Michel Dubois (email@example.com) is a Professor of Work Psychology and Ergonomics at the Laboratoire Interuniversitaire de Psychologie, Personnalité, Cognition, Changement Social (LIP/PC2S), Université Grenoble 2, France. He's working on professional skills and the questions of conception and appropriation of ICT. Marc-Eric Bobillier-Chaumon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology and Ergonomics at the Laboratoire GREPS (EA 4163), Institut de Psychologie—Université de Lyon, 69676 Bron, France. He conducts research on the uses and impacts of ICTs on social and professional context. Didier Retour (email@example.com) is a Professor of Management at IAE de Grenoble & CERAG, UMR 580, Université Grenoble 2, France. (Recently Deceased). Former director of the Institute of Management, University of Grenoble 2, he wrote numerous articles and chapters on management skills, leadership and management.
The object of this article is the development of customer banking skills as a result of using online banking and its impact on the competence of customer advisers in face-to-face customer contacts. The main results show that online banking enables customers to develop a range of banking skills.
Over the past 15 years, a wide range of technological solutions was developed within the banking sector. The rapid spread of information and communication technology (ICT) allows for a vast array of banking services to be provided to remote customers. Those services range from the simple shop window up to the distance management of financial transactions and to the consultation of accounts and financial simulation (Acharya et al., 2006; Toufaily and Daghfous, 2006). Thus, service delivery is no more confined to the interaction between the banking agent and the technological system. Although Internet banking provides obvious benefits for customer's interactivity and accessibility (Ravi et al., 2006), a service relation invariably implies, at some point, a physical relation with a customer adviser (CA) in an agency (Walker and Johnson, 2005; Bendana, 2006). Moreover, as some customers develop banking competences using online banking services, advisers need to reconsider service delivery (Boyes and Stone, 2003) and to learn how to provide a service (or to deal with a representation of the service), which is already largely pre-produced by the customer (Siaw and Yu, 2004). Our study focuses on the effects of customer learning on the (use of) CA competence when the customer and his or her adviser subsequently meet in an agency. We will also consider the way in which pro-software is used by CAs while they physically interact with customers.
Because the concept of competence (customer and CA competence) is the primary focus of this study, a clarification of its meaning is required. Competency seems to have different meanings (Lafer, 2004; Linda and Winch, 2006; Grugulis, 2008) among research communities. In France, competence can be defined as the following triptych: knowledge, know-how (technical competence, operational competence, procedural competence, instrumental competence and cognitive competence) and interpersonal skills (behavioural competence, relational competence, etc.). Moreover, a competence is invariably situated, as it depends on a given situation and a varyingly favourable context that offer an equal degree of temporal flexibility. Thus, ‘competence’ can be seen as the combination of knowledge, skills and behaviour that improve performance; or as the state or quality of being adequately or well qualified, having the ability to perform a specific role. CAs’ competencies, for instance, might include systems thinking and emotional intelligence as well as skills in communication and negotiation. To be (or to be considered as) competent, a person would need to be able to properly interpret the situation and to have a repertoire of the possible actions to undertake (in that particular situation).
The development of customer banking skills through online banking: implications for CA competence
The aim of this section is the development of ICTs and banking service relations resulting in a growth of customer competence, a source of new issues for CA competence and for the differentiated use of these skills during customer contacts.
The development of ICT and banking service relations
Through online banking, customers are better able to act and interact by removing the various constraints that are liable to be imposed by a third party (such as constraints of time, space or expertise), thus enabling them to act independently of an adviser but with the support of online banking resources. The capacity of an online customer for action, information and interaction are thereby increased; the customer thus emerges as a new agent in the banking process (Mavri and Ioannou, 2006). Although many studies have shown how ICT tend to alter the socio-professional and organisational factors of customer service advice and banking in general (Al-Taitoon and Sorensen, 2004; Joseph et al., 2005), far fewer studies have taken account of their impact on customers and the effects of these impacts on the modalities of the service subsequently delivered in customer contacts based on an approach shifting from an intra-organisational to an extra-organisational perspective (Peterson and Balasubramian, 2002; Plé and Lefebvre, 2004). The present study aims to remedy this defect.
