Peering Into The Future

Online banking carries with it the same question that accompanies every aspect of human activity moving online: Is it simply a more convenient way to do what we’ve always done, or is something new, particularly in the sense that we can do more, and therefore will do more?

There’s obviously no simple answer to this—the very act implies a level of customization that rules out any all-purpose conclusion. But if we still don’t know everything, what we do know now that we didn’t know even a couple of years ago?

A recent report from Javelin Strategy & Research has some answers, and they’re not particularly pleasant. Here’s the gist: Too many financial institutions still view online banking as the completion of a circle—consumers and (and maybe businesses as well conducting transactions, only doing it faster and more easily than by going to the bank. Javelin emphasizes that this “approach to online banking and bill pay has reached saturation because it is outmoded and unappealing in an era of customer-controlled interactive finance.” And that’s not all. Instead of new, technology-driven offerings drawing more business, Javelin theorizes, it might be even be a handicap: “The banking industry’s stale approach to online banking and bill pay leaves FIs particularly vulnerable to losing the 11% of consumers who are likely to switch primary FIs this year.”

The fundamental problem is the role of the bank in the equation—is it now simply a facilitator, the same way a basic piece of technology might be, or does it have more to offer?

Looking back, it’s easy to see that this is a transformation that’s been a long time coming. The availability of personal finance software two decades ago signaled a major shift in consumer behavior; the ability to collate huge amounts of information with ease and speed enabled a level of unprecedented control over money matters. The rise of online trading was another milestone—the boom years of the dot-com era surely had a lot to do with the voluminous buying and selling of the late ’90s, but instant access to business data was also responsible for much of it. Even the simple act of online bill paying was, in its own way, revolutionary.

In this context, it’s easy to understand that in the grand scheme of things, online banking in general and mobile banking in particular are still in their infancy. But in a few years (there’s a reason this blog is called Banking2020), everything we do now will seem antiquated. That still leaves the question of the banking industry’s role in this evolution.

For example, think of how consumers prefer to pay their bills. While FIs in general have a share of this market, they could surely get more. However, research shows that many consumers still indicate a preference for bill-paying services rather than their primary financial institution. What can the FIs do to bring the back the business that many think is rightfully theirs?

This may be a small issue, but it offers a perspective on a larger one. Throughout its history, the banking industry has thrived on certain core advantages—trust and credibility built over years of operation, the convenience afforded by a real-world presence and easy access, the stability that comes from size and government-backed insurance. But as with so many industries, the past couple of decades have brought about more changes than the dozen decades that came before. In the era of mobile banking, these advantages are still there, but they don’t mean as much as they used to.

The Javelin report urges FIs to “raise their aspirations beyond being an efficient pipeline for paying bills to instead become a place where customers gain control, oversight and insight into their bills, spending, cash flow and overall finances.” That said, there’s no magic bullet here—every institution will have to figure for itself what this change entails.

To be sure, this will require a fundamental transformation in everything from business philosophy to operating practices. Those that resist the change have a problem. However, those that take on the challenge early, and manage the change well, will not only survive but thrive.

Written by Staff