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How to Introduce Bank Fees Without a Backlash

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Given, you know, the financial crisis, its subsequent bailouts and all the bad press that has plagued the banking industry since, it's understandable an op-ed on teller fees would generate this comment: "[Banks] have no right to charge any fees whatsoever."

It's also absurd to suggest financial firms should never charge for a service ever again. Banking is a business, not charity, after all. And, if the industry is to fulfill its broader social functions – lending to businesses, prospective homeowners, etc. to bolster the economy – revenue remains essential.

Consumers may not like fees, but they do pay them all the time, often without complaint.

Consider, for instance, American Express's Platinum credit card, which garners plenty of praise on personal finance sites, despite a $450 (yes, $450) annual fee for cardholders.

The Platinum card, which is lauded for, among other things, its travel perks and lucrative rewards program, illustrates a golden rule banks should apply to fee services: make sure the customer is getting something of value in an exchange for the payout.

Still, there are a few other strategies banks should incorporate as they ponder new fee structures if they hope to avoid a backlash.

For instance, make the charge easily avoidable. ATM fees have escaped the level of scrutiny that overdraft or even monthly checking account charges inspire, despite the fact that they have risen steadily over the last few years. I'd argue this has something to do with a clear value exchange, since I'm the type of person who will pay for convenience, but it probably has more to do with the fact that these fees are easily avoided. Very few, if any, financial firms charge for using an ATM in their own network and customers who have a hard time staying in network could conceivably switch to a more accessible provider. 

Knowing these options are available precludes someone from raging at the sight of the $6 ATM charge they incurred after using an out-of-network ATM at, for instance, their favorite casino.

It's even more helpful if a firm is charging for something new.

Bank of America's now infamous $5 debit fee illustrates why adopting an airline model for fees won't do a bank any favors. The quickest way to incur a customer's wrath is to charge for something that was formerly free. Consumers are more receptive to paying for a new product or service, particularly if it fulfills a need … which is why charging for new mobile offerings seems like a natural path forward.

Some industry experts are quick to dissuade banks from charging for mobile services.  And I get why. Widespread adoption is more easily achieved if it doesn't cost the customer anything. But it seems silly to take mobile fees off the table entirely, given the amount of money consumers are known to spend on smartphone apps and flashy Facebook games.

Regions' fee structure for remote deposit capture, which charges 50 cents for standard processing and up to 3% of the amount of the check for immediate access, represents a good compromise (and, it's worth noting, bears a resemblance to the aforementioned smartphone games). It also illustrates another strategy bankers may want to explore: include nominal charges in new fee models.

The negative connotation associated with fees may make it tricky to ever introduce a $35 fee again. But consumers may be more receptive to, say, a small $1 charge for a paper statement or, yes, even an in-store transaction, if these fees are clearly disclosed and/or part of a tailored offering.

There's one more thing that needs to be said in the wake of the financial crisis, various enforcement actions and numerous fee-related class action lawsuits. If brainstorming sessions around a new fee dovetail into discussions about how to trick customers in paying more of them – a la reordering transactions to impose a fee on an otherwise nonexistent overdraft – it's probably best to just shelve that idea and start over.  

Jeanine Skowronski is the deputy editor of BankThink. You can contact her at Jeanine.skowronski@sourcemedia.com or follow her at Twitter @JeanineSko.

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Comments (2)
I think you have clearly stated how banks need to go forward with respect to fees, charge for value delivered.

Too often as an industry we want fast acceptance of a new service model such as mobile so we don't charge for it because we think we will save a lot of operating costs. Inevitably the new service option becomes an additional service channel, not a replacement for an existing channel. The projected cost savings never are fully realized, so the cost of the new channel must be recovered through fees.

Unfortunately by not charging in the critical beginning stages, we have established the new channel as a no cost channel in the minds of our custlomers. So there is a big backlash to the charges when they come. Why can't the new channel be presented as a premium value offer with a fee from the beginning? It works for American Express, as you note in teh article, so it can work for banks.

Those early pricing decisions are critical because they establish the accepted price level in our customers minds. If we set that perception at zero
Posted by Bob Merkle | Thursday, November 14 2013 at 10:04AM ET
The market has spoken: Customers won't gladly pay fees for basic services revolving around consumer checking (including mobile banking) at a time when every financial institution needs more fee income like never before. Slapping a new fee on an existing basic product/service, especially one that's free now, is premised on "hope", as in "I hope the customer won't notice or be upset". Plus, it's a false economy because it doesn't generate significant fee income and just increases attrition risk.

Yet banks of all sizes continue to proceed down this path.

The fair exchange of value concept for consumer financial services isn't new and there are many successful models of how it works and generates material fee income. AMEX is just one example.

So start thinking like a customer and you'll find several categories of benefits/services that are relevant enough that customers will pay for them, and which fit very naturally in consumer checking/mobile banking/online banking solutions. And if you can't think like a customer, just do some online research, beginning with the annual Federal Reserve report - Consumers and Mobile Financial Services. The answers are right there.
Posted by mikbran | Friday, November 15 2013 at 2:56PM ET
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