ICT and the development of customer competence
Some customers use online banking to improve their banking knowledge and competence and to pre-produce the service they require (Bernard, 2001). Internet banking users typically compare or search for the most appropriate online services (Curry and Penman, 2004; Lassar et al., 2005; Kuisma et al., 2007; Liao and Wong, 2008). The identified uses show that some customers use consultations to acquire a form of banking ‘knowledge’ or ‘know-how’ (knowledge of products and their methods of calculation, use of accounts, acquisition of data in the context of a loan, comparison and simulation) and to develop greater proactivity (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2000; Liao and Tow Cheung, 2002). The result is a ‘wiser and more rigorous’ behaviour displayed by some customers (Rodie and Kleine, 2000). The role of pre-information and the pre-analysis of their situation are qualitatively different in the exchange situation and in the modalities of service production in customer contacts used to confront and finalise decisions. Initial virtual transactions (through emailing) increase and imply new interpersonal skills for CAs; this is because they require a conception of a customer contact as a ‘moment’ in a temporal sequence formerly constructed by the customer autonomously. The relation is inscribed simultaneously in a real triadic relation (CA–Information Technology (IT)–customer), although with the active participation of new virtual agent (online banking technologies and previous uses) that redefines certain conditions of exchange and negotiation. Faced with an increasingly independent and autonomous customer, professional agents thus tend to lose certain prerogatives and a degree of power. To this extent, virtual services foster more reactive and opportunistic attitudes in customers during customer contacts (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2000). In fact, before the development of banking ICT, the adviser and the customer operated exclusively in a distinctly asymmetrical position in access at information in face-to-face customer contacts. The development of Internet banking services may be seen to affect the roles, responsibilities and power relations of the actors involved in the production and delivery of services. It is precisely these trends and their consequences for the use of CA competence and available IT applications that will be explored throughout this study.
The development of customer competence through ICT and the implications for CA competence
A CA must be capable of adapting to the frequent variations in the level of customer competence and the different forms of collaboration between themselves and their customers entailed by these variations. This situation determines the conditions of face-to-face service delivery. With the development of their competence through ICT, the most well-informed customers are liable to require a different kind of service involving a shared reflection and more sustained collaboration. There are three potential areas in which a customer's range of skills tend to evolve: knowledge (the customer acquires new knowledge), know-how (the customer seeks to understand the logic of the service rather than passively acquiesce to a ready-made solution) and interpersonal skills (the customer wishes to confront her own point of view with the point of view of an expert). Faced with a better informed and more competent customer, advisers are thus required to manage heterogeneous situations and to adapt to unpredictable ‘events’. Online banking only serves to reinforce this trend because it tends to increase the areas of uncertainty and instability that add to the initial difficulties raised by the relational dimension of services (Du Tertre and et Blandin, 2001). The management of interactions is made all the more complex by the fact that the CA and the customer have no real experience of working in common. Before any action is taken, there will be a time necessary for adjustment, co-evaluation and consultation (a process subject to established time constraints). Every customer situation is regulated according to the various forms of competence of service pre-production that condition the type of competence effectively used during customer contacts. The dynamics of this triad1—CA/IT/customer—is thus reconfigured and reconstituted at every appointment.
What are the kinds of CA competence used in face-to-face customer contacts?
It is within the CA/IT/customer triad that the processes of communication and decision-making pertaining to customers’ questions or to the suggestions made by the CA are constructed with the varying support of IT resources. The forms of competence involved in the delivery of banking advice are articulated around three kinds of relations:
• a relation of cooperation with the customer conceived as a co-producer of the service (Gadrey, 1991):
• a contractual relation between the adviser and the customer characterised by a common work object (which does not presuppose an identity of projects), an inequality of means (cognitive and instrumental asymmetry), a complementarity of means between actors and an instituted relation of support (Falzon and Lapeyrière, 1998); and
• a contextualised (situated) and distributed relation because the service relation is the result of a complex and cooperative process between several partners based on intersubjectivity, where the representation that every partner has of the other partners and of their role within the relation determines to a great extent their attitude to a given proposition (Boulin and Tertre, 2001).
To this extent, the use of different types of CA competence depends simultaneously on (1) the specific organisational rules and modalities of the use of the ICT within their work environment; (2) the modalities of interaction with the customer during the process of service production and the experience of the professional agent enabling her to re-position herself within the service more or less constructed by her; (3) the modalities of appropriation of the distant technological offers by customers to (pre-)produce their own service. All these elements of the process account for the nature of the skills used by a CA during customer contacts.
This study will adopt two complementary analytical perspectives. The first is to study the evolution of customer competence connected with the increasing use of online banking (study 1). The second is to examine how these new abilities can impact on the use of CA skills in face-to-face customer contacts, focusing particularly on the modalities of use of pro-software by CAs (study 2). While the methods and results of both studies are presented separately for the sake of analytical clarity, it is important to bear their interdependences in mind.
Two complementary empirical studies were carried out to determine the evolution of customer competence as a result of the use of ICT and their impact on the use of CA skills and available IT resources.
Study 1: the effects of Internet banking resources on the development of customer competence
The issue is to determine the extent to which the acquisition of new types of competence by Internet banking users is fostered by online banking resources, thus enabling customers to construe differently their subsequent face-to-face contacts with CAs.
