THE BLOG

Cashless Buses Are a Lesson for Banks

28/07/2014 11:19 BST | Updated 27/09/2014 10:59 BST

The recent news that London buses have embraced contactless payments and are no longer accepting cash fares has made headlines all over the world. Passengers now have to use an Oyster card or contactless payment card - although prepaid or concessionary tickets are still accepted. It's a great example of the march of technology and the digitisation of processes into our everyday lives.

Compared to other major cities around the world where the exact change is still required to use public transport, contactless technologies and payments have long been championed and successfully deployed by technology leaders and early adopters such as Transport for London with the Oyster card and Hong Kong with its Octopus contactless payment smart card. In fact, TfL claims that moving to cashless buses will save it £24 million a year, highlighting the economic benefits of embracing contactless technologies. The government has also recognised the advantage of moving away from cash, given that printing and distributing cash costs society between 0.5 and 1.5% of GDP annually.

Generally speaking, a cashless society generally implies less crime as long as the card authentication process is secure and with today's technology available, paying for small items like bus fares should not require complex authentication. However, scepticism still abounds and there are still people who are reluctant to stop using hard cash, due to a lack of basic understanding of the technology, and because of ongoing security concerns, the fact that contactless payment cards do not require a PIN making it easy prey for thieves. In addition, there are concerns that a proportion of customers using buses, such as the elderly, are less tech-savvy or tech literate. However, while they may be intimidated at first by the introduction of this type of technology, they will be able to use it if the right education is available.

Given the economic benefits of contactless technologies, the focus should be on making the technology inclusive. After all, it should be about making the customer experience as easy and seamless as possible and there are lessons to be learned from buses going cashless which can be applied to the banking industry. We have already seen a number of digital-only banks as customers move towards online and mobile or tablet-based interactions. However, research also shows that not all British customers are keen on digital-only banking, with branch visits actually on the rise. Bearing this in mind, service providers need to tailor their services to the customer's preference.

Banking and financial institutions already adhere to the mantra of 'Know Your Customer', aiming to deal with customer interaction in the customers' preferred manner, whether in person, online, via phone interaction or another way. When embracing new technologies, it is vital that they apply this same thinking to the different channels of engagement for which they opt. The availability of analytics technology already allows banks to understand the spending, payment and preferred engagement habits of their customers.

While it's understandable that London buses have had to streamline their payment options for efficiency and investment purposes - indeed, TfL has made an alternative available to those without contactless payment cards, allowing passengers to make one journey on their Oyster card even without credit -banks and financial institutions can afford to give their customers the channel and method of engagement that they prefer. It will be interesting to see how the cashless buses fare. While there may be resistance from some users, there is a large demographic of tech savvy early-adopters in London who will welcome the change.

The transport sector has already more or less broadly adopted contactless. Toll roads in Europe already accept contactless payments, eliminating the need for cash and making the toll system more efficient. What's more, the speed with which payments are made also eases traffic flow and congestion. Banks and financial institutions should watch closely. The financial services industry can learn from TfL's decision to embrace a more technologically advanced system before choosing to shut down their branches or offer digital-only options for engagement. Only then can they run better and run differently, ensuring they know their customers and can continue to benefit from the loyalty their customers demonstrate.