Retail banking executives believe customers are on the cusp of behavioral changes that will render them "unrecognizable," a new Accenture study says — and the same executives have little faith that their banks are ready to change with them.

The "Customer 2012" study, which bills itself as a white paper on post-financial-crisis banking trends, examined the attitudes of customers and a group of senior global retail banking executives to divine what bank traits and services customers value most highly. The key for banks looking to hold their ground, the study advised, is to pair the service elements of branch networks with a well-executed multichannel distribution strategy through Internet and mobile banking.

The foundations for the new environment have been in place for some time, but change was hastened by the banking crisis.

"The subprime segments that drove very high margins prior to the crisis have effectively disappeared," said the study, which was issued last week. "They are too expensive for many banks to serve now that their risk profile has been fully recognized and priced in."

Of the 46 banking executives contacted, just under half told Accenture that the profitability of their average customer had dropped 5% to 11% since the crisis began. A further 11% cited a drop in profitability of greater than 15%. And nearly two-thirds of the executives reported an increase in "shopping around" for services, meaning customer-bank relationships are becoming more volatile.

The appropriate response to nonbank rivals, Accenture concluded, is not to fall back on the traditional model of good service. The most desirable customers now want more control over their financial relationships, customers said, and resent services that get between them and their money.

Correspondingly, banks would make a grave error if they viewed technology-based channels as a cost-saving mechanism.

Reserving stripped-down, Internet-based services for less desirable customers "runs exactly counter to customer behavior in many markets," the study said. "By organizing so that its most profitable customers get high-touch, people-based service, the bank is both wasting money and missing the target."

Though most executives are aware of the need to make such a switch, the study said, most lack confidence that their organizations are prepared to do so. One exception, the firm said, is Grupo Santander SA, which it praises for being a "lean and efficient machine" that can "still provide a proposition that is attractive to a large segment of the world's mass-market consumers."

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