A variety of methodological resources was used to define the full range of services provided by online banking, as well as their user-friendly functionality and the uses to which they are effectively put by customers. Initially, a study of the Internet banking websites of 12 French banks2 helped to identify the functionalities of the websites in question (identification of the range of banking operations, products and services offered by the website) by way of determining their potential in terms of information, action and self-training. An interactive online survey (via Surveygold) was then made available for a month on the homepage of a regional (south-east) branch of the Crédit Agricole. Out of the 36 initial questions, we selected 17 questions that pertained directly to the kinds of use resorted to by Internet banking users. The questions dealt with customers’ knowledge and the use of online banking, frequency of use, consulted websites, the functionalities effectively resorted to and the use of information gathered for their banking practices. One thousand twenty-five Internet banking users responded to the survey.
Study of the use of online banking resources by functional and ergonomic analysis. The functional purpose of online banking websites is to provide Internet banking users with the means of carrying out the near totality of their required banking operations. A study of the ergonomic quality of such websites is therefore in order. Their assessment was carried out by means of ergonomic analysis. Five experts in the field were asked to evaluate the quality of eight banking websites based on 55 criteria chosen from the different principles and norms defined in the relevant literature (Bastien et al., 1998; Nielsen, 2004). To facilitate their analysis and comparison,3 the criteria were broken down into eight rubrics (Bastien et al., 1998). In practical terms, every expert assessed the relevance of a statement (based on the table of criteria presented in the form of a checklist) on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree/adequate) to 5 (strongly agree/highly satisfactory) and were asked to justify their choice. The results show that none of the banks in our sample received a mark below average (i.e. 2.5/5) for the general assessment of the interface (average mark: 3.65) or for the more specific assessments pertaining to individual rubrics of criteria. Beyond the functionalities determining specific uses, the websites were seen to provide a friendly and intuitive environment that facilitated their use.
The various means of communication associated with products (chat rooms, email, form, etc.) were seen to play a dual function: a relational function (availability and relation with customers) and a marketing function (collection of personal data). Faced with a substantial offer of products (nearly 831 products compiled across the 12 websites), technical means of segmentation (entries according to user profiles) direct online users to specifically chosen commercial offers. Methods for securing customer loyalty are devised by combining traditional banking products (stock market products, standard insurance products—respectively, 45 per cent and 12 per cent of the overall offer) with more unusual offers (access to estate agents’ websites, etc.). Finally, means of action allow for more operational uses by entrusting the responsibility of elementary transactions to Internet banking users (credit transfers, consulting accounts, etc.). Simulation offers (funding and investments) account for 25 per cent of the total number of offers.
Our use of ergonomic and functional analysis highlighted two important factors:
1The available interfaces are high-quality resources and promote consultation, irrespective of the specific objective.
2Banking websites provide basic operations for managing accounts or allow for more complex banking operations (especially simulations). To this extent, the development of banking skills (knowledge and know-how) is de facto stimulated. We will now try to refine our analysis of the specific purposes of the uses resorted to by Internet banking users.
Analysis of the ends of uses by survey. There are two broad profile categories of Internet banking users: ill-informed customers and well-informed customers. The online questionnaire designed for the self-assessment of banking practices showed that 69 per cent (n = 707) of Internet banking customers viewed themselves as ‘inexperienced’ (i.e. with little experience in banking) as opposed to just 31 per cent who viewed themselves as experts. The selected sample was thus highly contrasted. ‘Ill-informed’ users indicate consultation rates below 10 per month. Conversely, 88 per cent of the self-proclaimed ‘well-informed’ users connected more than 21 times per month. A more descriptive analysis of the various uses yields the following results (see Table 1).
Table 1. The different kinds of expertise of Internet banking users
Types of use
Frequency of use (n = 1,025 online users)
Ill-informed customers (n = 707)
Well-informed customers (n = 318)
X2 df = 1
df, Degree of Freedom.
