Hispanic customers of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Wells Fargo (WFC) have long been able to pay bills or transfer money online — but only in English.
Now, to reach their growing numbers of Latino customers and to catch up with their biggest rivals, both companies are planning to expand their Spanish-language online banking services by early next year.
Both Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (NYSE:C) have long offered their customers ways to make transactions online in Spanish. But Wells and JPMorgan Chase have lagged behind. Both banks currently have links on their websites to "Espanol" pages, which provide some Spanish-language disclosures and information about topics from personal banking to home finance. But neither bank has added transactional online banking capabilities, which allow customers to access their accounts and bank online in Spanish.
Now Wells is planning to unveil those capabilities by early next year. The San Francisco bank has long relied on business from Hispanic customers, but executives said that successfully building out sophisticated Spanish-language online banking can be time-consuming and expensive.
"It's very easy to put up a website, but it's very hard to do it right," says Teddy De Rivera, senior vice president of portfolio strategy and emerging trends at Wells Fargo's internet services group. "And if you don't do it right, the consequences can be very severe. Especially if you're moving money, the impact to customers can be horrendous."
JPMorgan Chase plans to offer customers ways to conduct transactions online in Spanish by the end of the year, according to spokesman Patrick Linehan.
"The Hispanic/Latino segment is an important and growing market for us and we currently offer a number of Spanish-language services. We expect to further expand these services by year-end," he said in an emailed statement.
Nearly 11 million Hispanics bank online every month, according to research firm comScore Inc. Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the population, with 50 million in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.
Banks have struggled for years to build up sophisticated and fully-functional websites for their Spanish-speaking customers. Lee Vann, founder and CEO of Captura Group, a San Diego Hispanic marketing firm, says banks still are not doing enough to serve Hispanics online.
"Banking is the one area where there's just a smattering of Spanish content on their web sites and that's about it," says Vann. "There are a large number of Hispanics coming to these web sites, but relative to what they're doing in English, there's very little content they're doing in Spanish. The banks have awesome apps, where the customer can take a picture of a check and deposit it, but when it comes to Spanish language, it's way down on the list. It's not the priority."
Some big banks have offered Spanish-language transactional capabilities for years. Citigroup introduced its technology in 2002, and B of A followed in late 2007, according to representatives for the two banks.
Wells Fargo decided to expand its Spanish online banking after wrapping up the integration of Wachovia Corp. late last year, which involved combining core computer systems into one platform. It has been testing a couple of competing technologies from third-party software vendors, which would dramatically reduce the cost of having to rebuild its current English-language web site from the ground up in Spanish, De Rivera says.
"If we had to rebuild the English site in Spanish, it's a lot of work and very expensive to maintain," he says. "We are really focused on getting Spanish up and we're looking at other languages as well beyond Spanish. Part of the appeal of the technology is the process becomes easier if we add other languages."
Wells found that Hispanic customers generally want the equivalent of the English-language web site, De Rivera says, adding that many bilingual customers toggle back and forth between Wells' Spanish and English web sites to make sure the bank is offering the same rates.
"Our intention is to mimic the English site," he says.
That can be a hefty price tag for banks trying to increase their Spanish-language capabilities, particularly at a time when information technology budgets are tight.
"Very clearly the Hispanic population deserves and requires its own Spanish-language web presence. It's a must-do, it's a requirement in today's environment," says Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst with Celent's banking group. "But from a technological perspective, a large institution with a spaghetti of systems that they have to tie back into can be challenging and requires a lot of work, effort and dollars."
Beyond the cost, security issues also play a role. Wells has delayed the launch of its Spanish-language online bank while it conducts security audits, including a review of computer code and on-site inspections of third-party vendors.
The bank found some slight degradation to its English-language site from the addition of the Spanish version, De Rivera says. It plans to roll out the Spanish site in stages.