Why we need to make both technology and finance inclusive

  • Lauren Fuller
  • 15 January 2021
  • Blog | Fintech and Innovation in Banking | Retail Banking | Blog

As bankers we are privileged to have a better understanding of finance than many others. It’s a powerful skill that can support you through most of life’s moments: birth and the importance of saving, education and tackling student debt, marriage and the skill of sharing, death and inheritance tax.  

Sharing those skills to support others is important and something I feel compelled to do. I have sat, for example, with my best friend on the floor of her apartment as she wrestled with direct debits and budgeting tools after splitting up from her boyfriend. I’ve sat with my parents as they accepted that bankruptcy was their only option. I’ve listened to hundreds if not thousands of customers discuss their struggles, strains and stress. I have always wanted to provide the best outcome for everyone.  

A passion for inclusivity 

I have a passion for financial inclusion. I am currently working on my Master’s dissertation, which is about how we make financial products accessible by marketing them in the right way, primarily focused on women. However financial inclusion is not just determined by gender but by ethnicity, sexuality, disability and age. A term first widely used in the 1990s, ‘financial exclusion’ now describes ‘the inability, difficulty or reluctance to access mainstream financial services, which, without intervention, can stimulate social exclusion, poverty and inequality’.1  

Financial exclusion is a problem all around the world and surprisingly still prevalent in countries such as the UK where we have a strong financial centre. For example, around 30% of white individuals don’t have any personal savings compared to 63% of black British people2. Some 72% of men have access to a bank account compared to only 65% of women.3 And finally age – Age UK states that we should make products accessible for older customers. And as banks move to more digital solutions, we need to consider how we continue to support these individuals.  

Finding the right solution 

Digital banking has certainly come a long way. I remember as a child going to the local building society with a passbook to deposit my birthday money. Now it’s apps and Pay Your Contacts and fingerprint security. It’s fascinating and I’m exciting to see the next financial technology innovation.  

However, we must remember that for some people it’s daunting. FinTech is one of the top five fastest growing technology industries in the world.4 And although FinTech is attempting to keep up with our changing needs for instant accessibility to our money, our population is living longer and we have a growing ageing customer base.  

We need to consider digital financial inclusion. Telling customers to go online and do it themselves isn’t always the right thing to do. We have an opportunity to support our less digitally-savvy customers with new skills, better accessibility and control of their money but we need to grasp it with both hands. COVID-19 has accelerated the need for digital adoption especially for those who may be isolating.  

Appropriate support and understanding 

Tao Sun explains that ‘digital’ financial inclusion involves using digital means to reach financially excluded and underserved populations with a range of formal financial services suited to their needs, delivered responsibly at a cost affordable to the customer and sustainable for the providers.5 But we can’t expect our customers to pick up their tablet and understand what they need to do. We need to support them to understand the products we offer, how the online system works and even the next steps. As bankers, it is our responsibility to make both technology and finance inclusive. For some customers this may mean that some technology and services are just not right for them and we need to continue to include them through other means such as support in branch, on the phone or even in the community, through means such as mobile banks.  

I would never have forgiven myself if I had left my friend on the floor of her apartment drowning in direct debit forms, my parents hiding credit card demand letters and the customers who contacted me by telling them to just go online and do it themselves. I hope that other bankers also feel this sense of responsibility whether they are back office or on the front line. We can all play a huge part in reducing exclusion in financial services and that is a powerful skill to have.   

Lauren Fuller is a Customer Journey Developer at NatWest and Certificated Member of the Chartered Banker Institute. She is part of the Institute’s Membership Forum and was a finalist the Young Banker of the Year 2019 competition.