A consumer survey is shedding some rare light on a problem that many Internet bankers prefer not to speak about.
The New York research firm Cyber Dialogue found that the number of consumers banking on-line rose to 6.3 million in July, from 6.2 million a year earlier for a mere 2% growth rate.
Most everyone recognizes that Web banking has grown slowly. But more discouragingly, Cyber Dialogue calculated that 3.1 million people had started using such services but then stopped.
In other words, almost a third of the 9.4 million people who signed up for on-line banking are gone. And of those who stopped, only a minority of 35% said they would be inclined to try it again.
"Retention is an important issue for banks," said Michael Weiksner, manager of finance strategies at Cyber Dialogue. "Unlike groups using other financial services we track, this is the first large group of people who said they had tried a service and voted with their feet that it wasn't worth it."
Attrition from Internet and on-line services has long been of concern to bankers, but few authoritative results have been publicized. In early 1998, Find/SVP of New York said 15.9 million people had tried the Internet in some way during the previous year and no longer used it.
In their public disclosures, financial institutions generally give raw numbers of enrollees, which keep rising.
One company that has proclaimed success Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio has had some runoff, acknowledged William Randle, the executive vice president who oversees direct delivery strategies. But he also boasted that the bank has attracted 13% of its customers to on-line services with almost no advertising a purposeful caution because the technology is not fully formed. "We have to realize this is still an early-adopter market," Mr. Randle said.
Odyssey, a San Francisco research firm, has said that 5% of U.S. households have on-line banking accounts. Nicholas Donatiello Jr., president, told an American Bankers Association conference last month that banks are "lagging badly" versus other Internet businesses, but he said data on customer intentions indicate a strong and growing interest in the services.
"Banks must react in Internet time or risk losing the relationships of their most valuable customers," Mr. Weiksner said.
Experts at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York said banks must get up to speed with market research and profitability analysis on their remote customers as part of their broader focus on information management. First Manhattan executive vice president Ladd Willis said banks are still suffering from customer disillusionment at earlier stages of the transition from personal financial management software to direct Internet delivery.
"There is the question of whether there is enough value in the on-line offering," Mr. Willis said.
One hypothesis, he said, is that the advent of electronic bill presentment will make it worth customers' while to sign up for a full banking and bill payment service.
The Cyber Dialogue report showed that in comparison to banks, on-line brokerages suffered much less attrition. Of 6.9 million consumers who have tried on-line trading, 800,000 stopped.
Though bank marketers have stressed convenience, more than half of the consumers who discontinued Internet banking said they did so because it was too complicated or service was unsatisfactory. Smaller numbers cited concerns about security and fraud, costs, and privacy.
Mr. Weiksner said some of his results are positive for the banks. They were well ahead of brokers as a choice for one-stop financial shopping among consumers who said they would like to receive aggregated services at one site.
Banks garnered 30% of these responses, brokers only 4%, and "an on-line brand or company" only 2%. The majority, 61%, said they "weren't sure" or chose "other" providers.
The results came from a poll of 1,000 Internet users and 1,000 nonusers. The statistical margin of error is plus or minus 3%.
Jeffrey Kutler contributed to this article.