What to Do Now Regarding Self-Service and Customer Service

Customer service is one of those topics that engender passionate calls to action at staff meetings, but little follow-through. Why? Because it’s tedious work, difficult to measure, and expensive. Yankee Group estimates the total cost of a $200,000 Web-based self-service application is $1.3 million over five years, including IT support, knowledge-based maintenance, user training, and so on (see Table 30, below).

However, if you expect to profit from your online services, you must pay attention to the subject. Following are several tables to help you prioritize your investments. Table x lists the high-level priorities. Table y lists 10 ways to get the biggest bang for your buck today. Finally, we list more than 50 techniques for delivering service beyond customer expectations, while deflecting calls from your call center and branches.

Online Service Rules

# 1: Anticipate questions and tripping points;
remove the ambiguity in the product-design phase

# 2: Email users frequently with confirmations and alerts, especially for new accounts in process

# 3: Imbed pop-up Help bubbles for every conceivable question, especially in product applications

# 4: Make sure customer service owns the FAQs,
including the authority/ability to change them on the fly

# 5: Provide prominent Search capabilities;
manage the results to insure relevancy

# 6: Most people still want to want to interact with a live human; put a face on your e-service, and don’t hide phone numbers

Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04



Table 30
Total Cost of Ownership

stand-alone Web self-service solution


Source: Yankee Group, 8/02, from Online Selling & eCRM




Table 31

Strategic E-Service Priorities


Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04

Table 32

Ten Low-Cost E-Service Improvements

1.       Autoresponse email to Web-based inquiries

2.       Help button on every page, especially at login

3.       Expanded FAQs, possibly with college intern support

4.       Links to FAQs in email responses

5.       FAQs written in user-friendly language

6.       Published email service standards

7.       Opt-in for email communications when submitting Web-based inquiries

8.       Templates for email responses

9.       E-reps rewarded for improving online FAQs

10.    On-hold message referring users to easy to remember URL for Web-based inquiry,
e.g., <www.yourbankservice.com>, or use your toll-free number as the URL <www.1-800-555-BANK>

Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04





Table 33


Techniques for Deflecting Service Calls/Visits



Source: Online Banking Report, 4/04



Table 34


Basic E-Service Implementation Checklist

  •        Contact Us link in the upper-right corner of every Web page
  •        Ensure that common search terms entered in your site-search feature result in highly relevant answers and links
  •       Separate FAQs for customers and non-customers
  •        FAQs edited by a professional copy writer for grammar and tone; reviewed by customers for clarity
  •        Web-based inquiry form includes: name, email address, retype email address, customer/noncustomer, subject (choose from drop-down list), and opt-in for future email communications
  •       Inquiry form includes graphical security assurances and link to privacy and security policie
  •        Direct customer service email addresses; for example, service@yourbank.com, info@yourbank.com
  •        Identifiable service area with its own intuitive URL; for example, <service.yourbank.com>, <vip.yourbank.com>, <www.yourbank.com/service>, <1800yourcallcenter.com>
  •        Service department Web and email addresses in company literature and advertising
  •        Autoresponses for Web-based queries, includes thank-you and estimated response time
  •        Email response templates for the most common questions
  •        Procedures for handling undeliverable emails
  •        Secure password-reset procedure and monitoring program
  •        Security/privacy guidelines for handling confidential information emailed by user
  •        Fraud-detection algorithms and procedures for email requests, e.g., password resets, change of address
  •        Procedures to escalate customer problems
  •        Guidelines for distributing email questions to the appropriate departments
  •        Tracking and follow-up mechanisms to ensure all emails are answered in a timely fashion
  •        Performance metrics and methods to capture the data, e.g., response times; percent resolved within 24/48/72 hours; customer satisfaction with response
  •        Service standards communicated internally and externally
  •        Process for maintaining and improving internal and external knowledge base and FAQs
  •        Guidelines and approval procedures for editing approved email response templates
  •        Email training program for e-reps, branch staff, and other customer-contact personnel

Source: Online Banking Report, 4/04

Responsive Service Techniques – Email Support is the Key

Techniques: Email, Web inquiry, chat, instant
messaging, call back, co-browsing


Web self-service may be the key to cutting servicing costs online, but
email support is the key to retaining customers. Responsive support (chat,
email, and telephone) is preferred by about 70% of online banking users
according to Vividence . Concerned, distraught, or impatient customers
aren’t about to wade through FAQs looking for answers. They want immediate
assurances that their concerns are valid and will be addressed. Typically
that’s required a telephone call, but more and more users are turning to
chat and email options. What’s holding back email today is poor service. In
a recent Forrester survey, only 25% of respondents expressed satisfaction
with email service, a satisfaction rate barely one-third that for
traditional branch and phone channel.

