By using ethnography, which in Wells Fargo's case means visiting messy living rooms to see how customers handle their financial lives, the bank is able to see the real-life role the Web can potentially play in its customers' lives and businesses before making site upgrades or redesigns.

The approach has worked wonders. Wells frequently lands high on lists of Web functionality and consumer satisfaction, recently outranking Google, AT&T, Federal Express and Microsoft on a Brookings Institute ranking of 68 corporate Web sites - the latest in multi-year string of top rankings on lists put out by Gomez, MSN and a host of technology magazines.


BTN: What do you think drives Wells' good performance on Web rankings?

We research what the customers are interested in doing on the Internet in regards to banking, their unmet needs online, their frustrations, etc. and use those findings to drive how we design the customer's experience online and what products we decide to develop or add. It's a mix of quantitative and qualitative research, and it's done in a lot of different mediums. We do a lot of onsite visits, email and more traditional methods of customer research like focus groups and usability studies.


How do you think that's different from other online retailers?

We use a method called ethnography, which comes from anthropology [in science, ethnography is the accumulation of data though direct observation via immersion in a community]. We decided to 'live' in the culture to understand the culture and its needs before we enhance our site. The bank sends researchers out to customers' homes and businesses to get an understanding of issues such as how they manage their finances. It's not about how they interact with the Web necessarily, but more about how our customers manage their lives, their business and their finances overall. These findings provide us with a broader context in determining how the Web can be used to make an impact on people's lives.


How has this strategy identified consumer trends?

By doing this research, we were able to discover, for example, the way customers were storing personal and financial documents and their overall concerns over document storage. There was a sense of frustration and unease among many consumers over how they were storing traditional financial and other important paper documents. This storage was often happening physically in accordion folders, which people would gradually fill up with important documents over a period of time. The consumers mostly figured that by the time the folder got filled up, the documents that got filed first were probably old enough to get rid off, so they would dump that part of the folder and start to fill it again with new documents. We also found people who were storing a lot of their important documents in boxes. People were worried about how long they should hold onto some documents, and in how safe it was to hang onto or store paper documents in one location.


Was Wells Fargo able to spin a product off of these findings?

In response to those concerns we developed a program that allows customers to automatically store all of their Wells Fargo documents, and also upload other documents that aren't necessarily related to Wells Fargo - anything from wedding photos to a will or other personal papers. So it's not necessarily a traditional bank product that we placed on our site in response to our research into personal document storage habits, but it is a product that's important for a lot of our customers.


Has your research strategy yielded ideas about other areas in which customers need education?

We have developed [Web] initiatives that educate customers around security issues and privacy, for example. We have also run programs that provide information on how customers can keep computers safe from viruses.


Is Wells Fargo using social media as part of this educational effort?

The bank does some blogging, and we've done some other social media pilots. We have also introduced Stagecoach Island, which is an online interactive experience [that allows users to visit a virtual island online, connect with other users, earn virtual money and learn lessons about money management], We've also done some experimenting on Facebook and Twitter.


How is your research strategy being used to guide mobile banking?

The bank has spent and is actively spending time with customers to determine how they generally use various modalities, such as text messaging and other mobile devices. It's an attempt to identify what mobile devices and features customers are adopting and what format they are using and to make those findings a part of our mobile strategy, which is currently to leverage a mix of devices to match the mobile technology tastes of our customers.


What trends or tendencies in mobile modes have you discovered?

We found that text messaging functionality, for example, is more often used by customers with less advanced mobile phones. But iPhone and Blackberry users are doing much more advanced tasks. Eventually, we do think the mobile channel is going to be a major mode for all customers. The phones are getting more advanced and the prices are coming down.

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