Cooperative banks—Engage customers

The central challenge is engaging customers despite strong digital competition and decreasing visibility across the board, while staying attractive from their point of view.
Thorsten Ströhl, Senior Manager, zeb


It was a telling drop: in 2018 the number of cooperative bank branches in Germany fell below 10,000 for the first time. Every 20th branch was closed according to the BVR cooperative banking association.

The number of branches has now been falling for 25 years, thereby reducing the regional presence and the traditional close ties with all customer groups. 



In particular, well-educated and commercial customers mainly prefer to look for and use financial services online. Only some parts of cooperative banks are already competitive in this regard. New competitors such as Big Tech firms, fintech companies or neobanks set the bar high in terms of intuitive and attractive customer journeys.


For all banks, the current challenges mean that they must systematically consider their way of addressing customers, their range of services and their (regular) communication from a customer perspective and enhance them. For cooperative banks, this is particularly important as the regional customer proximity has always been an outstanding asset. 

At its core, this is a matter of cooperative banks actively shaping their digital transformation—this will be the decisive driver for customer proximity in the future. In this regard, banks are facing the challenge of mastering IT topics, but also, and more importantly, cultural topics—the latter is emerging as an ever more critical factor for success: culture begins with executives, who have an open attitude to digital change allowing them to involve their employees in new processes and enthuse them. This is particularly important for field executives and their customer advisor teams due to their direct interface to the customer. If not (almost) all employees can be won over for the change, then resistance can easily arise, which would delay the necessary digital transformation significantly.

If the bank is able to create an environment that is friendly to change, then the chances of digital topics such as new approaches to customer segmentation by means of smart data and analytics succeeding are greater. The same applies for digitally loaded sales concepts or the establishment of compelling, digital-yet-personal sales units such as a newer generation customer dialog center.


Developing a target image for digital transformation

Digital transformation begins with the development of a strategic target image for the cooperative bank of the future. Together with the institution, we put digital change topics in the context of the bank as a whole, describe dependencies and define a time frame. This establishes a representative image as a starting point for the whole organization and serves as the basis for further developments. The more viable the basis, the higher the long-term chances of success for future topics and change processes. So it is important that:

  • requirements for digital transformation are comprehensibly described for all stakeholders from the customer perspective
  • change necessities are outlined in a rough sketch, but as vividly and comprehensively as possible
  • impacts of change are broken down to the individual organizational units
  • role changes of employees are described 
  • necessary investments and divestments can be quantified or made calculable 
  • changes are structured in a manageable sequence that does not overwhelm the organization 

To ensure the target image is effective, it should subsequently be communicated to all internal stakeholders in a comprehensible way. This prevents misunderstandings arising due to ignorance and the transformation lacking the necessary support before getting started.

Rethinking customer segmentation

The changed customer behavior exposes the limits of current approaches that sort customers into retail, private, corporate and institutional banking segments. The central challenge is to equally meet the needs of changes on the customer side, increasing heterogeneous demands and the economic pressure situation in customer business.  

The pure observation of economic factors such as income or wealth are no longer enough for clearly distinguishing the needs of customers: Today, needs structures, use behaviors of digital offers and preferences for personal relationships in macrosegments are tracked indiscriminately and mixed—accordingly, many institutions treat students no different from pensioners. 

The dramatically reduced margins in customer business also necessitate a change to segmentation. Doing so can make segmentation a vehicle for controlling efficiency and growth. Data intelligence plays a decisive role in a new segmentation approach. On the one hand, it supports the tailored identification of individual customer needs through gathering and assessing digital customer information; here, especially also data-based identification of potentials. In combination with the knowledge of how customers use digital access channels, this allows both

  • optimization of the customer-bank relationship through systematic use of data, and
  • improved management of resources.

With the help of our experiences from numerous client projects, we can support banks not only in conceptual design relating to the development of a new segmentation approach, but also provide guidance throughout the whole process through to implementation in the sales force. Thanks to our specialists for smart data and analytics, we ensure appropriate data excellence in the whole process.

Reviewing existing target group concepts

In the fight for customers, those institutions that succeed in addressing attractive target groups and sub-target groups and engaging them for the bank through tailored communication will have an advantage. The ability of cooperatives to understand the needs structures of their customers and to counter them with a tailored service offer will be a decisive success factor. This aim is almost as old as banking itself, but today it is becoming even more important—thinking and developing things from the customer perspective will become a paramount in digital competition. 

We support cooperative banks through the entire process: from the comprehensive, customer-centric conceptual design to persona and typology analyses and specific advisory concepts through to marketing along all touchpoints. From more than 25 years of experience, we know the demands of each segment—be it in corporate or retail banking. 

Another success factor for banks will be developing real communication excellence. Excellent media and personal communication skills are become more and more of a hygiene factor in the customer-bank relationship. Here, it is important to not only react to the changed customer behavior, but also to actively address customers over their preferred channels and access paths—ideally in an omnichannel-capable environment.

Expanding the telephone hotline to a customer dialog center

The contact frequency in German banks is falling steadily—on average, customers only visit “their” branch once per year. So modern support means that all customers can address their questions and orders over the channels that they prefer in each situation.
A modern omni-channel service that offers more than a traditional service hotline is therefore becoming even more important. We have already developed and implemented individual customer dialog centers (CDC) with numerous clients—with video chat, e-mail, telephone and dialog via social media.

Aside from the traditional service offers, advisory services and sales support must also be established in these centers. With an own CDC, staffed with advisors from the region, cooperative banks strengthen the customer interface and give their brand an identity and individuality, also digitally. At the same time, the bank’s sales model 2.0 will gain significantly more appreciation in a digital context and in the media once CDC are seen as modern, full sales units and profit centers.

Through the sound knowledge of the concept world at Genossenschaftliche FinanzGruppe (Cooperative Financial Network), we can effectively help build an own CDC according to the association standards. In-depth system and technology expertise as well as sales expertise ensure that we can provide banks high-quality support along the entire value chain through to launching.