Bankers have accepted that providing mobile access to financial services is an inevitable part of their future. But when it comes to actually using the devices to proactively communicate with customers about the bank, financial institutions are surprisingly behind the curve.

A new study from Varolii Corporation, a firm that provides cross-channel customer interaction services, found low percentages of bankers using mobile channels to reach consumers with information about the bank and its products and services, suggesting that banks are not taking full advantage of the channel's ability as a targeted marketing and information dispensing tool.

The survey of more than 1,000 American retail banking executives from more than 200 institutions found that only two percent use text messaging as one of their top vehicles to communicate with customers — even though more than 53 percent of consumers say they prefer to receive text notifications. Also, only four percent say they use smartphone apps as a top communications method. "Banks are really in the stone age when it comes to using mobile devices to communicate with customers," says Andy Schmidt, a research director at TowerGroup.

The survey found that nearly half of all banks still use agents to manually call customers (in the case of mobile phones, consumers are getting verbal phone calls instead of SMS messages); and more than half still use direct mail to reach customers, despite direct mail having a response rate in the low single digits.

Banks aren't unaware of the problem — nearly one in four execs said that developing a competitive mobile and online strategy will be one of the greatest challenges to their business over the next two years. Also, nearly half of respondents said further automating customer communications and giving more self-service options is a top consumer preference and could drive greater efficiencies in the contact center. But there are a few reasons for the mobile communications gap that do make it hard to fix, such as prevailing data management techniques that make it difficult for banks to reach out to consumers on mobile devices, and lingering concerns over privacy.

"Banks don't have the data that they need," says Kael Kelly, a senior director at Varolii. "A lot of the phone number data doesn't easily distinguish between a mobile number and a landline."

Kelly says that more than half of the execs say they have "no idea" whether they have their customers' mobile numbers on file, and only a quarter say they are sure. "They're still reliant on using humans in a contact center and using mail as well. That still seems to be standard practice." Kelly says lingering departmental silos are a problem. One department may have a mobile number out of necessity, such as for loan processing or account registration, but that information is not easily available to other departments, and, again, it's not always clear that the number is a mobile number.

There are other hurdles that could hinder greater use of SMS for information purposes. Anti-spamming laws forbid solicitation on mobile devices. But tailored, proactive communication driven by business intelligence and CRM that helps existing consumers, delivered on an opt-in basis, would fall below the level of "telemarketing." "We're suggesting that banks use mobile channels as a way to deliver offers to the mobile device," Schmidt says.