Lights! Cam­era! Mort­gage!

As branches dwin­dle, Bar­clays bets on video tell­ers “Look into that tiny lit­tle pin­hole of a we­b­cam and be en­gag­ing”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - MARKETS/FINANCE - Gabrielle Cop­pola and Stephen Mor­ris

Over the course of her 31-year ca­reer at the U.K. bank Bar­clays, Jayne New­ton went from be­ing a cashier in a branch to mak­ing home vis­its to wealthy clients in the heady days be­fore the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. She still works with cus­tomers face-to-face to­day—sort of. She’s one of the bank’s 60 video tell­ers, spend­ing her days in front of a we­b­cam in a noise-re­sis­tant pod at an office in Liver­pool.

New­ton says she likes work­ing on cam­era, but it’s de­mand­ing. “Be­fore I do ev­ery video, I al­ways make sure I brush my hair and put my lip­stick on,” she says. “You make sure you keep your fa­cial ex­pres­sions in con­trol.”

Jackie Bram­bles, a for­mer TV show host, helped Bar­clays em­ploy­ees get com­fort­able on cam­era. “It’s a real

jug­gling act,” she says. “They have to be able to look into that tiny lit­tle pin­hole of a we­b­cam and be en­gag­ing and in­for­ma­tive and lovely and po­lite, but at the same time have that sur­rep­ti­tious lit­tle glance to make sure: ‘Am I be­ing un­der­stood? Is this per­son get­ting it? Are they happy?’”

Af­ter pi­lot­ing video for se­lect cus­tomers for about a year, Bar­clays started ex­pand­ing it in April and plans to have 110 video bankers by yearend. They’ll be reach­able 24 hours a day by tap­ping a but­ton in the bank’s mo­bile app or click­ing a link on its web­site.

Although the bank con­tin­ues to elim­i­nate branches—from 2,000 in the U.K. a decade ago to 1,362 in 2015—man­agers in­sist video bank­ing isn’t driven by cost cuts. “This isn’t about forc­ing peo­ple to change the way they talk to us,” says Steven Cooper, head of per­sonal bank­ing at Bar­clays. “It’s about giv­ing cus­tomers choice.” Bar­clays is look­ing for ways to con­nect with its cus­tomers and, more im­por­tant, hang on to them in the face of com­pe­ti­tion from fi­nan­cial-technology star­tups promis­ing to let peo­ple man­age their money from a smart­phone.

Cooper echoes the gospel of dig­i­tal­bank­ing con­sul­tants, who ar­gue the ser­vice should be used to make cus­tomers feel per­son­ally val­ued. Video tell­ers can act as a hu­man sup­port sys­tem for con­sumers open­ing an ac­count, trans­fer­ring money, or re­search­ing a loan.

Bar­clays has tried to sim­u­late the branch ex­pe­ri­ence. The bankers, three-quar­ters of whom are women, wear turquoise and navy uni­forms and sit in front of a match­ing screen em­bossed with the com­pany’s logo. For the ini­tial train­ing, Bram­bles had a makeup artist give tips to men and women alike on how to en­hance one’s ap­pear­ance for the cam­era.

A video ser­vice doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make branches re­dun­dant: HSBC of­fers video bank­ing for mort­gage queries via kiosks in 39 of its U.K. lo­ca­tions. It plans to ex­pand the ser­vice later this year, says Nigel Hin­shel­wood, head of the bank’s U.K. busi­ness.

Some fi­nan­cial com­pa­nies have tried video and found the in­vest­ment in train­ing and technology not worth the trou­ble. Cit­i­group and Amer­i­can Ex­press have pi­loted ser­vices— Amer­i­can Ex­press had agents avail­able via an iPad app—which they nixed.

The technology only re­cently be­came re­li­able and cheap enough for mass adop­tion by banks, says Alyson Clarke, an an­a­lyst with For­rester Re­search. “It’s hard to con­nect with a cus­tomer un­less you’ve got a high­qual­ity im­age on screen,” she says. “I don’t want to have a video con­ver­sa­tion with my bank and feel like I’m talk­ing to my grandma on Skype.”

The bot­tom line Cheaper tech makes video bank­ing pos­si­ble, but mak­ing it per­sonal still takes work. Bar­clays hired a me­dia con­sul­tant to help.

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