Consulting bank account
Consulting current bank card balance
Basic information about products and services
Printing out bank account details
Development of banking expertise
Development of banking skills (searching for investment information)
Applying for banking services
Stock market operations
For ill-informed users, the main uses of online banking relate to a range of administrative operations (account consultations, transfers, etc.), which indicate the transfer of basic skills in the realm of know-how (i.e. the use of simple tools: consultation operations, transfers, etc.) between the bank and the customer. Banking websites are also used as databases to find information about banking products as well as general information about a particular branch (opening times, address, etc.). Nearly a third of well-informed online users (31 per cent) make use of the same basic administrative information, although on a more frequent basis than ill-informed users. A significant proportion of well-informed users also extends and improves their banking knowledge and skills in the realms of knowledge, know-how and interpersonal skills:
• Users improve their knowledge because by making extensive use of banking websites, well-informed users also acquire specialist knowledge, which for some provides the foundations of, or for others extends, their banking skills. Sixty-eight per cent of well-informed users claimed that they improved their banking skills using banking websites, as opposed to just 3 per cent of ill-informed users. Some uses related to information research are only resorted to by well-informed users, such as information about stock market investments (37 per cent). Frequent and relatively complex operations such as these help users to become more familiar with the banking industry and to stimulate their management of a stock portfolio or of loan request operations by comparing the range of loans on offer.These findings were corroborated by the significant correlations observed between the ‘possibility of online self-training’ and
1securing legal or fiscal support (r = 0.85; p < 0.00);
2obtaining simulations (r = 0.79; p < 0.000);
3acquiring more information about the products on offer (r = 0.78; p < 0.00) and general information about a bank's organisation, structure and results (r = 0.82; p < 0.000).
• Users refine their know-how because well-informed users improve their use and assessment of the banking environment by interacting with a banking website. This was corroborated by the statistical analysis of a user's self-assessed level of competence and the use of specific online operations. Thus, the more online users claim to be experts of Crédit Agricole's website, the more they request operations of account downloading (F(1.1023) = 28.18 p < 0.00), subscription to emailing lists (F(1.1023) = 24.49; p < 0.01) or links to partner websites (F(1.1023) = 13.73; p < 0.05).
• Finally, users improve their interpersonal skills because they are able to appropriate the information required to prepare for an appointment with a CA (53 per cent), whether such data is obtained by consulting the information posted on banking websites or by data acquired through simulation tools (which account for 32 per cent of the practices of well-informed users). In this case, customers can be said to make a strategic use of online banking conceived as a tool that enables the process of decision-making and negotiation for commercial purposes. One of the first uses of such websites is precisely the acquisition of information about the range of products on offer (64 per cent of well-informed users).
An analysis of the role of websites in the development of customer competence
Customers of a bank are able to increase their autonomy and independence through the information found on the website, through the operations carried out online and through the skills learnt from the range of services on offer. The use of banking websites therefore tends to foster the acquisition or consolidation of banking skills.
The capacities of an Internet banking user for action, information and interaction are consolidated as a result of online banking. The way is paved for a new kind of commercial relation founded on greater interactivity (with the bank and with the CA through the website and e-mailing), greater reactivity (through the information and products or offers available on different banking websites) and greater proactivity (through the customer's capacity to simulate or anticipate the management of banking affairs). By altering the operational and cognitive characteristics of some customers, the numerous contingencies provided by banking websites are therefore liable to redefine certain aspects of subsequent relations with CAs and to disrupt the coherence of the banking system, which was historically based on a relation of asymmetrical support for customers. The object of study 2 later is precisely to analyse the impact of the development of online customer skills on the kinds of uses to which CA skills are put.
Study 2: the effects of the development of customer skills through online banking on the kinds of uses of CA competence and the modalities of the use of IT resources
The present study was carried out on the basis of a partnership with two banks (Crédit Agricole Centre Est and Caisse d’Epargne des Alpes). Its object was to study the nature of CA skills mobilised during the interaction with the customers and the modalities of the use of online banking resources during customer contacts. In this context, an analysis of CA–customer interactions is essential.
A brief functional analysis of the Internet banking resources used by CAs was initially carried out to identify the various kinds of software and pro-software used by advisers during customer contacts (in back and front office). We established the range of operations that they enable, the information to which they give access, the way in which they prescribe an adviser's sequences of action and intervention in the course of the negotiation, etc. We observed the meeting to understand the sequences of interaction between the various protagonists and the nature of their exchanges. These observations formalised the nature of the interactions (‘exchange of general information’, ‘offer of advice’, ‘use of calculations and simulations’, etc.) and identified the range of (dyadic and triadic) interactive sequences between ‘CA’ and/or ‘customer’ and/or ‘Information System (IS)’.
An audio recording registered the totality of the verbal exchanges associated with the different sequences. Out of a total of 43 initial observations shared out equally across the two banks, we used 16 situations4 for the purposes of the analysis, each contact lasting approximately one hour. These were highly representative of the level of customer competence (‘ill-informed’ vs. ‘well-informed’)5 and of the complexity of each customer case ('simple’ vs. ‘complex’).6 Far from being abnormal or exceptional (breakdown, malfunction, assault, etc.), the chosen situations were routine cases representative of the vast majority of customer contacts on the basis of the two selected variables. A variety of different quantitative analyses was carried out (extent and number of exchanges, nature of linguistic content in the exchange) on a corpus comprising 12 hours of discursive material. The semantic analysis of verbal data was carried out statistically by using Alceste software. Alceste is a software for Textual Data Analysis from the CNRS and property of IMAGE (France) (http://www.image-zafar.com/index_alceste.htm). The analysis by hierarchical classification consisted in identifying the elements that made sense within the structure of a given dialogue. Within this verbal corpus, only the material provided by the CA was used because the primary object of the analysis was the range of CA skills used during customer contacts.