Once financial institutions provide a user experience on par with
telephone and branch, email will dominate as the primary medium for service.
Fifteen years from now, telephone and branch service support will be distant
memories. The vast majority of users will fire off an email, instant
message, or Web inquiry without even considering any other option. There is
absolutely no question that electronic channels will eventually dominate,
providing many advantages for both consumers and financial institutions.



Web-inquiry Form

The design of the form used for customer inquiries
can impact the timeliness, effectiveness, and cost of your online support.
Make sure you’re not missing an opportunity to make future solicitations to
online customers with an opt-in question. You should also consider tagging
customers with cookies so you can better track future Web activity. Table
21, below, provides more details on form design.


Email Deflection

Not only can you deflect phone calls from your
call center and branches by the way of a Web-based inquiry form. You can use
the same form to actually deflect email messages as well. The key is having
the ability to parse likely search terms out of free-form text inquiries. In
the example below, Cloudmark, a provider of consumer spam filters,
applies search algorithms to the free-form question, “Is there a way to make
Cloudmark catch more spam?” (screen 1, below). Rather than sending
the query directly to customer service, the company first provides possible
answers to the question (screen 2, below). Users who still want to
ask the company the question can complete the longer Request for Help form
 According iPhrase, which supplied the search solution, Cloudmark has
been able to reduce email volume dramatically.  

Responding to emails or Web inquiries should follow a three-step process as
outlined in Table 22 below:

Table 22

Making Email Responses More User-Friendly

Phase 1: Immediate Autoresponse

  •          Include bank name in subject field and from
  •          Thank customer for using e-service and explain the process
    and typical response time
  •          Provide response-time estimates based on averages for that
    time of day and/or day of the week/month;
    extra credit: provide custom response-time estimates based on current
    email queue
  •          Include links to appropriate FAQ sections
  •          Reference telephone numbers for immediate support

Phase 2: Actual Answer

  •          Use good formatting:
    – indent
    – physically separate ideas
    – white space
    – bullet points, lists, tables
  •          Keep paragraphs and sentences short
  •          Include “time received” and “time answered” date stamps
  •          Include service rep name/email address for more personal
    feeling and to encourage customer to engage in a conversation until
    their question has been answered to their satisfaction
  •          Include bank name in subject field and from
  •          Provide tracking number for the customer inquiries
  •          If responses go to a secure mailbox within the online
    banking program, send an additional email to the user’s Internet
    mailbox(es) telling them that an answer is waiting (with a link to it)
  •          Archive customer questions and your answers so users can
    refer to them later
  •          Include intuitive URL and/or email address for customer
    comments and feedback, such as <comments.yourbank.com>, or
  •          Don’t forget to say, “Thanks for using our e-service.”
  •          Add a telephone number for additional discussion

Phase 3: Follow-up

  •          Follow-up with the customer at least once to ascertain
    their satisfaction with the answer and whether they have additional
  •          Include a two- or three-question customer-satisfaction
    survey to quantify the work done by your e-service department as a
    whole, and each e-service rep as individuals
  •          The simplest approach is to have the followup message
    originate from the service rep who handled the original message; an
    alternative approach is to have the followup come from a supervisor or
    “quality assurance rep;” you may want to test both approaches to see
    which works best
  •          Encourage comments and feedback, either by responding to
    this message or entering comments anonymously at <comments.yourbank.com>
  •          Telephone number for additional discussion or to make

Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04


The Importance of Response Times

Even though most online transaction times are measured in seconds, users
will still become frustrated if your system is slower than what they are
accustomed to. Search engines, the most widely used Web application, set the
expectations early on. Even as early as 1995 and 1996, search engines were
able to cull through millions of pages of data and deliver results in less
than 20 seconds. With the faster connections used today, search times have
shrunk even more. Banking information, secured behind various log-in
schemes, can take three to four times longer to access, but unless you
forget your password, retrieval times are still under a minute, an
acceptable information-retrieval wait period for most Web users.

