When the terrifying potential of the Internet revolution dawned on me in 1995, I wrote an op-ed piece for American Banker titled "Sell Out Before Technology Makes You Obsolete."
In it I said that "at some point, after PC-based banking has matured and had its largely foreseeable, evolutionary impact, more thought will be given to what the next transformation will look like." And I predicted that "a second metamorphic stage, with gigantic, network-type entities, will overwhelm all the rest of the traditional deposit-taking segment of banking."
In recent months the personal financial portal has shown promise as a workable, user-friendly tool for consumers. Though the extant entries are in the advanced prototype phase, the stage is at least set for fleshed-out, value-added versions in the near future. One such portal with which I am familiar describes itself as " a Web-based aggregation platform that enables end users to view, update, and manage their asset and liability information." The portal presents itself as a mere window to view, in convenient form, an array of accounts.
I've come to realize that many relationship aspects of consumers' primary bank accounts will be transferred to their portal, and the bank account relegated to a secondary position. In short, the personal financial portal will be the new bank account - regardless of whether it is maintained by a bank, broker, or other entity.
Consumers' loyalty and their identification with these portals are likely to be high. People will fall in love with them - especially if they simplify people's lives.
By extension, when people gain access to banking portals, that will be the time when they are most focused on financial decision-making and most open to ideas. Though the marketing potential here is huge, the challenge will be to keep marketing noise low enough and the site clean enough that the portal remains owned by the consumer as his or her tool and not another mass marketer's attack point. Moreover, the portal's size matters - being either too big or too small won't appeal to consumers.
Banks should be well positioned to design and service portals with a balance of marketing material that will be perceived as helpful rather than invasive. At a recent investor conference, a representative of Wells Fargo illustrated how the banking company is moving to "portalize" its Internet bank accounts to include data from its own and third-party bank accounts, credit cards, loans, and brokerage accounts, and is expanding into bill payment, purchasing, travel, and other areas.
The Wells portal may still be in the advanced prototype phase, but it appears the company is ahead of the curve and that it will become increasingly difficult for other banks to catch up.
Instead of resting on its vast branch system or its marketing prowess, Wells is positioning itself to be good at everything in consumer banking, including online banking.
Be they small or even quasi-national branch systems, banks that are behind in Internet banking are becoming more vulnerable to competition, and their weaknesses are worse than they look. In my 1995 article, I theorized that Internet banking would evolve to a point when - I picked 2004 - the value of traditional, branch-oriented deposit-taking would suddenly evaporate. Now I'm more convinced that banks that fail to adapt to electronic banking may similarly evaporate, perhaps forced into an ignominious sale to an Internet megabank for one - one - times book value.
Smart consumer banks will offer an online bank account that fulfills as many of clients' financial management needs as possible. Those that fail to do so will cede the new primary-account relationship to someone else.
Personal financial portals - perhaps they should be called "full-service" portals, recalling bankers' advertising campaigns of the 1960s - should be embraced and owned and rightfully positioned as the new bank account for consumers. If you resist or quibble or wait for proof of consumer acceptance, you could find yourself in big trouble.
What makes a good personal financial portal and exactly how it should function is an interesting topic for discussion. As with most things in business, however, it is probably better to act on some type of plan, even if it is imperfect, than to wait for the just-right approach to be handed to you on a platter. Mr. Johnson is president of Heron Hill Corp., a bank consulting and investment company in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. He is director of two community banks and one regional brokerage firm.