A functional analysis of the IT resources used in the two banks. The range of IS resources used by the CA can be divided into three broad types:
• information and communication tools that provide general, professional and practical information updated on a daily basis;
• information supports that provide a source of general and synthetic knowledge about every customer and consultable at any time;
• banking software facilitating calculations and simulations whether the customer is present or not.
A quantitative analysis of the interactions observed in customer contacts. Out of the total number of interactions effectively observed (n = 3,102), 70 per cent of the exchanges were carried out in a dyadic form between the CA and the customer. The IS was used for 30 per cent of the interactions, including 15.5 per cent that involved the simultaneous participation of the three actors (triadic modality). When the IS was used in the interaction, it was almost exclusively on the basis of the ‘CA → IS’ sequence (28.5 per cent of interactions). The transmission of information to inform the customer case and to assist the preparation of a case was significant (71 per cent). The sequences of explanation and advice, which strongly personalised the customer case (19 per cent), and those that contributed to the effective realisation of potential situations (10 per cent: calculations and simulations) were significantly more limited. Note that there was no significant difference according to the type of bank in question (see Table 2).
Table 2. Types of interaction in customer relations (n = 16 observations)
Modalities of interaction
Total number of interactive sequences
Simple transmission of information
Explanations and advice
Calculation and simulation
IS, Information System.
Adviser → customer
Customer → adviser
Adviser → IS
Adviser → IS → customer
Customer → IS → adviser
A customer's competence was observed to have an impact on the CA's level of linguistic activity (see Table 3) (average number of words F(1.15) = 5.35; p < 0.001; average number of exchanges: F(1.15) = 4.48; p < 0.001). The better informed the customer, the higher the average number of words (W) per interaction and the number of times the adviser intervenes (respectively ‘ill-informed’ vs. ‘well-informed’: W = 2,364.5 vs. 4,184; exchanges = 128 vs. 269). By contrast, the nature of the specific customer case in question (‘simple’ vs. ‘complex’) had no significant impact on linguistic production in terms of the number of words (simple case vs. complex case: W = 3,157.5 vs. 3,391) and the number of exchanges (respectively: W = 186 vs. 211). No effect of interaction was observed between these two factors (see Table 3).
Table 3. Average number of words used in customer contacts according to the type of customer case and the level of customer competence
Simple customer case
Complex customer case
Adviser → customer
Customer → adviser
Adviser → customer
Customer → adviser
SD, standard deviation.
Average number of words
Number of exchanges
Average number of words
Number of exchanges
The results outlined above may be accounted for by the position adopted by the CA vis-à-vis their customer: faced with more assertive customer expertise, the CA tends to display more interactive linguistic behaviour and to use regulations that are more suited to the kind of advice and explanations proffered to this type of customer (who is typically equipped with a file prepared by consulting different websites). This kind of regulation is also consolidated by the differences of linguistic behaviour displayed by customers. An ill-informed customer tends to intervene only very rarely in customer contacts (number of words used by an ‘ill-informed’ customer vs. a ‘well-informed’ customer: W = 765.5 vs. 3,011 (F(1.15) = 5.67; p < 0.001); number of exchanges: W = 98.5 vs. 179) (F(1.15) = 6.03; p < 0.001)). An ‘ill-informed’ customer merely provides information to the CA when the latter requests it. The adviser manages the relation far more autonomously. By contrast, the ‘well-informed’ customer is far more incisive irrespective of the specific case. Her intervention requires a more sustained and interactive regulation on the part of the CA and calls for far more sophisticated cognitive activity. The dynamic capacity of the CA to adapt to the specific characteristics of every customer shows variations in levels of performance and indicates a concern to provide a coherent response to every kind of situation and a generally satisfactory and acceptable response within the time limits of the appointment for the customer, the bank and the CA (see Table 4).
Table 4. Types of interaction used by customer advisers in customer contacts according to the nature of the customer case and the level of customer competence (n = 16 observations)
Simple customer case (1,036 sequences of interaction)
Complex customer case (1,166 sequences of interaction)
Simple transmission of information
Explanation and/or advice
Calculation and simulation
Simple transmission of information
Explanation and/or advice
Calculation and simulation
We wanted to establish if these factors determined the various uses to which IT resources are put by CAs by focusing on the number of words and exchanges generated by the use of the IS within the ‘CA → customer’ interaction, which indicates a shared use of the knowledge available on the IS and a collective treatment of information (see Table 5).