Table 23

Acceptable Wait Times for eService

acceptable wait time in hours for an online
retailer’s customer service department to respond to an email or website
inquiry; survey conducted during holiday shopping season, n = 1019


% of Total

% of Those with Answer

Top 10 Bank Results

4 hours or less




    1 hour




    2 hours




    3 hours



    4 hours



5 to 24 hours




    5 to 10 hours




    11 to 23 hours



    24 hours




More than 24 hours



Don’t know (no answer)



Sources: Harris Interactive, 11/03 (as cited by eMarketer); research
commission by RightNow Technologies; telephone survey fielded Oct. 2003,
respondents included 1019 U.S. adults age 18+ (511 men and 508 women)

Top-10 Banks: Online Banking Report tests 4/04

Acceptable wait times for human help online are quite different. Web users
have been relatively tolerant of slow responses to email queries, likely
because they use Web-based inquiries for less urgent questions. However,
users are beginning to become more demanding. A recent Harris Interactive
survey (see Table 23, right) found that more than one-third
(36%) of Web users expected a response from customer service within two
hours. If you remove the 15% who said “didn’t know,” the number is close to
half (42%).  

In our April 2004 test of the top-10 banks, only two returned an answer
within three hours. Washington Mutual, head and shoulders above the
rest, answered the question within four minutes, Fleet was second at
41 minutes. We received some response from all ten banks, although only
seven answered the question. The three non-answers: Wells Fargo
referred us to their call center; Citibank, apparently playing
Jeopardy provided an answer and made us guess what the question was, because
it clearly wasn’t the one we asked; and Wachovia sent an autoresponse
confirming receipt of the question, but we never got an answer. Most
surprisingly, not a single bank has followed up to see if we needed
additional assistance or perhaps wanted to apply for the account we inquired

Overall, the banks have made great strides in the 4.5 years since our
last test. In 1999, the fastest response time was US Bank at 11 hours
(3.4 hours in 2004); this year the fastest response was Washington Mutual at
4 minutes, quite an improvement over its 19 days in 1999, where its
response was a snail-mailed packet.

In our most recent test, five (50%) returned an answer within 8 hours,
none did in 1999. This year, six (60%) beat the 24-hour threshold, only two
(20%) did so in 1999. Also, the quality of response was much better on
average. In 1999, only two banks emailed us an answer (three if you count
BankBoston), the rest either referred us to other departments or sent a
brochure in the mail. This year, six responded with answers, and only one
(Wells Fargo) tried to pawn us off on the phone center.

One area that needs improvement, identifying the bank name in the message
from and subject lines. Only five of the ten banks identified
themselves in the message header, the remainder used generic subject and
from lines making the messages look suspiciously spam-like.


Table 24

Large Bank Email Response Times


Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04 (questions submitted April 9, Good
Friday and Easter weekend)
and 10/99 (questions submitted Oct. 8-11, Columbus Day holiday weekend)

The question asked of each bank varied in the two tests:
In 2004: “Do you have a checking account that includes unlimited no-fee
transfers from an overdraft line of credit?“
In 1999: “I am relocating to [your city] soon and would like checking
information including pricing.”
*Time shown is elapsed time until an actual response was received, not
including autoresponses;
in both years, 3 of the 10 banks sent an autoresponse

**after 10 days

Table 25

Top-10 Banks: 2004 vs. 1999 Performance


Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04 and 11/99

Notes: (1) BankBoston answered the question in 22.5 hours; (2) Did not
answer question, referred to other sources of info

(3) No response from First Union

Source: Online Banking Report test conducted between 11 am and 1 pm
Pacific Daylight Time, on Friday April 9 (Good Friday);

Question: “Do you have a checking account that includes unlimited no-fee
transfers from an overdraft line of credit?

Columns: Home Location = location of Contact Us link;
Clicks Away = number of clicks to the inquiry form, starting from the
homepage; Complete Time = time to find and complete the
inquiry form, starting from the homepage; Popup = is the inquiry form
displayed in a popup window; Verify Email = is the user required to
enter their email address twice; Confirm = is user given a final look
at their info and question before submitting; Opt-in = is the user
given the option to opt in or out of future email marketing/service
messages; Required Fields = the fields that must be completed in
order to submit a question; Auto time = how long after we pressed
submit did it take to receive an autoresponse from the financial institution
(blank means no autoresponse received); Time to Answer = how long after
pressing submit before receiving an answer to the question; Quality of
= our subjective evaluation of the answer including tone,
content, layout, and next steps

Legend: E = Email, N = Name, A = mailing address, T = Type of question,
Su = Subject of question, St = state of residence,
Z = zip code, A = complete mailing address; Customer = Customer or
non-customer, How = How did you find us?

