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Bankers, Not Boomers, Fail the Online Challenge

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Baby boomers are the brunt of a lot of technology jokes: We can't work a four-gadget, 60-button remote, we haven't figured out why Facebook has a timeline and a newsfeed, we don't really know what an Instagram is, and we're still slightly baffled as to how to text (or, Lord help us, "FaceTime") the grandkids for help.

There may be some truth to the stereotype, but when it comes to Boomers' high-tech online banking savvy, it's not the complexity or mystery that slow us down. The culprits are instead clunky, customer-unfriendly websites, poor help systems, confusing interfaces and those security barriers (however necessary) that frustrate the heck out of us.

These are some of the findings of a recent study by the consulting firm West Monroe Partners, which surveyed customers about their online banking experiences with five financial institutions.

Arguably there are potential pain points for customers of any age, but this study focused on the experience of people in the 49-to-67 age bracket, the largest customer segment for the institutions involved in the study.

"Banks are uniquely bad at this online stuff," says Brian Clark, a principal for the customer experience practice at Chicago-based West Monroe Partners.

Clark, who formerly analyzed online customer experience in the retail sporting goods industry, says "heavily risk-averse" banks and insurance firms "are really behind the curve."

He cites the examples of banks that require customers to use separate logins for different online functions (bill-pay or account transfers, for example), and the all-too-common navigation menus that defy intuition and, ironically, keep frequently-asked-questions pages difficult to locate. "It's simple things like not having an easy way to get self-help instead of having to call someone and talk to solve a problem or get a question answered, or making people jump through hoops unnecessarily," says Clark.

West Monroe assigned the five banks and credit unions a so-called "customer effort" score on a scale of 1 to 4, with lower scores indicating the preferred lesser effort, to measure how much difficulty the Boomer generation faces in interactions involving branch, online banking, website navigation and call-center interaction. The findings, based on interactions that occurred during the first quarter of 2013, show that customers have better service experiences with in-person branch visits than with online or telephone banking, particularly with help content, functionality and information accessibility.

"It's not just a matter of size either," Clark says. "The smallest and the largest banks we looked at in our survey were both so siloed that they did not have a strategic direction for their customer experience effort."

One bank, he says, "had 20 different online systems requiring 20 different logins." Though that's an extreme example, needless multiple logins are commonplace with banks, he notes.

Part of the problem is that banks depend on vendors for their online systems, "and customer service isn't high on those vendors' agendas," Clark says. Another factor: the propensity for customer-friendly practices to run into opposition from legal and compliance departments. "There are certainly compliance issues" to consider, Clark acknowledges, "but the banks aren't choosing the simplest ways to be compliant. We go in circles on that with them."

The solution for banks, says Clark, is to rethink online operations through the lens of a "governance process that puts a focus on the customer experience." It helps when key executives who put a priority on customer service take ownership of online projects.

Also important, he says, is mapping out the customer experience, so that systems designers know "what actually happens when someone tries to get a consumer loan online, or do a wire transfer, or make a deposit." That's true not only for online banking, he says, but also for phone banking, where tangles of automated menus can amplify the frustrations of customers who have dialed in seeking assistance.

Clark is especially critical of banks' efforts thus far at cross-channel integration. He says banks need to do more to blend the service options available through online and in-person channels. "They should make it like Apple's Genius Bar," he says, "where you can make an appointment anytime from anywhere online, and know that two days later when you go to your branch, there will be the person you want to see waiting for you at a specific time."

Clark credits one bank in the study, Washington Trust Bank of Spokane, with having done a good job of setting up an online operation that works well and meshes with the rest of the bank's retail operations. Cathie Winegar, retail operations manager at the $4.4 billion-asset bank, says that buy-in from the bank's president, Jack Heath, and from the senior vice president for retail banking, Jim Branson, were key to successfully creating a satisfying online customer experience. There was "also the fact that our legal department and director of compliance had an attitude of, 'How do we get to 'yes'?" Winegar hastens to add. "They look at issues through a different lens, but none of us, including them, wants to run into a customer in the supermarket who has had a bad online experience."

One innovative feature: customers at Washington Trust can create a special identification code that allows the call center to positively identify them on the phone, so that a staffer can then confidently use the customer's password to get online and assist them in solving a problem.

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