Recognizing that younger, mobile-savvy consumers have little patience for "800" numbers with long wait times and cheesy hold music, Orrstown Bank now lets customers communicate with it via text message.
While SMS text is a somewhat retro feature on cellular phones, it is a novel channel for bank customer service, and part of a recent trend of financial institutions making it easier to connect with service agents. Bank of America, for instance, has started letting consumers click within a mobile banking app to call the correct representative at the bank instead of requiring them to navigate the labyrinth of an interactive voice response system. Wells Fargo is working on a way to not only provide click-to-call, but send the customer service rep all the relevant background about the customer and her transaction as she's dialing in.
While some institutions send text messages to alert customers to possible fraud or to automatically reply to requests for information like account balances, correspondence with call-center bankers is usually done by email, live chat or social media.
"If I have a 1-800 number, why can't I text?" said Ben Wallace, executive vice president of operations and technology at the $1.2 billion-asset Orrstown. "Why limit?"
The Shippensburg, Pa. bank, which has been in the midst of an IT overhaul for many months, went live with a redesigned website Monday and introduced the text feature, which lets customers send photos along with questions. Bank agents can text them back.
Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director of mobile at Javelin Strategy & Research, said the texting feature will have to be treated much like social media: bankers will need to give prompt responses and move the conversation into other channels when the contacts involve sensitive information. SMS texting, after all, is far from the most secure way to communicate.
"So you have to be careful in what you say and may have to take the conversation into other more secure [portals] depending on what questions they ask," said Monahan.
"A lot will probably have to do with problems and issues they are facing in real time."
Orrstown said it has a disclosure in place that alerts customers that SMS is for only general service inquiries such as: "I'm having trouble logging into online banking. Can you call me to help resolve?" The bank said it will resolve account-related questions through traditional methods like phone calls.
As with live chat, Orrstown said it will store SMS messages in a secure database that is monitored by its information security and compliance teams.
An SMS text could particularly appeal to younger consumers: 18-to-24-year-olds are more likely to text than talk, said Monahan. And a 2014 survey found that overall text message open rates exceed 98%, which sure beats email or direct mail.
Whether bank customers will embrace texting remains to be seen, but Wallace anticipates several use cases, including a consumer wanting to know the branch hours or wanting the institution to call back about an account issue. Or the customer might attach a photo of a rival bank offer and ask Orrstown if it can do better (an idea the bank is calling "snap and match").
The bank is not marketing any particular use case for now. Rather, Wallace says the bank wants to learn from how its customers use the feature as it works to perfect the management of this new type of interaction.
Whatever question a customer sends, Orrstown said, it will send an immediate response like "thank you for submitting. We will get back to you" and then have its agents follow up with the customer during business hours.
Twilio, a private company in San Francisco that was founded in 2007 and is used by companies like Uber and Airbnb, is powering the text messaging feature. Shashi Korithiwada, Orrstown's digital technology director, oversees the texting program.
Orrstown uses Twilio's application program interfaces so the institution can send a message to Twilio, which will then send a message to the bank customer and vice versa.
Twilio also lets enterprises like banks use their existing 1-800 numbers for text service. Orrstown plans to let customers directly text its main 1-800 number in a few months. At rollout, however, it is generating a unique phone number for each conversation. That lets the institution have separate threads of conversations with customers and makes the back-end customer service easy, Wallace said. Consumers can submit their requests through the bank's website for a phone number to text.
Orrstown plans to take it slow, without heavily promoting the texting capability, as it studies how and whether customers use it.
"A small bank like us has the luxury to test and learn from customers," Wallace said.