Table 5. Average number of words and exchanges in the interactive use of the IS in customer contacts according to the type of customer case and the level of customer competence (n = 16 observations)
Simple customer case (CA → IS → C triad)
Complex customer case (CA → IS → C)
C, customer; CA, customer adviser; IS, Information System.
Number of words
Number of exchanges
Number of words
Number of exchanges
Once again, the results show the impact of a customer's competence on the interactive use of the IS (number of words: W = 90 vs. 512.5; F(1.15) = 8.56; p < 0.0001; number of exchanges: W = 4.5 vs. 26.5; F(1.15) = 12.87; p < 0.0001). Neither the nature of the specific customer case (number of words: W = 315.5 vs. 334; F(1.15) = 0.97; number of exchanges: W = 13 vs. 18; F(1.15)—0.62; not significant (ns)) nor the interaction between these two factors were observed to have any impact. The nature of the customer case certainly determined a type of use of the IS in the back office but had no impact on its use during customer contacts. Unless the specific characteristics of the (‘ill-informed’) customer compel her to, the adviser thus minimises her interventions on the IS and manages the customer contact without extending beyond what she deems to be acceptable and what the kind of customer with whom she is dealing deems sufficient. A qualitative analysis of discourse helps to corroborate these findings.
The qualitative analysis of interactions in customer contacts. A comparative discourse analysis with Alceste software of the four kinds of customer contact was applied to 1,153 classified Elementary Linguistic Units (ELU;7 69 per cent of the total corpus). The ELU were divided into three categories differentiating the two kinds of clientèle (‘ill-informed’ and ‘well-informed’), with the third category referring to lexicons of product description (‘simple’ vs. ‘complex’). Figure 1 and Table 6 present a final synthetic projection of the various linguistic interactions based on the combination of the two factors.
Table 6. Representative terms of categories 1, 2 and 3
Main terms (category 1)
Main terms (category 2)
Main terms (category 3)
Category 1 (434 ELU, i.e. 37.6 per cent of the total corpus) comprises the linguistic expressions used by the adviser in the presence of a ‘well-informed’ customer. The observed discourses primarily indicate a persistent tendency to compare different solutions for the specific customer case in question and show a concern on the adviser's part to satisfy fully the customer's requirements (i.e. a concern to maximise the service provided): ‘We’ll need to make some adjustments. We need to use a monthly simulation, that would probably be, um, closer to reality and to what you're looking for’. The structure of the appointment is generally designed through comparative trials between different scenarios with the scenario used in the back office serving as a working scenario. The adviser structures the interaction around a wide range of explanations and advice by integrating different criteria into the simulation of the customer case (commission and management charges, payment charges, length of time, types of rates and payments, etc.). To this extent, the IS becomes an indispensable tool in the construction of dialogue: ‘If I transformed, um, 150,000 Euros over a period of fifteen years, I’ll proceed like this, 150,000 Euros over fifteen years, yes, that’ll be sixteen thousand and a bit. So, um, yes, that's it. Um, yes, in fact, you’ll be at fourteen thousand if I take that away. OK? OK. Based on that, let's take a look at it together’. The IS provides various simulations in real time and largely contributes to structuring and fostering exchange. It is both the technical level of the discourses and the linguistic formulae used to create a sustained exchange and to guarantee a diversified offer of different categories of solutions that characterise this category. The level of cognitive activity displayed by the CA is generally high.
The interactions with an ‘ill-informed’ customers (category 2; 441 ELU, i.e. 38.25 per cent) are differentiated by the context and modalities of the exchange. The relation is developed on the basis of a far smaller number of solutions, although technically they are just as efficient as the examples of category 1. The CA only provides one or two solutions and tends to specify the clauses irrespective of the degree of simplicity or complexity of the product. The lexicon of the discourse is more informative: ‘You’ve also got variables rates, in other words you have a given rate and every year the rate changes and can be altered naturally’. The explanations and the advice are provided in a more standard form. The adviser does not seek to refine the service as in category 1. The IS is generally used without sharing the information displayed on the monitor screen with the customer.
The third category (278 ELU, i.e. 24.1 per cent) refers primarily to the characteristics of the products and of banking operations. The main focus of this discourse is the description and explanation of how the products and banking operations function: ‘For example, if you buy something today, the cost will be debited from your account in, um, early July. With the visa premier card, it's automatically deferred’.