Notes: (1) Wells Fargo’s contact page was very slow to download,
increasing the time by 30 seconds

(2) An extra click on one of the screens required to scroll down to the
desired area (only 3 screens to go through)

(3) Washington Mutual does not have a Contact Us link on its home
page; however if you click Search, you’ll see a Contact Us button in
the upper right hand corner

(4) Fleet does not have a Contact Us link on its home page;
however if you click Personal Financial Services, there is a Customer
Service tab on the far right, but still no Contact Us link

(5) Did not specify which fields were required

(6) Subjective evaluation of answer: A = accurate response and what to do
next; B = reasonably accurate response;
C = vague or incomplete answer; D = misleading answer; F = no answer or
wrong answer

(7) Wells Fargo made no attempt to answer the question, just referred
user to someone in the call center

(8) Citibank’s response 7 days later made almost no sense, having nothing
to do with my question; at first I thought it was a bad
phishing attempt; either it was automation gone awry, a service rep having a
very bad day, or I got an answer meant for someone else


Table 27

Example Service Standards


Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04


Example #1: Generic Normal Autoresponse

To:          Customer

From:     Yourbank Ebanking <service@yourbank.com>

Re:          Your question to Yourbank

Thanks for using our online service department.

This is an automatic message to tell you that we received your message at
10:12 AM Sept. 29 and have forwarded it to the proper department for a priority

Most questions are answered within a few hours, but it could take up to 24
hours in certain instances.


Ebanking Customer Support

(800) 123-4567




Example #2: Personalized VIP Autoresponse

To:          Customer

From:     Pat P. Smythe <pat_smythe@vipservice.yourbank.com>

Re:          Your question to Yourbank

Thanks for using online VIP service.

This is an automatic message to tell you that I received your message at
10:12 AM and we are currently working on a response. Within an hour you will
receive a either a complete answer or a preliminary response (depending on the
complexity of the request).

Please email or call if you have further questions. Regards,

Pat Smythe, VP – VIP Service

Phone Direct: (415) 555-1234          Toll-free (888) 555-9876


P.S. If for any reason you are not satisfied with my response, please feel
free to contact
Kim Bradford, VP & Manager VIP Service, (415) 555-6789, or kim.bradford@yourbank.com.




Example #3: Referral to Web-based form

To: Yourcustomer <yourcustomer@isp.com>

From: E-Service <eservice@yourbank.com>

Re: Your Question to Yourbank

Dear Customer:

Thanks for your email question received a few minutes ago. This is an
automatic response to let you know that we appreciate your interest in
yourbank.com. However, due to the volume of junk mail and spam coming to our
public mailboxes, we can only respond in a timely manner to questions submitted
via our Web-based form. Click here to go directly to that form (if you can’t
click on it, then type this address into your browser):


Or if you prefer, customer service specialists are currently awaiting your
call at 1-800-yourbank. Generally, wait times are less than two minutes except
during the peak hours of 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM.

Thanks again for your interest in yourbank.com. Based on current volume, we
should be able to respond to your question within 24 hours. Thanks for your

Yourbank.com E-Service

(800) 123-4567



Putting a Face on E-Service

We are not enamored with the idea of video conferencing for customer
service. Even with ubiquitous broadband, we’re not sure users really want to
look at the customer service rep as he or she works through a problem (and
we are certain users don’t want anyone looking at them). There may be some
big-ticket sales situations, such as mortgage applications or other
large-dollar investments, where user confidence is increased by seeing the

However, we do think there is a place for static personal information
such as name*, direct email address, and individual Web area where e-reps
can put a human touch on e-service and build rapport with his or her client


*For privacy reasons, reps may want to use pseudonyms, an acceptable
practice online.

Ten Self-Service Lessons From Online Retailers

Because online customer service is required for
survival, ecommerce companies often have the most highly evolved
self-service facilities.


