Editor's note: This post originally appeared in the March issue of American Banker Magazine.
Back in the analog age, the go-for-broke owners of a struggling recording studio in the San Fernando Valley bet their future on a state-of-the-art, $75,000 mixing console called the Neve. Soon, Sound City Studios, with its nondescript storefront in a dreary lot, became a focal point in what we now call classic rock. This was the studio where Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks recorded pre-Fleetwood Mac, and where they first met Mick Fleetwood. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded there. Neil Young and REO Speedwagon, too.
The equipment was a big draw of course, but so were the talented sound engineers, the super-foxy studio manager (popular with the male musicians) and the soon-to-be-historic vibe, which continued to attract bands to Sound City long after its prime.
I learned about all this at a recent screening of rock musician Dave Grohl's new documentary about the studio. Afterward, I was humming tunes from Buckingham Nicks, but really I was thinking about banks. Honestly. Because just like Sound City, banks have made hugely successful bets on emerging technologies that changed their industry. And just as with Sound City, banks barely have time to perfect one innovation before the pressure to find new ways of staying relevant starts up all over again.
The key message I took from the film is that technology isn't enough. Musicians still marvel over Sound City's custom-built Neve. But that machine alone didn't make the studio, and in the digital era, it wasn't enough to keep Sound City afloat. So I feel for bank executives. Everywhere they turn, they are being told they risk extinction. They are devoting precious capital to initiatives that perhaps, deep down, they might not even really believe in. (As print journalism dinosaur, I can relate.) Our features this month on direct banks and the mobile future speak to the power of innovation. But whether you double down on app development or anything else in IT, it's important to remember that you still need to get the experience right to make it all work.
Here's what I mean: I recently had to cancel my debit and credit cards after stupidly leaving my purse in a taxi. Thanks to Mamadou, now my forever-favorite New York cab driver, my purse and I were reunited a few days later. So my only complaint, aside from my own negligence, was the negligent customer service I encountered at my primary bank.
First, I was unable to get a new debit card at the branch, because my account had been opened in another state on a different technology platform. So I ordered the new card by phone. When it didn't come, I called again and learned there was no record of my order. And the manager I spoke with never made good on a promise to research the situation and follow up with me the next day.
The IT glitches were disappointing to be sure, but certainly this wasn't just a failure of technology. Contrast that to my terrific experience with Citibank.
Just after my new credit cards arrived, I paid down two of them using my primary bank's billpay service. When one of the card providers called me to ask why my payment was late, I realized I had forgotten to enter my new account numbers on my billpay settings. Right away I called Citi, the other card company I had paid that month, to explain myself and to see if they would credit my new account. No problem-the payment already had been applied. "We do it automatically," the service rep told me. "We know this happens all the time."