The Cutting Edge of Online Banking, as Practiced by a Polish Bank

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If the banking industry is to meet consumers' rising expectations for digital services, they'll have to do better with their websites than gratuitous links and images of piggybanks.

"We banks force customers to use the Internet [in a way] that feels like a Yahoo directory from 1995," says Michal Panowicz, managing director of mBank, a unit of BRE Bank Group in Warsaw. "It's really not OK."

That is one reason why mBank executives decided last year to overhaul its online platform, which was more than a decade old. With a budget of roughly $40 million and a team of about 200, mBank has been trying to "build something up to the standard of modern Internet within the financial genre," Panowicz says.

The initiative comes at a time when U.S. retail banks have been investing in website redesigns as consumers increasingly prefer to transact and research products and services through digital channels.

"Banks here need to pay attention to the work and functions becoming normalized outside of our market," says Bradley Leimer, vice president of online and mobile strategy at Mechanics Bank in Richmond, Calif. "Fintech innovation is a worldwide phenomenon."

Recent efforts made by American financial institutions include de-cluttering text, requiring fewer clicks of users, purging links and adding colorful graphics to make websites look better on tablets, a device that is capturing market share from desktop computers. Startups that partner with banks, like Simple and Moven, are often cited by bankers as design role models for the industry.

"In the U.S., I think digital banking is moving from icing on the cake to the cake itself," says Peter Wannemacher, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

mBank, which offers an account to affluent customers, will soon serve as the mother brand for BRE Bank.

In June, mBank launched phase one of its re-engineered online platform to customers. It flaunted a new look (including images of people who look like they popped out of a J. Crew catalog) at a conference in New York in September. But the upgrade was more than cosmetic. The bank, with 140 branches, partnered with Meniga, Accenture, Artegence, and Software Mind to retool its software for the website, a project that is ongoing (mobile apps will be next). Among the many new capabilities mBank offers online customers are video tellers and integrated personal financial management tools, two categories banks in the U.S. have expressed interest in testing, offering or refining.

Forty video seats are available to advisors who work from mBank's call center to help customers and noncustomers set up accounts, explain and show products, among anything else the consumer wishes to discuss through a Skype-like experience. The aim is to let a consumer connect with a subject matter expert whenever and wherever she wishes, saving the bank some of the operational costs of a full-fledged branch while offering a comparable experience. "We cognitively process a lot of information when we see one another," says Panowicz. "It's all about the eyes."

The mBank video tellers, who previously served as call center agents, sat through more than 100 hours of training (including lessons from professional actors) before beginning their new gigs.

In the U.S., most banks have yet to make video tellers available, with some exceptions. USAA, known for innovating faster than its competitors, offers video chat. More typical in the U.S, but still far from standard, are credit unions and banks testing the use of video tellers in branch kiosks or at ATM locations.

Still, the research firm Celent encourages banks to bring on-demand video tellers to better engage consumers. "I am bullish on banks taking video to digital channels," says Bob Meara, Celent senior analyst.

At mBank, chat and voice are also available and people can switch between modes during the same conversation. To date, video has been the least popular of the three options available. "Video will take some time for [people] to think of as a prevailing channel," Panowicz says. Currently, the video service requires a plug-in from the Windows desktop user, but Panowicz promises this extra step is temporary.

As U.S. banks struggle to integrate PFM tools into their online banking, mBank meshed what are often two segregated experiences into a single view.

"The only separate traditional PFM feature is budgets," says Panowicz. "It's right in front of your eyes. …Think of it like Mint within the bank."

The bank, for example, illustrates spending patterns on a chart within the customer's account history and lets a person hover over a transaction to identify the category.

"I think U.S. banks should be most inspired by mBank in its wisdom to focus on the user interface and embedded PFM for day-to-day banking tasks," says Forrester's Wannemacher. "There are a lot of areas in online banking where fancy design would be wasted." Wannemacher expects financial institutions here to embed PFM visualizations into their home pages.

Transaction search capability, according to Wannemacher, is another feature mBank offers the U.S. market should take note of, especially as financial institutions add functionalities to digital platforms. "What continues to be an issue for banks is navigation within the secure website," he says.

Meanwhile, mBank continues to refine its digital channels and will rejigger its mobile apps in the coming months to likely include location-based services, silvers of PFM tools, and potentially making video teller capabilities available on tablets. The bank also plans to let customers pull in outside accounts in future digital iterations.

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