Running counter to the usual pattern of technology adoption, small businesses appear to be reducing their use of the Internet for banking services.
Banks are contributing to this trend through their reluctance to market Internet services to small businesses and train these companies to use them. These findings come from two studies released in June. Barlow Research Associates Inc. of Minneapolis interviewed 4,700 small-business owners and discovered that fewer were using their primary bank's Web site to complete transactions or get information during the second quarter than had in the first.
And Informa Research Services of Calabasas, Calif., in a study done for the Consumer Bankers Association of Arlington, Va., found that Internet services for small businesses continue to be "vastly undersold" by banks.
In the second quarter, according to Barlow Research, 15% of small companies said they used their primary bank's Web site to complete transactions or gather information, down from 19% in the first quarter.
The problem: "a difference between what they expected and what they have experienced," said John Barlow, president and chief executive of the consulting firm. "That creates a sense of dissatisfaction."
For example, when a business owner writes a check on paper and puts it in the mail, the recipient will get it a few days later and deposit it, and some time after that the check will clear the company's bank account.
By contrast, if the same business owner uses online bill payment, the company's account may be debited immediately, though a check may not go out in the mail until several days later. And the bank may well charge the company a fee for this service.
"That has created some reluctance to use it, when you need some certainty that the person will get the money on time," Mr. Barlow said.
The potential certainly exists to expand small companies' use of online banking services. The Consumer Bankers Association study found use of the channel "rather anemic." The biggest impediment: "Businesses do not see the benefit in switching," the report said, and owners are content to continue doing their banking in person or over the phone.
Nor have banks gone out to seek more business from small companies. Eighty-three percent of "micromarket" companies (those with annual sales of less than $1 million) and 74% of small companies (with sales of up to $9.9 million) say they initiate contact with their bank when it comes time to talk about additional services.
The consumer banking trade group urged banks to demonstrate Web-based payment services, especially direct deposit of payroll, to every business customer. "The branch is probably the most effective place to demonstrate the bank's online payment capability, since customer education will probably need to be done in person," the report said.
But such staff training costs money, as does the Internet channel itself. And since the collapse of the dot-com bubble, many executives are under increased pressure to make money from the Web.
"Banks are looking at ways to recover their costs. These are expensive channels," Mr. Barlow said. And for all the talk about the Net offering a self-service alternative to expensive human contact, experience shows that as online banking activity increases, so do phone calls.
"It has transformed the call center into a help desk for Internet banking," with questions that may go well beyond the banks' own offerings, Mr. Barlow said.
Pricing strategies are still evolving, he said. Some possibilities include transaction-based pricing; charging for the products, rather than the channels used; or setting lower fees for use of the Internet channel. As for which model will prevail, Mr. Barlow said, it's too early to tell.