Drive users through self-diagnosis

To maintain high customer satisfaction without driving servicing
costs through the roof, online retailers and consumer service companies
attempt to answer basic questions through a Web-based self-diagnosis.
Only after the user has finished the diagnosis is the option given to
submit questions via webform. Even then, a newer technique called email
deflection uses automated logic to attempt to answer the user’s
free-form text question, before it’s submitted to a human. Cloudmark,
an email filter provider, uses email deflection powered by iPhrase

Financial institutions should use this approach, especially in the
tech support area. But take it slowly, walking before you try to run.
Most customers still prefer the telephone for service problems, so they
may resent your attempts to at call deflection. Most have spent
years dealing with frustrating live-service-rep deflection on
automated telephone systems, so it won’t initially be viewed as a
positive. You need to position the webform as a quick solution for
common problems. Even customers that prefer telephone-based service
appreciate an answer in seconds rather than the minutes required via

What you don’t want to do is force the customer to spend minutes
searching for an answer online, then minutes slogging through your call
center menus and the subsequent wait for someone to help. Make sure that
customers who have tried self-service first are given priority when they
then email or call with their question. You could use special phone
numbers or menu options to identify those that have already exhausted
self-service options.


Reward self-service

Users who primarily solve their own problems know they are saving you
an enormous amount of money. An unexpected reward could be a powerful
tool cement online relationships (the opposite of the old adage
the squeaky wheel gets the grease.). Try to make customers see
what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic channels. One
approach that’s good for you and the customer is to reward self-service
attempts by not requiring account numbers and other information to be
reentered when escalating the question to human service. Data from the
user’s self-service session could be made available to the human rep to
speed up the process. Not only would this make the customer feel better
about the current problem, it would encourage them to use self-service
options for future problems. You have to wean customers off the phone
one problem at a time over the course of many years.

Financial incentives and sweepstakes are another way to reward self
service. Make a game out of it. Provide one sweepstakes entry every time
a customer goes for a month without contacting customer service, or one
entry for every FAQ page viewed, and so on. You could give away one
prize per month, perhaps donated by local merchants for the advertising
benefit. The total annual sweepstakes expense would be the equivalent of
just a few weeks of a single call center employee’s salary. 



Provide incentives for registering

Few banks allow non-online banking users to register with the site.
But this limits your ability to track customer visits from the 50% or
more of your online users that have yet to sign up for online banking.
Once users register, you can use cookies to track their usage over time,
thereby improving your ability to service and sell to them more
effectively. During registration you would capture name, email address,
account ownership at your bank, and opt-in for future email messages.  

You could boost registration rates with a sweepstakes or other
benefit. Registered users could receive one sweepstakes entry every time
they visit the site. For customers, you could provide an additional
entry for every product they have with you. The cost of the giveaways
can be kept small. For example, a portable DVD player once per month or
once per quarter would likely suffice for a small or medium financial
institution. The total cost would only be a couple thousand dollars per


Categorize questions

To provide quick email responses, it’s important to have users
categorize their questions before they land in your e-rep’s in-box. At
minimum, users need to identify whether they are a current customer and
which product they are asking about.

Mock-up of webform for customer service inquiries.

1.       Do you have an account at yourbank?
___ Yes    ___ No    ___ Don’t know

2.       What product does your question concern?
___ Checking
___ Savings, money market, CDs
___ IRAs/SEPs
___ Stocks, mutual funds, or investments
___ Credit card
___ Debit card or ATM transaction
___ Mortgage
___ Home equity loan or credit line
___ Other

3.       Does your question involve:
___ Solving a problem with an existing account
___ Opening a new account
___ General information
___ Other






Provide multiple channels for communication

Customers still prefer to resolve questions with a human. So make sure
your customers don’t feel forced into electronic channels. Again, try to
make customers see what’s in it for them to use self-service and electronic
channels, without hiding your other customer service channels. Let your
profitable customers contact you in any way they see fit. If you provide
e-service on par, or better, than call center or branch service, customers
will gradually migrate to the most efficient channel. The reason customers
prefer calling the bank today isn’t because they enjoy reacquainting
themselves with your phone tree and on-hold music selection. They continue
to call because they believe that is the most effective method to resolve
their problem. Once you demonstrate your e-channels to be equally effective,
customers will respond accordingly.

It’s a different story for your unprofitable customers. By all means,
drive them gently into lower cost delivery channels. Just make sure you
don’t create adverse publicity by “forcing” grandma to use email to inquire
about her CD rollover.


