More and more people don't bank at the bank anymore.
The percentage of households banking from personal computers will rise from 3% to 20% in the next five years, Forrester Research reports. Many others will be banking via automated teller machines found at grocery stores, airports, newsstands, even restaurants.
In an era of the remote customer, how can banks offer personalized service and build loyalty? A number of pioneering financial institutions have turned to well-designed, clearly written, client-driven statements, paper and electronic.
Recognizing that statements are their most regular contact with customers, these institutions have discovered that tailored documents, powered by marketing data bases, and written in plain English, can create loyalty and reinforce brand. Statements also provide dividends: Institutions report fewer customer calls for clarification to toll-free numbers, better acceptance rates on targeted marketing offers, and greater production efficiencies.
The trend toward personalization, most evident in mutual fund and brokerage statements, is driven by the swelling investor population and the boom in information for investors.
In the past, most mutual fund and brokerage firm clients were relatively wealthy people. Today, thanks to widespread use of individual retirement accounts, employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, and other types of accounts, more people are investing money, and they want to know how their investments are performing.
The Internet and cable television give investors massive amounts of information such as breaking news, live stock quotes, and the performance level of indexes such as the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500 Index. For many of these investors, the steady barrage of investment data triggers a desire for specific information that pertains to them individually.
Market research shows that most people don't read inserts included with statements and other documents. As a result, financial services firms are putting marketing messages directly on the document. Pitches for product or service promotions appear on the side of or at the bottom of a statement or bill. This technique lets the institution promote a product or service without adding clutter.
Financial institutions have also begun to target marketing messages. By studying buying behavior, credit card companies can offer customized information and discounts for products and services a customer is known to use.
To meet demands for streamlined information, banks are increasingly presenting information in a consolidated format. This practice has become standard in many statements, brochures, and electronic documents.
Banks are also reinforcing client relationships by communicating in clear, comprehensible language. The use of plain English-through such techniques as writing in the active voice and avoiding double negatives-is not a "dumbing down" process but a way to ensure comprehension. Simplification also eases comparisons among products so consumers understand their investment choices.
Though the movement toward plain-language financial documents began about a decade ago, new Securities and Exchange Commission rules are now the major force driving the trend. By October, plain-English writing principles will be mandatory in preparation of prospectuses of investment companies and publicly traded companies. The rules are intended to give the investor the best possible chance to understand complex information.
Institutions are also beginning to apply design techniques and principles to make information more digestible.
In the past, documents were systems-driven, and their design was a haphazard result of data processing. Today's client-driven design is better organized and uses devices such as graphics and rules. Banks are grouping details and breaking down numbers for clients. The difference in the design of today's documents is the difference between data and information. Here are some examples of companies that have incorporated some or all of these techniques:
First Union Corp. created an annual statement giving clients detailed, personalized account information, including a comparison of current- and prior-year performance. The statement shows how an account has fared over the year, lists benefits and discounts the client has received by banking with First Union, and offers guidance on enhancing the value of an investment.
Salomon Smith Barney brokerage statements are a benchmark of customer- friendly communication. The innovative documents feature an account summary and a section with detailed information. Graphics help to organize pages visually, making them easier to read. The statements set such an enduring communications standard on Wall Street that they have required only minor modifications over a decade.
Fleet Bank's recently re-designed credit card statements include information on discounts that clients get when using their card, as well as information on its Fleet Rewards partnerships with various businesses.
American Express' Financial Direct Web site uses the Internet as a personalization tool. The site is easy to navigate, well organized, and provides a number of customer-focused features. Clients can obtain account and portfolio information, stock quotes, market commentary, company reports, and market-snapshot charts. Information can be downloaded into Quicken or Microsoft Money, helping investors further personalize information.
Though bank statements and documents have progressed a great deal, further change is inevitable. Documents will continue to evolve to best serve clients.
The emergence of remote banking isn't the only force compelling banks to find new ways to offer the kind of personalized service that reinforces relationships and builds loyalty. Mergers, deregulation, and other changes continually test the durability of customer relationships by adding turbulence to the marketplace.
Banks will need to reassure clients continually that they are a priority and that their bank offers the best services for their needs. Clear, well- focused documents can effectively cater to customers' needs, reinforcing the foundation of the bank-client relationship.