A study of customer competence in the use of the IS and CA competence
The specific nature of the customer case in question (simple vs. complex) was not observed to have any impact on the standard of interpersonal skills used during customer contacts. The significance and nature of the sequences of interaction are primarily determined by the level of customer competence during the customer contact. The CA adapts her own level of competence to the demands of every social situation and adjusts the dialogue in tune with the level of competence of her interlocutor.
The linguistic interactions indicate both quantitatively and qualitatively the significance of social skills (relational competence), which consists in knowing how to decipher the request and how to articulate appropriate replies and explain complex notions pedagogically by way of reaching a satisfactory compromise. The purpose of linguistic interaction is to encourage customer cooperation in a dialogue elaborated collectively. The cues displayed by the customer during the appointment help to categorise the assumed level of customer competence. The customer model is rapidly elaborated at the beginning of the appointment. The adviser then seeks to corroborate this assumption throughout the appointment by way of making appropriate adjustments. The construction of the customer model implies that the customer is compared with a range of pre-established categories of ‘well-informed’ or ‘ill-informed’ customers recalled from experience. The model helps to foster more efficient dialogue by helping to adapt the terminology and relative complexity of the banking notions used and by resorting to standard actions, procedures and forms of communication.
The IS helps to structure exchanges, saves time and sequences the relation. We observed a strategic use of the IS by the CA as an ally and support in customer contacts helping to validate decisions and support or legitimate suggestions or remarks. From this perspective, the IS is an opportunistic aid for the elaboration of a decision; it is therefore appealed to according to the circumstances of the negotiation, that is, the questions and remarks of the customer and the adviser's objectives.
The conclusions drawn from the two studies will be discussed from two perspectives: according to the types of current use within interactions, what are the main implications for (1) adviser skills and (2) IT banking applications?
Main implications for CA competence
Our studies do not suggest that the CA make extensive use of the available pro-software and using significant cognitive resources to optimise the provided service. Our conclusions are closer, in many respects, to those highlighted by studies that focus on ‘useful cognitive cost’ (O’Hara and Payne, 1999) and ‘complacency’ (Amalberti, 2001). Effectively manage customer relations boils down to ‘merely’ knowing how to process information according to the perceived characteristics of customer competence. The use of online resources allows customers to acquire skills and to gather relevant information. Better informed customers expect a highly personalised form of service delivery (Rodie and Kleine, 2000). Two customers with similar customer will be more or less interested in the same information. For the CA, this is where the primary challenge of effective service delivery lies, as each one of those two customers will actively take part in the process of decision-making. Advisers are increasingly involved in diverse and highly variable forms of interaction with their customers, which require a strong adaptation capacity in the process of service co-production between the adviser, the customer and the available IT resources (Grugulis and Vincent, 2010). The CA will need to manage areas of uncertainty indicated by the customer (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2000) and to agree to take a position of weaker informational asymmetry with some customers to develop effective support for the project designed conjointly with the customer. The challenge for the CA is to keep integrating and shuttling between different types of negotiation with a varied customer.
In practice, the types of competence used by CAs relate primarily to the use, according to circumstances, of modalities of regulation and a permanent adaptation to CA and customer representations of the situation and the appropriate responses. The general competence of the CA—his capital of knowledge, know-how and interpersonal skills—primarily consists in articulating her knowledge of the technical outcome of her own operations and the management of the exchanges that occur during the customer contact. The common purpose is not entirely determined a priori. Rather, it is elaborated and transformed in the course of the interaction through subtle and complex operations as well as visible and audible behaviour, which explains why actions are devised conjointly and are permanently readjusted in accordance with the specific demands of the context (Suchman, 1994). In this case, it is a form of ‘combined knowledge’ that is appealed to (Hatchuel and Weil, 1999).
There is not merely one solution but rather many potential solutions, some more satisfactory than others according to the criteria selected at any given time. All solutions are geared towards reaching a satisfactory compromise. To encourage the acquisition of new types of competence, a bank will need to consider not merely the development of CA competence but also the types of competence developed by customers who cannot be fitted into traditional customer categories (Zeithaml and Bitner, 2003). There are reasons to expect that customer skills will keep improving; an increasing number of people are undergoing initial or in-house professional training; banking websites are easier to access. CAs will therefore be faced with unique situations presented by every different customer, which fully justifies the definition of competence outlined in the opening pages of this study: ‘a combination of resources that are available to an individual, in a given situation, enabling them to . . .’. Such resources include banking applications, which are also likely to undergo significant changes.
Main implications for banking IS
The current conception of banking applications still heavily relies on problem-solving scenarios or paradigm (Lenca, 1997) to carry out a range of calculations and simulations of requests that may be highly complex.