Provide proactive communications

You can head off many customer service calls by providing timely email
account alerts and transaction confirmations. Imagine how much Friday
afternoon volume could be displaced if every direct deposit customer
received an email when their paycheck hit their account. Charter One Bank
uses its call center to sign up customers for its alert service. Whenever a
call comes in that could have been handled by an automatic alert, the
customer is given the option to sign up for future alerts. Because Charter
offers phone and fax options the customer needn’t even be online to use
Charter’s system. A significant amount of the bank’s initial alert signups
were obtained in this manner. The alert tool also helps drive users into
online banking. Once account alerts begin arriving, online banking is a
natural progression.


Provide email response times on par with call centers

The last time we tested email response times, the typical reply, if there
was one, took several days. Today, response times are much improved, with
half the sample answering the same day. But enormous room for improvement
still exists. Before e-service can really take off, users must be treated on
par with call-center users. If you answer email questions in 24 hours and
telephone calls in two minutes, customers will continue to pick up the

Within the next year or two, we believe banks will typically answer
routine questions in less than an hour. That will be good enough to deflect
many calls. In our recent test, two top-10 banks beat the 60-minute
standard,* Washington Mutual with an amazing four minute response time and
Fleet with a respectable 46 minutes. With a network of “on call” e-reps to
handle peak loads, email support can eventually be faster than the phone,
without any increase in expense. 

*The 60-minute response time doesn’t have to happen over night. You
could start with “same-day responses for questions received before 2:00
PM,” and improve from there.


Cross-sell during service opportunities

Every customer interaction is a potential selling opportunity: overdraft
credit lines when checks bounce, online banking when statements are lost;
transaction alerts when customers call about a specific check. For best
results, emphasize the immediate benefit. For example, “Sure, we can waive
that NSF fee, and as long as you take a moment to request an overdraft line
of credit so that it doesn’t happen again.”


Charge for premium support

Some customers demand the best of everything and are willing to pay for
it. Take advantage of this sentiment by offering a premium bundle of online
services and support. For example, the Platinum E-Account with
unlimited bill payment, VIP support line with guaranteed 15-minute response,
and 100% no-questions-asked fraud protection. Most software companies now
offer fee-based support options that allow customers to select their desired
level of service support.

For $40/yr, Dell buyers can upgrade to Express Tech Support
which allows users to “jump to the front of the line” when placing tech support


Humanize the service experience

One of the main reasons customers prefer branch and telephone service
support is the desire to deal with a human accountable for satisfying the
customer. To recruit users to e-service, you need to provide similar human
accountability for electronic service.

High-value customers could be assigned one or more permanent human
points of contact within the e-service center. Each service inquiry would
automatically be routed to the designated human(s) whenever possible.
Alternate routing sequences would be established for off-hours, holidays,
and vacations. Alternatively, the human rep could be copies on all service
inquiries and could chime in with additional comments or help.

The human point of contact would proactively serve the user, periodically
reaching out to see if the customer had questions. Furthermore, the point of
contact would keep detailed records of prior service contacts so the customer
did not have to reiterate previously communicated information about a problem.

Self-Service Support Techniques

Techniques: search, FAQs, help centers, tutorials, wizards, forums,
product selectors

The importance of Web self-service is growing
rapidly as financial institutions deploy ever more user-friendly and helpful
tools. In the last six months alone, online users interviewed by
have shown an almost 50% increase in their preference for
self-service options. Self-service now is the most popular choice among
financial website users, edging out telephone, live chat, and email/online
forms (see Table 13, below). Web self-service at financial
institutions still trails that deployed by online retailers and tech
companies, but those companies have fewer support options. However, we are
beginning to see impressive programs at banking sites, for example,
an early innovator in search tapping Ask Jeeves
for natural-language search years ago. The bank also implemented
graphical-FAQ approach in early.

Table 15

Site Search Usage for Banking Product

% of using site search feature

Age Range Usage









Approximate average*


Source: Forrester, 3/04,
Percent of each age group using site search the last time they
researched a banking product
*average across all ages not listed, OBR est.



