Banks turning to digital channels should consider the message of a new J.D. Power retail banking survey: Build it and they will come, but if using it is too much work, they'll head elsewhere.

Heeding predictions that the future of banking is digital, banks of every size now offer customers mobile and online ways of opening accounts. Yet according to J.D. Power, the majority of customers — even millennials who prefer digital banking — say they open bank accounts in branches because it is too confusing to do so online.

"There are challenges in the branch but even more challenges in the online environment. Banks as an industry are not meeting the customer's desire to open an account online," said James Miller, vice president of the banking and credit card practice at J.D. Power.

Without the one-on-one guidance available in a bank branch, customers are more likely to misunderstand a product or go to another bank, according to the survey. Out of 28,000 customers that had opened a new account, 42% of the branch customers said they were likely never to switch banks, whereas only 31% of online customers expressed the same commitment.

Not even chatbots seem to help with the online onboarding process. Those who used chatbots reported lower satisfaction than those who did not use them. “You would think that the chat assistance would drive satisfaction up, but it doesn’t seem to do that,” Miller said.

And while many customers — especially millennials — want to be able to open accounts online, only 13% of new account customers used that option. To these customers, the survey noted, digital onboarding not only means less time spent in the branch, but ideally less time processing applications as well.

“It’s the first impression that customers get of a bank, and banks are struggling especially through the digital channel because customers are looking at different products — if they go to one bank and they can’t get onboarded quickly, they just jump to another bank,” said Christine Barry, senior analyst at Aite Group.

One stumbling block is that banks have to streamline their account opening processes in addition to providing customers with new channels to open accounts, said Don Bergal, chief marketing officer of Avoka, a financial technology company that provides digital onboarding tools for banks.

"Onboarding both retail and commercial banking customers is a paper-heavy process today, with the specific documents that need to be completed numerous and varying,” Bergal said. “An onboarding process that takes weeks for documents to be completed, reviewed, revised and entered creates a poor customer experience, adds to costs and discourages prospective customers."

But most banks do nothing, said Ted Brown, CEO and co-founder of Digital Onboarding, a fintech that launched in 2015 and was an exhibitor at Finovate 2017.

“They hand out a folder and hope for the best,” Brown said.

His fintech advertises a more seamless onboarding process as well as an automatic digital follow-up procedure.

"The result of a strong digital onboarding platform is a much shortened process, where the customer does everything digitally and fills in the data only once, while the onboarding platform takes the information and distributes it to all the forms, departments, countries and agencies that need it,” Bergal said.

Digital Onboarding has eight bank and credit union clients, with Boston-based Digital Federal Credit Union having been its first. Recently, the fintech began working with Belmont Savings Bank, a full-service Massachusetts savings bank.

“We are seeing more engagement and seeing more people downloading the mobile app, logging in and setting up direct deposits,” Brown said. “Anecdotally, we have received positive feedback from customers and staff. The staff likes to text or email this information rather than putting it together in a folder, and the compliance team loves that they know the right disclosures are being given to customers.”

With banks experimenting with new ways of digital onboarding, the customers who are more fully engaged have a better overall banking experience, J.D. Power’s Miller said.

“If they are using digital and online as well as going into the branch, we find that they tend to be more satisfied with the bank relationship,” Miller said.