I have developed a pretty good understanding of what banking is all about through 31 years in the bank technology business, managing more than 300 client situations, digesting maybe thousands of articles from the trade journals, including this one, and creating published works on how to empower bank employees with meaningful technology.
But my 15 personal and business accounts at two large banks constantly remind me of what's wrong with banking.
In my attempt to perform some long-distance banking and expand an existing relationship, the largest U.S. bank and the eighth-largest responded with answers that I'm afraid are becoming far too popular.
All I could think of was how happy nonbanks, start-ups, and clear-thinking interlopers must be at the way the original owners of the banking business are not handling their own native business.
And before you get sidetracked with the expectation that I'm about to announce a download to a bank's computer that will solve all the problems, let me affirm that it is not a technology problem. And please leave the regulators out of it; they're not the problem either.
What banking needs today is a master architect with an open mind.
Banks have been laying bricks for years because the mason thought it was the right thing to do to keep his job. The bank architect (if he existed at all) was lobbying in Washington to seek protection for the weak or attending a convention to hear vendors promise the silver-bullet solution called the Internet.
But no one was at the drawing board designing a better way to serve the needs of legitimate customers. That architect should have been motivated by one major goal: how to say "yes" to the needs of good customers.
A better way to do banking starts with the push-back approach. Walk away from the problem so you get a clear and broader view and then ask the most powerful question: "What the heck are we doing here?" The problem with banking today is this answer: "We've always done it that way."
With a clean sheet of paper, an open mind, and the needs of customers as incentives, we can start over and design a system that really works. It doesn't mean flushing the old system down the drain. That's impractical and unrealistic.
The back rooms of the largest banks are driven by 35-year-old applications software technology, and yet that's not the problem. The problem is in the front room, where sales and customer service agents are using 70-year-old attitudes - developed by a compliance officer whose mind is locked into the year 1933 - that were reaffirmed in the late 1980s.
The architect of the new bank must start fresh with an attitude that says: "Yes. Now let's figure out a way to do it."
Think about I.M. Pei when he sets out to create a structure that will win awards. I don't believe his first task is to go to Italy to check out the supply of marble. Nor does he consult building codes to see whether his concept will pass the building inspector's bureaucratic maze.
In his case, genius is defined as design and functionality. Bankers don't need design genius. They just need functionality. They need to know what works for customers.
There are a lot of good technology solutions available today. The problem with them is they are catering to poor bank architecture.
The way to new banking is to start over in thought, not in products. You don't have to be a start-up, a direct bank, or a Nordstrom's. Old banks can do it if they just throw away the conventional restrictions.
What better proof do you need than the conceptual retreat by Internet banks that are now supporting the idea of old-fashioned branches or third-party storefronts. These new banks want to look like old banks, a little.
In an effort to preserve my own credibility as a worthy customer who was told "no" by No. 1 and No. 8, let me say that I wasn't trying to reinvent banking.
I had very good money sitting in a Dallas bank, but I needed to get it to a bank in Massachusetts. Sending a deposit in the mail costs me 15 days - 10 for the Massachusetts bank to receive, process, and post it, and five to determine whether the check is good. Now don't blame the Postal Service.
To solve the problem in this new global society, where banks are everywhere, I contacted a Dallas office of the Massachusetts bank and asked whether they could handle my deposit. After explaining why I wanted to do this transaction regularly, I thought I was going to have to explain that Massachusetts is one of the 13 original colonies and, yes, it is still part of the United States. But the last response I got was, "No, we cannot do that."
My other transaction was more complicated because I had to deal with a mortgage loan officer, a grueling task that probably has done more to help Internet mortgage lending than the low interest rates of recent years.
What seemed to work a few years ago when my Dallas bank did the original mortgage now ran into multiple hurdles as I requested an increase in the mortgage. Though I had gotten financially stronger since taking out the original loan, my bank also had gotten a lot stronger, but in asset size only.
When the mortgage officer said she couldn't handle anything other than a seven-state area, I asked how it was done before, since Massachusetts had not been any closer to Texas when I got the original loan. That's when I heard the killer response: "That was before the merger."
When two large banks merge to create the largest bank in the United States, does that mean the mind-set shrinks? Whatever happened to being global?
There's a lot of good technology available in the banking industry right now: software to perform any transaction, very reliable hardware, speedy and safe networks that can move data in real time, terminals that can capture data right at the source as the customer speaks, databases that not only store but also give back on demand, and really smart technicians whose middle name is implementer.
And then we have the ultimate solution, the Internet. But even the Internet needs a blueprint to tell it how to work. Unfortunately, most bankers, reluctant to try new things, are not creators of blueprints.
My message to bankers is simple. Redesign the front end of your bank with an architect who understands delivery, performance, and the pursuit of positive responses. Technology will take care of the back end.
My personal experiences ended happily, and I did not have to switch banks. I simply took over the relationships and made them work my way, with a little bit of help from senior management.
Mr. Gillis is a technology consultant in Dallas.