Insights & Opinions

Digital Inclusion - Making Digital Banking Available for All

Wed, 08 Jun 2022

Rik Coeckelbergs Founder and CEO The Banking Scene

Banking for Good Digital Inclusion Making online banking available for all featured

Digital banking is the future. Over the years, the number of bank branches declined considerably, simply because there was not enough traffic to keep them open. COVID-19 accelerated that process.

In Belgium today, we have the luxury of being at the top of countries with the highest density of branches. Compared to, for example, The Netherlands, the number of branches per million inhabitants is seven times higher.

On top of that, two Belgian banks rank number 1 and 2 in the list of best banking apps worldwide.

Needless to say, fewer touchpoints in the high street and more and better services in a digital environment create tensions with people who are not digitally native.

Financial inclusion and digital inclusion go hand in hand. Yet, digital inclusion is a topic often ignored in the digital transformation debates.

We do see a change recently, with banks taking action to ensure that their customers are not left behind, even in the digital age. Some banks like SNS Bank and, in Belgium, vdk bank are opening more branches as a USP in their banking services, while others provide alternative services to interact with clients outside their branches.

To better understand the challenge of having everyone digitally included and what the impact is on banks, we decided to set up a virtual round table with two special guests:

  • Karel Bart, CEO of Febelfin, the Belgian Federation of Banks
  • Cecile Botden, Senior Customer Journey Expert at ING Netherlands

The result was a unique mix of insights, both from a higher policy level and from someone who deals with it day-to-day. A unique blend of insights, both from Belgium and the Netherlands, flavoured with the opinions of more internationals in the audience.

The problem of digital exclusion

Based on a study of Koning Boudewijn Stichting, Karel explained the diversity of digital inclusion with a few numbers. The study found that 40% risks to be digitally excluded. Karel: "It does not mean because you are digitally vulnerable, that you are also excluded at this point in time. So I think we have to separate both and distinguish them very carefully."

10% of the Belgian population does not have an internet connection at home, 8% never use the internet, and 32% are insufficiently skilled to enjoy the digital train fully.

The 40% consists of many sub-categories, like the elderly, people with less income, lack proper education, or a good understanding of the local language, and disabled people.

Also, the reasons why digital inclusion is such a challenge is diverse: resistance to change, low literacy, language barriers, and low budget.

Karel: "To conclude, digital inclusion is a complex topic with different layers, and we need a multi-layer approach to avoid exclusion. It's a societal problem and not only related to financial services. This means that we have to work together with governments, other sector organisations, consumer organisations, etc. That is exactly what Febelfin is doing at the moment."

In past Afterwork sessions, a regular comment was that digital exclusion is a societal problem, not an elderly problem.

Cecile explained why we bankers make this mistake too often: "The elderly are the sub-category that is closest to us. They are top of mind when we think about digital inclusion, but we are not representative of the whole society. That is why it's so important that we listen to a diverse group of customers to understand their needs and build solutions to include them all."

Solutions to improve digital inclusion

Cecile couldn't agree more with Karel that this complex problem required a multi-layered approach. She recently joined a panel of cross-industry experts on digital inclusion and learned that collaboration across industries and governmental institutions is the only way forward.

She also learned from the healthcare industry that a push to use digital services isn't always a bad thing. This may not sound very client-friendly, but it helps change customer behaviour. That is also what we learned in 2020 from Klaas Ariaans of ABN AMRO, by the way.

That probably explains the permanent behavioural change post-pandemic: instead of hearing from a banker to use digital services, the world demanded it, and resistance was weaker.

Despite this push, Cecile emphasised the importance of always being there as a bank: "We still must be able to offer essential banking for customers who cannot get along with digital banking."

In that context, Karel shared the initiative of Belgian banks to offer the universal bank service with a minimum of physical transactions per year at a reasonable price: "It is an important step for these people who are not on the digital train yet and maybe will never be on that train. We also cannot exclude them."

Febelfin sat at the drawing table for a 10-points action plan. Karel: "The first five action points are to help people to join the digital train. And the other five are to support the people who will probably not become digital."

As some of these issues cannot be set up on a sectoral level, as they touch the competitive space of banks, different banks are setting up their initiatives to fight digital and financial exclusion. As an example, KBC is testing bank visits at home. BNP Paribas Fortis has acquired bpost Bank to access the postal offices for all of their clients. Soon Nickel will enter the Belgian market through a network of local press shops…

We saw the same in The Netherlands, and still do. ABN AMRO works with financial care coaches to help their customers bank digitally from home. ING works with hundreds service points where customers are welcome for daily banking services. For more complex questions and demands, they have a call centre and the ING branches to advice customers.

Another great example is Alliantie Digitaal Samenleven (Alliance Living Together Digitally) which connects different commercial organisations. Cecile: "They have the Digi Hulplijn (Digital Helpline) that customers can call in need to support regarding one of the member organisations. Important: they can help you with much patience to solve customer's process-related questions."

There is a similar initiative called "Information Point Digital Government" with 500 libraries where people can come with process-related questions about the government's online portals. ING is currently investigating the added value of joining these initiatives as additional support on top of their service points.


Digital inclusion to avoid financial exclusion is a complex topic and requires all stakeholders to work together. Even after people have been onboarded on the digital train, the work for financial services isn't done. Although banks put a lot of effort into fighting fraud, criminals always find new ways to confuse people and steal money.

As Karel explained: "In Belgium, around 75% of all phishing attempts are already blocked by the banks before the fraud is happening. Again this is not only a problem for the financial services industry but for the whole society. We should do something with that and work together with other sectors, like telecom and the government, with all stakeholders involved."

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