The current conception focuses largely on a relation produced to the detriment of customer relations and tending to neglect the global dynamics of interactions (Negro, 2000). However, customers are likely to present their requests in a wide variety of ways: either because they have not prepared their request in advance, and that it is therefore vague or imprecise; or because they have prepared it very carefully but in a way that differs significantly from one customer to another or that may not be suited to the logic of IT resources or the CA. The increasing need for personalised service relations leads to interactions where it is no longer enough to ‘act upon the other’ with a highly structuring tool but also to ‘act with the other’. This perspective has several implications for our conception of banking applications. It requires a reflection on the notion of a space of shared work (Tatar et al., 1991), which raises two main questions concerned with improving the current situation:
• First of all, how to support real-time information sharing to foster collaboration. Applications should be conceived with the purpose of encouraging, as far as possible, the elaboration and or retrieving of data used for decision-making and that is visible both to the adviser and to the customer to elaborate a strategy for the personalisation of the request rapidly and efficiently.
• Second, there seem to be a need of IT flexibility in the registration of customer requests (multiple entries). This conception could be based on the typology of reasoning and modalities of approach of the main customer requests by customers themselves. They should be capable of being carried out in real time and even to integrate data pre-registered by the customer. Because they are structuring and adequately representative of customer logics, such entries would help to foster a coordinated and adequately structured form of communication to facilitate the achievement of a common goal.
Our study shows how the use of IT banking by customers affects their interactions with CA. As customers are gradually becoming skilful users of banking services, CAs must elaborate additional levels of monitoring during their interactions with clients and must develop new performance to satisfy high-quality service. This research argues that (1) the use of websites helps customers to develop their banking skills; (2) CAs take account of customer banking skills to manage face-to-face customer contacts; (3) the types of competence used by CAs vary according to the presumed skills of their customers to provide every customer with the service that they expect; (4) in this context, the CA's use of specific types of competence are less determined by the complexity of customers’ requests; (5) the use of the IT banking applications that are available to the CA vary according to the specific types of competence displayed by every customer; and (6) the design of banking pro-software should integrate more functionalities that both, support and enhance, the collaboration between advisers and their customers.
The implications for CA skills are
• first, the increase of technical and social skills (communication, team work, negotiation, etc.) in service relation with customer (diagnosis, problem solving, ability in learning and use IT, etc.);
• second, employability skills must be developed, defined as ‘not only to gain employment but also to progress within an enterprise so as to achieve once potential and contribute successfully to enterprise strategic direction’ (Hampson and Junor, 2011).
In current English literature, the notion of a ‘triad’ of relations, around which much of the methodology revolves, includes customer, customer service officer and employer. The ‘triad’ used in this paper includes customer service officer, customer service adviser and information services available to both. To quote Caplow's (1984) well-known definition, ‘a triad is a social system comprising three elements, connected by a lasting relation’. He also notes that ‘the central characteristic of the triad is its tendency to divide to form a coalition of two of its elements against the third element’.
La Poste, Société Générale, Banque Populaire des Alpes, BNP, Crédit du Nord, Crédit Agricole and Crédit-Mutuel Centre-Est, CCF, Caisse d’Epargne des Alpes, CIC Lyonnaise de Banque, Crédit Lyonnais, Bred.
The eight ergonomic rubrics include, respectively: guiding, workload, accountancy, homogeneity/coherence, adaptability, tolerance of errors, explicit control, significance of codes and denominations.
With the following variables: four with an ‘ill-informed customer—simple case’; four with an ‘ill-informed customer—complex case’; four with a ‘well-informed customer—simple case’; and four with a ‘well-informed customer—complex case’. The 16 situations were observed studying 12 different advisers across six different branches (four branches of one bank, two of the other).
This level was categorised on the basis of customers’ own self-assessment (at the end of their appointment with the CA) through a survey (six questions, Likert scale in 5 points) relating to their self-assessed level of knowledge in terms of banking and financial products and services, their self-assessed level of frequency of use, self-training and acquisition of banking skills through banking websites. An assessment by the CA after the appointment on a scale of 5 points also helped to evaluate the level of customer competence. The customers selected for the purposes of this study were both self-categorised as having a certain level (‘well-informed’ vs. ‘ill-informed’) and assessed congruently by the CA.
The assessment of the complexity of these situations was carried out, thanks to the CAs who distinguished eight simple situations (customer information about fixed tariffs, visa cards, various marketing promotions, etc.) and eight complex situations involving significant possibilities for negotiation and persuasion (property investments, advice about stock market investments, etc.) and the use of sophisticated knowledge.
The ELU represent significantly coherent linguistic exchanges. The categories represent a collection of the ELU established on the basis of the dominant vocabulary used as a result of semantic oppositions and synonymies.