Although search has been the recognized killer app of the
Web since the early days, financial institutions have generally done a poor
job supporting search on their websites, although it’s improved dramatically
during the last year or two. Although there are still two top-20 banks not
offering search, that’s down from 5 last fall. Now that Google has achieved
verb status, you must pay attention to site-search. Recent Forrester
research shows that in the key 29- to 57–year-old segment, half used
site-search the last time they researched a banking product (Table 15). See Table 17 opposite for ideas on how to improve your site

Searching is still hit and miss even at the most
sophisticated banks. We recently searched the top-20 U.S. banks for
“SEP-IRA,” a common savings plan for small business and self-employed
individuals. We found correct results at just eight, or 40% of the total (see
summary Table 16, below
). Searches at Citibank, Chase,
, Bank One, and Washington Mutual all failed. The
best results were from SunTrust (screenshot below), the only
top-20 bank using Ask Jeeves natural language search.

Depending on the question, iPhrase powered search at TD Waterhouse
delivers a link to a product area or an answer in a FAQ.


Table 18

Detail: Financial Institution Search Results

search for “sep-ira””

Source: Online Banking Report test, 4/7/03, 1 to 3 PM
Pacific time on broadband connection

(1) Location of the box for entering the search text, e.g.,
upper right means the box was positioned in the upper-right portion of the
home page, ‘click Search” means you have to click on a search link before
you get to the search box

(2) Did the search results return a link to product
information on SEP-IRAs, a retirement savings product geared to U.S. small
business owners, a topic of great interest in anticipation of the April 15
U.S. federal income tax deadline

(3) Excluding those with zero and Wachovia’s 1109

(4) Only six of 20 banks came back with an immediate good
result, the other 2 required a research within a different area; in total
just 8 of 20 banks were able to help me find SEP-IRA info


FAQs (frequently asked questions)

Table 19

Site Reference Material Used for Banking Product Research

% of using site feature

Age Range Usage









Approximate average*


Source: Forrester, 3/04,
Percent of each age group using product description or educational material
pages the last time they researched a banking product
*average across all ages not listed, OBR est.

After search, the next most common method to research bank products is to
consult site reference material such as product descriptions, educational
material, and FAQs, which are especially important in self-service. As a
standard Web convention, users are accustomed to turning to the frequently
asked questions
to get basic questions answered. More and more the FAQs
provide interactive, detailed, and authoritative support.  

Although many online retailers and Web-services companies force
users through the FAQ before displaying customer service phone numbers, that’s
not a recommended practice for most banks. At least not until you are absolutely
sure your FAQs deliver exceptionally reliable answers. Most customers still
expect good telephone support as part of a banking relationship.

FAQ sections have evolved from a bare-bones text-based area to
interactive knowledge bases stocked with graphical solutions and step-by-step
tutorials. Too see how FAQs should be built, look closely at SunTrust’s
HelpCenter, powered by SafeHarbor (see screenshot below).
Even complex technical answers are easy to understand due to the layout,
screenshot visual aids, and good copy writing.                       

HelpCenter excels at tech support, providing graphical instructions in place
of tedious text-based answers. Here are great instructions for how to enable
cookies in IE 6. Notice how few words are used in the instructions. Screenshots
handle most of the work.

Note: Related articles are posted to the right of the main tutorial.

Note: Feedback is solicited on each page to help SafeHarbor evaluate the
usefulness of its answers to each question. 

The Many Faces of E-Service – More than Just Email




Preemptive Bank solves or identifies potential
problems BEFORE user raises the issue or is even aware of the
Alerts, instant messages, text
messaging, voice messaging, pushed account information, satisfaction
Self-service Users solve their own problems online FAQs, tutorials, calculators,
troubleshooting modules, imbedded help, search, image & statement
Responsive Bank responds to questions online Email, Web inquiry, chat, instant
messaging, call back, co-browsing

Source: Online Banking Report 4/04; partially adapted from a Mar. 31,
2004 presentation by Forrester’s, Catherine Graeber


Most people think of email when discussing electronic service. But email
is just one part, albeit an important one, when designing a comprehensive
e-service program. Electronic service consists of three distinct classes of

