When I talk to people about home banking, I cannot get a consistent answer.
Answers range from "It'll never happen" to "It's here now and the branch is obsolete." The proponents of home banking all have their pet project that they feel is the one that will sweep the market.
Let's take a systematic review of the payment services industry, where it's at, and where it's going. The most important thing to remember about the industry is that it is evolving very quickly, and the pace of change is much faster than we have experienced in recent years. Also, the participants in the business come from all over. They are numerous, and some are nonbankers.
The term "home banking" is a misnomer. Electronic banking goes way beyond the home. It is not location specific. Customer preferences in direct banking are not location specific either.
Customers want to access services where they want, when they want, and how they want to access them. Interestingly, even the word "banking" is no longer representative of the service continuum that we refer to when we say home banking. It is even questionable whether banks have a competitive advantage in delivering services electronically.
Wesley C. Tallman, president of Visa Products and Information Services, spoke recently of the seven commandments for remote service access. Let me paraphrase some of his thoughts.
1. Embrace direct distribution. Direct distribution, or as Wesley calls it, remote service access, expands one's perspective on the business banks will be conducting in the coming decade. Not only is it a different way of doing business and an important delivery system among the host of delivery systems you will have. It also implies new competitors that you have never encountered before and a new state of mind.
2. Accept the consumers' bucket mentality. Bankers think of money as a fungible product. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar. They think of their payment vehicles as perfect substitutes. The customers do not think that way. They have a bucket mentality. You cannot force customers to do something they do not want to do.
If they believe it is not a good thing to pay for groceries with a credit card, you cannot make them. Every person has in mind a predetermined way of paying for specific goods and services and of investing their money in specific buckets.
This is a real challenge, since technology advancement was not matched with personal service investments. In fact, it has detracted from personal service by lumping everyone into broad categories. We need to take a step forward that will allow us to consider every customer as an individual, not as a DDA or a credit card customer.
We already know that a customer's needs vary widely from the simplest of transactions to highly sophisticated activities. The equipment that is required to access these activities is also diverse and becomes increasingly more sophisticated from a touch-tone telephone to a screen telephone, and then to a personal computer.
The placement of the equipment in the home also influences the consumer's decision as to which device to use. A new set of variables is being posed to the bankers who want to exceed and anticipate consumer needs for remote delivery.
3. Integrate services across devices and across providers. As we just acknowledged, banks will be forced to deal with a wide range of devices and services, both of which need to be integrated. The customer has a preference for purchasing services from a single source, even if they are provided by different vendors.
In the customer's mind, there is no Chinese wall between trust services, transaction services, mortgages, life insurance, and an investment account. Their preference is to integrate all of those services through one access point. Similarly, customers will not purchase a different device for each service you offer.
As a result, each service may need to support multiple access channels. Most services do not offer that flexibility today.
As a result, only 21% of the people Visa interviewed in their research would be willing to use it for bill payment, and only 8% would be willing to pay for the service.
A screen telephone, on the other hand, is much more convenient. It combines two features that the customer is comfortable with - a telephone and an ATM menu-driven system.
Properly combined, those features significantly enhance the customer's desire to pay bills with a screen device, and 32% of consumers are prepared to pay for such service. Why? Because it requires very little time and very little education, and the equity investment in a phone device is relatively small.
PCs are an interesting contrast because few people say they are willing to use them, and an even fewer are willing to pay for the service. Why? Because it is intimidating, hard to learn, difficult to use, and costs a lot of money. The lesson here is that the difficulty and intimidation are not caused by the equipment but by the system that the person has to learn and the interfaces he or she has to go through to use it.
Interactive television and so-called personal digital assistants (PDA) elicit an entirely different set of responses. Consumers perceive television for entertainment, not for business, and it is often in the wrong location in the home. "Why would I want to have all my financial information shown on television while my kids and friends parade through the family room?" In addition, PDAs mystify everyone.
5. Create services to solve customers' need. It is much easier to give people what they want. Easy to use services which address a customer need are the key to success. Concentrate on the service, not on the technology elegance. The customer is less interested in elegance. Customers want simple, easy-to-use service; basic information and basic solutions. They don't want lots or data or a single-purpose device. We need to be able to deliver value over a multipurpose device.
6. Outsourcing and strategic alliances may be valid solutions. Many bankers like to keep operations in house for control and for flexibility. Some have outsourced for cost effectiveness. When it comes to electronic banking, it is highly unlikely that any single company will own it end to end.
7. Motivate the customer. To motivate the customer, we must be willing to change. We must accept new, more comfortable ways of doing business from the consumers' standpoint. We need to find out the customers' fears and concerns and address them. We need to commit to educate the customer, not just advertise the service. And education takes a long time.
While the pace of change is rapid, and while change is here, it will take the consumers time to change. We must be patient and understand that the market and the pricing for the service are going to be evolutionary.
I want to add an eighth point to Mr. Tallman's seven commandments: Remember who owns the customer. Banks have worked long and hard to develop customer relationships. In the process of entering the information highway, many competitors are warring with the banks over that relationship.
Don't forsake it at this point; use electronic banking as a way to retain the existing customer base and capture new customers. Do not give up your greatest asset in what makes your franchise so valuable: the customer.
Ms. Bird, chairman of the New York consulting firm Finexc Group LLC, was recently named chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis.