On-line customers are more interested in banking and financial than electronic commerce services, according to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Funded by Meca Software, the study found that people rated banking, bill payment, and financial planning their highest-demand functions. Moderate demand was expressed for investing, retirement planning, budgeting, and tax preparation. Insurance and electronic commerce services garnered low consumer interest.
The results, gathered from focus groups in Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and Toronto, seemed to confirm previous research suggesting that consumers expect financial institutions to play a more dominant role in creating financial software for the Internet.
Notwithstanding people's predisposition to look to financial institutions, banks may need to offer a wider variety of financial services-including those of competitors-in order to compete in the electronic marketplace.
"Although customers are very comfortable with the bank as a trusted third party, banks also need to offer a broad range of products," said Jay Norman, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting and consulting firm formed by the recent merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand.
In the past, financial institutions have steered clear of reselling competitors' products because of both tricky computer integration issues and the lack of distribution arrangements, Mr. Norman said.
He cited Charles Schwab & Co.'s OneSource-which resells mutual funds that it does not originate or manage-and Citicorp's alliance with Netscape Communications Corp. to draw traffic to its Web site as examples of financial services companies that are "thinking like Internet players."
Discussions with focus group participants also showed that, while they want their banks to be more active in helping them make financial decisions, they don't want them to be pushy.
They see electronic channels like the Web as ideal for getting financial institutions' advice without having to endure high-pressure tactics in telephone calls or face-to-face meetings.
"Consumers said they don't want their financial institution to be intrusive," said Paul D. Harrison, president and chief executive officer of Meca Software, which paid more than $1 million for the survey data.
"When asked what they meant by that, they would say, 'We don't want you sending me a proposal for a home equity loan if I rent an apartment,'" Mr. Harrison said. "They wanted the bank to be more targeted and not to bother them with issues they didn't care about."
The 400 people participating in focus groups were more computer-literate than most. Officials at PriceWaterhouseCoopers also spoke with executives at 15 banks, including Meca Software owners BankAmerica Corp., Citicorp, Fleet Financial Group, NationsBank Corp., New England Financial, Royal Bank of Canada, and U.S. Bancorp.
Notwithstanding the study's small sample size, it yielded surprising indications about the readiness of consumers for particular on-line financial services.
Hot-button aspects of the "Internet economy," including on-line communities and on-line shopping, were relative duds. "We thought insurance would play strongly, but it didn't," said Mr. Norman. "Neither did electronic commerce malls outside of banks' traditional financial advice function."
Perhaps more predictable was consumers' expectation that on-line services should cost less than those delivered through nonelectronic channels. "Consumers believe that everything on the Internet should be free because they assume it is cheaper" for the financial institution to offer products that way, said Mr. Norman.
The survey's findings may encourage banks that are rapidly rolling out Web-based banking systems. Seeking to trump what they have regarded as an intrusion on customer relations by brand-name software companies, some banks are launching Web sites that offer many of the same capabilities boasted by traditional personal financial managers, or PFMs, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Money or Intuit Inc.'s Quicken.
Calling their technologies anything from a Net PFM to a personal financial appliance, these banks are using technology providers invisible to the consumer-including recent start-ups such as Corillian Corp., Home Account Network Inc., and Home Financial Network Inc. The banks using these systems are hoping to consolidate primary financial loyalty that formerly had to be shared with Quicken or Money.
This isn't the first time for such maneuvering. In an early 1997 study titled "Is Quicken Obsolete?," Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass., identified three phases of home banking technology: proprietary systems developed by technology leaders like BankAmerica and Citicorp in the late 1980s, the rise of PFMs like Quicken in the early 1990s, and the forthcoming development of Net PFMs-once again developed primarily by financial institutions but this time with technology partners.
But while the past year has seen a proliferation of these software hybrids, Microsoft and Intuit have been aggressively peeling off portions of their desktop software products and putting them on their increasingly prominent Web sites, Investor.com and Quicken.com, respectively.
Mr. Harrison of Meca, whose Managing Your Money personal financial management software runs a distant third in market share to Quicken and Money, argued that melding the Internet and the PFM offers opportunities to secure strong customer relationships. But that may require becoming both a "wholesaler" and "retailer" of consumer financial services.
He compared financial supersites such as Quicken.com to a mall owner who sells nothing but makes money by renting out space. Traditional banks are like shopowners who sell only their own goods. New-style financial services companies are like department stores that sell both their own products and those of others.