Monzo, is in fact available with seven of the eight high street banks we looked at. Admittedly, it’s not always as intuitive as how Monzo do it, but it is there. Indeed, all offer investing features — many of which have an extensive range of pre-made funds with different investing themes and levels of risk.

Traditional banks are even starting to provide services that digital banks don’t offer. NatWest offer a carbon footprint calculator to estimate carbon emissions based on users’ spending; unique in the market and a direct response to the rise in climate-conscious consumers. HSBC’s financial fitness feature promises to do more than analyse your spending, it also offers tailored advice based on your results. These offerings show a move towards understanding what customers want. But did we, as customers of these banks, know about these products before we went looking? No. So, the question remains; why is the customer still so unaware? We explored this across eight major UK banks, with focus on NatWest and HSBC due to their advanced digital offerings.

Consumers just don’t know about features available to them 

Market research of customers from those eight UK banks revealed a unanimous response: ‘My bank offers me far more than I knew’. That response is fascinating. In an uber competitive market it’s also quite shocking. Consistently, customers of high street banks were surprised to find that they could invest with their bank, view their spending, or even apply for new accounts and loans within the app. This was a stark contrast to customers of digital banks who could reel off their banks’ great features without looking at the app — true brand advocates. 

So, the view that the challengers ‘give me so much more’ isn’t actually that true anymore, we just don’t seem to know it. Instead of looking at what they offer, we examined how.

  1. Digital banks think more about their user experience

Features within the digital products of incumbent banks are hard to find. They are not well sign-posted, are located many clicks from the dashboard and can easily be missed in a long list of other products on offer. Take HSBC’s investment feature; it sits nearly at the bottom of a long list which is buried beneath the account overviews and has no prominence in their (newly designed!) app. But when a challenger bank releases a new feature, we know about it. It’s advertised on a main page, often with a short but clear explanation. Oh, and it’s all over their social media too.

Once we located the features we were looking for, we found that nearly half of the features traditional banks offer took us outside of the app and into a browser. In contrast, challenger banks keep nearly all their services in-app. Why does this matter? The customer’s journey in accessing a service is vital to keeping users engaged. Having to accept cookies and re-enter details, whilst dealing with a new user interface, is an immediate turn-off. 

Giving up on the tasks that sent us to a browser, we focused on the in-app user journey. We found that completing tasks on the apps of digital banks required fewer clicks and took less time than those of incumbent banks. Freezing a card took half as many clicks on average and setting up open banking took a third of the time with Starling than it did with Santander or Lloyds.

When banking, we want to complete tasks quickly and easily and know where to find the services we need. 40% of users switch accounts for a banking app that is easier to use, making it key to success. High street banks are clearly lagging behind the challengers in user experience, not feature richness.

  1. Banks must demonstrate how their product is linked to purpose

Monzo promises to provide a single place to spend, save and manage money. And their product backs this up; they offer current and savings accounts, payment features and spend analysis within a few clicks of their homepage. This makes sense to customers, and there is a clear link between their purpose and what they do. 

Due to the continuous evolution of established banks and endless brand refreshes, their message can get confused. Point in case: NatWest’s carbon footprint calculator — a really exciting feature that nobody knows about. If they have this feature, what else are they doing to combat climate change? 

Combating climate change is one of the three key objectives on NatWest’s purpose webpage. While that’s great, there is no mention of how they help their customers make conscious choices through the app feature. This missing link is damaging the overall perception of the digital experience. Even more frustrating, NatWest’s team would have made a conscious decision to invest in developing this feature, which brings us back to the value for money point. You can’t delight customers if they don’t know what to be delighted about.

  1. Digital banks’ tone of voice resonates with their customers

The way challenger banks communicate their proposition is distinctly different. They use clear language and the link between their values and actions is evident. 

From the title tags of their websites to service updates on social media, digital banks use simple terms and direct, purpose-driven language. They loudly reject the use of banking jargon. In fact, Monzo has added a page on their website to explain their tone of voice and also published tips for copywriting on LinkedIn.

By contrast, established banks use corporate language that feels unreachable and, to a millennial customer specifically, outdated. Some banks, such as HSBC, stick to a corporate approach to messaging across all online channels. Others like NatWest are trying to change their corporate image on social media. Their Instagram is personable and directly relates to the three purposes outlined on their website. But their following makes up just 0.1% of its customer base. This tone of voice doesn’t match their website which makes for a disjointed cross-channel experience.

As a result, the message that banks are sending consumers can be confusing. It is hard to understand what they are doing to give their customers a better banking experience across their digital channels — which received (presumably) a large part of the £12 billion investment last year.

Putting it simply

What do traditional UK banks need to do to stop the flow of customers migrating to challenger banks? They need to focus on integrated in-app journeys with simple messaging around how their product directly links to their mission as a bank, and why this makes a difference for consumers. To put it simply, they need to connect with their customers. The feature race is over; may the best brand win.