A substantial percentage of customers now access account information via smart phones and handsets rather than PCs, even at home.

Looking to capitalize on this opportunity, banking industry leaders are making heavy investments in mobile initiatives, offering mobile versions of their Web sites as well as an array of mobile-friendly applications and services including bill pay, funds transfer, account checking, location-based services (for example, finding ATMs based on a phone's location), short messaging service alerts for low balances and reminders to pay bills.

By enabling greater customer control over accounts combined with exceptional convenience, banks have a huge opportunity to attract new customers; forge deeper, stronger relationships with existing ones; and reduce operational costs as more transactions are conducted outside of physical branches.

But before a bank launches its next iPhone application or mobile Web site, it needs to consider performance — or, the availability, speed and overall quality of the mobile Web experiences it provides to customers.

Poor Web performance — for example, unplanned outages or slow page loads, whether on a PC or a mobile device — is no longer acceptable to customers.

A recent study from Forrester Consulting found that customers will wait an average of two seconds (down from four seconds just three years ago) for a Web page to load before becoming frustrated and leaving the site.

And yet, according to my company's mobile Web benchmarks, the average response time over the past three months for the leading banks' mobile Web sites was 5.3 seconds, well past this two-second threshold. This is even more troublesome when one considers that the very nature of mobile devices — always within arm's reach, offering a fleeting chance to maximize productivity in a fast-paced world — serves to heighten customer demands for availability and speed.

While mobile Web users may be willing to sacrifice some functionality for the sake of "anytime, anywhere" mobile Web access, they draw the line where performance is concerned. A recent study we conducted found that two out of three mobile Web users have encountered problems when accessing Web sites on their mobile phones in the past 12 months, with slow load times their No. 1 performance issue.

The same study found that a majority of mobile Web users expect sites to load as quickly, almost as quickly or faster on their mobile phone, compared with their home or work computer. Clearly, this gap could have a wide range of negative consequences for banks, including defecting customers, missed relationship-building opportunities and damaged brand equity.

Banks looking to take full advantage of the mobile Web opportunity must deliver superior experiences that match customer expectations.

But that's not always so easy, given the increasing complexity of mobile Web sites, applications and services, and the large diversity of mobile devices and networks used by customers.

As in the traditional Web world, mobile Web sites and applications have grown increasingly complex as they mature, incorporating a variety of third-party services (for example, location-based services) delivered from outside the firewall. While third-party services along this Web application delivery chain can help deliver a richer, more satisfying online or mobile experience, they also present a liability, since poor performance anywhere in the chain can ultimately bring down performance for an entire Web application. And, regardless of where in the chain poor performance may originate, it will reflect poorly on the bank at hand.

For this reason, banks need to test and ensure performance of mobile sites and applications on an end-to-end basis, from behind the firewall all the way to the customer's device, as well as drill down to understand and optimize the performance of any and all third-party services making up their applications. On a related note, banks considering outsourcing their mobile Web infrastructures must bear in mind the need to test and measure performance to ensure contractual performance-based service-level agreements are being met.

But the key is to test the right way, and only by testing and measuring performance from the real-world customer perspective can banks achieve a true understanding of customers' experiences. There are many variables between a bank's data center and its customers that can weaken performance — including (but not limited to) third-party services, Internet service providers, content-delivery networks, carriers and devices.

In fact, in the mobile world, the sheer variety of device/carrier profiles that require testing (for example, a BlackBerry user on Verizon in Chicago; an iPhone user in Boston on AT&T) presents a potentially huge drag on resources.

However, these realistic perspectives are the key for banks to see which customers may be experiencing degraded performance, and take proactive steps to identify and resolve issues, ideally before critical customer segments are affected.

Customer expectations for superior mobile Web experiences are ramping up nearly as quickly as traffic itself, and any bank undertaking a mobile Web initiative must put performance management squarely at the top of its to-do list.

Furthermore, since in the eyes of customers there is only one Web (regardless of whether it is accessed via a PC or mobile device), banks need to emphasize mobile as part of an overarching Web performance-management strategy.

 

Stephen Pierzchala is a senior consultant at Gomez, the Web performance division of Compuware Corp., which provides software for optimizing Web and mobile applications. 

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