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Big Banks Confront the Ghost of 'Bank Transfer Day'

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Remember Bank Transfer Day?

Last fall, the Occupy movement encouraged frustrated customers to flee big banks in favor of credit unions and smaller banks. On the ground, it had mixed results. But large banks shouldn't get cocky. The perception that they are disconnected from their audience persists.

"We're seeing consumer dissatisfaction with service; they feel impersonal and not recognized," says Mark Schwanhausser, a senior research analyst for Javelin Strategy and Research.

Javelin has been crunching the transfer numbers since the Occupy protests, and has good news and bad for larger banks. While people are not moving to smaller institutions in droves, there's still palpable anger and a high risk of customer flight.

Javelin says 11% of consumers told it they were thinking of switching their primary financial institution in the coming year, which would put about $675 billion in assets up for grabs.

Bank of America and Citigroup are the most vulnerable, with as many as one in four customers considering switching.

The two banks are big targets "from the point of view of Occupy folks, with the bailouts, Tarp, debit fee proposals, etc.," Schwanhausser says.

Large banks are certainly convenient, Schwanhausser says, with their large branch and ATM networks, and vast mobile and online channels.

But consumers are still disenchanted about fees and a lack of personal connection to their banks, so the relationship is tenuous.

"There's a sense that banking should be in many cases free … there's a tension over that expectation and the desire to have something better and more personal," Schwanhausser says.

The large banks contend they are reaching out to consumers to improve relationships, using digital payment and customer service innovations delivered in familiar ways.

In the past year, Citigroup says it has addressed consumer sentiment by focusing on the intangible benefits of social networking and improving customer service access for iPad, online and other mobile applications.

The effort has been driven in part by Frank Eliason, the bank's senior vice president of social media, who told Bank Technology News in an earlier interview that the focus should be on improving customer experience rather than on hard return-on-investment numbers.

Lauren Francis, a JPMorgan Chase spokeswoman, says the bank has set up multiple channels for customers to log concerns, such as a "what can we do better" listening post on Chase.com, and has added a Twitter handle, @ChaseSupport. Chase has also extended ChaseQuickDeposit, its mobile remote deposit capture offer, to iPhone, iPad, iPad Touch, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle Fire.

The bank has struck partnerships that aim to personalize and improve the shopping experience.

A partnership with GoPago, a provider of a mobile shopping tool, allows consumers to order in advance from local merchants, pay using their handsets and avoid checkout lines.

A partnership with Square ties special card offers to acceptance of Chase card payments via the Square dongles that attach to mobile phones to read card numbers.

And Chase was one of the first banks to adopt the Pew Health Group's simplified disclosure form for checking accounts, part of the Pew Group's Safe Checking in the Electronic Age project.

In a statement, Bank of America said "we listen and interact with our customers through multiple channels. We're continuing to build on that feedback to improve their experience, provide them with more convenience and give them more reasons to bank with us."

Bank of America's moves in the past year include the introduction of a Kindle Fire app, following the spike in sales for the popular mobile device.

Bank Transfer Day was sparked by some banks' plans to charge fees for debit transactions, and grew out of a general sense of unrest that accompanied global protests over the perceived power of large banks.

Javelin found that during first three months after November, the most recent data available, about 5.6 million American consumers switched banks. Of those, only about 610,000 cited Bank Transfer Day as a reason.

While the transfer numbers are larger than normal, about three times the transfer volume of a similar period the previous year, Bank Transfer Day was generally considered unsuccessful ("success" being measured by people actually transferring banks).

Javelin says one reason for this was convenience of digital channels. Large banks typically have larger branch networks, ATMs and have the IT budgets and scale to build a multichannel experience earlier and more broadly than smaller institutions.

"One of the lessons of Bank Transfer Day was consumers had an opportunity to switch, but stuck with their bank, mostly for reasons that are about practicality, of having a large ATM network or a robust online banking platform," Schwanhausser says.

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