  •   Preemptive or proactive support: Services that provide
    warnings before problems arise. In the branch environment, it used to be the
    courtesy call when an overdraft situation was first detected. Online it’s
    the triggered account alert telling users their balance has fallen below a
    preset limit or an email confirmation when a deposit is made. These services
    are fantastic for customer satisfaction, although they could have a
    short-term negative impact on fee income.
  •   Self-service or self-guided support: Self-service options are
    growing in acceptance as users begin to understand that high-quality
    Web-based support can deliver accurate answers in a fraction of the time it
    takes to walk through the problem on the telephone with one or more customer
    service reps. While financial institutions can deploy self-service options
    relatively inexpensively, resist the temptation to cut development costs to
    the bone. Bad self-service support can do more harm than good; driving users
    to the phone already in an agitated state after wasting time trying to find
    the answer online.
  •   Responsive or reactive support: This category is most like
    traditional phone support. In theory, questions received electronically
    (email, Web form, or text-based chat) can be handled more economically with
    tools that provide preformatted answer templates for common queries. In
    practice, there is a substantial learning curve before cost savings
    materialize. However, many banks are beginning to see measurable call
    deflection among their online user base. A major credit card issuer told us
    that their online cardholders were making 30% fewer telephone calls, a
    dramatic cost savings. However, users may not be satisfied with e-service
    efforts which will slow adoption. For example, only 25% of users are
    satisfied using email for problem resolution compared to 69% satisfaction
    for the phone and 76% for face-to-face branch interactions

The Forecast: for Financial E-service Households in 2004 to 2013

For 2004, we project growth of 5 million new U.S. financial e-service
households, about 15% fewer newcomers compared to the 6 million added in
2003. Also, the rate of growth will slow to 18% from 2003’s 27%. Because 10
million households use electronic customer service but don’t bank online,
it’s important to capture the email addresses of these users so you can
communicate with them electronically. Only one top-10 U.S. bank currently
allows users to opt-in for email communications even when the user is
already providing their email address in the course of making a web-based


State of Financial E-Service: 2003

Looking at the research, one is tempted to conclude that e-service is
less important than traditional phone and branch service. Customers are
relatively satisfied with their phone and face-to-face experiences at
financial institutions. According to Forrester, the traditional channels
enjoy an average satisfaction rate of 80%, nearly four times the rate of
e-service options which were in the low-20% range. Only the much-maligned
IVR (automated phone) service was lower at 12% (see Table 6, below).
More recent research shows that the Web is gaining ground in all areas
except problem resolution, where only 25% of respondents are satisfied with
the service received (see Table 7, below).

However, even though satisfaction trails other methods, online users
overwhelmingly prefer electronic channels when dealing with their bank. In
research released just this month, Vividence, a customer-satisfaction
research company, found that three times as many users prefer electronic
channels for service compared to the telephone. Jupiter Research also found
similar results in actual behavior at online retailers. It found that during
2002 year-end holiday period that three-quarters of respondents used email and
Web-based options in their initial attempt to contact an online retailer for
service (see column 1, Table 8, opposite).

Financial institutions should be enthusiastic about these consumer
preferences, given the potential cost savings. According to Gartner, email
service can save $2 per interaction compared to the telephone. Furthermore,
Web-based self service can drive costs down more than 80%, to less than $1 per
interaction (see last column, Table 8, opposite). As always, take these
research results with a grain of salt. It’s early in the learning curve for both
providers and users. Weaning users off high-cost delivery channels will be a
long-term process using both carrots and sticks.



The Importance of E-Service

Since 1995, e-service has been an important component of online banking
satisfaction. However, many financial institutions chose to defer major
investment in service capabilities on the theory that users were not
demanding it.

While that may have been true three or four years ago, it’s not the
current reality. Today, mediocre service puts you at risk of losing
sales, cost saving opportunities, and ultimately customers. Luckily,
expectations are still relatively low, so you have an excellent
opportunity to impress your customers

Table 2
Online Self-Service Evolution



Typical Capabilities

Primary Market

Beta 1995 to 1998 Brochure and short FAQ Outliers
Version 1.0 Novelty 1999 to 2001 Longer FAQ, email address, rudimentary Web-based
inquiry, site search with poor results
Early adopters
Version 2.0 Utilitarian 2002 to 2004 Extensive FAQs, good Web-based inquiry, live
chat in certain areas, site search with marginal results
Early mainstream
Version 3.0 Early mainstream 2004+ Deep and detailed online knowledge base with
graphical tutorials, interactive Web-based, live chat in most
high-value areas, site search with instant answers
All online households (70% in U.S)

Source: Online Banking Report,


Table 3
E-Service Benefits

Improved customer support

  •          Faster and more convenient for experienced online users
  •          Able to interact with the bank in quick bursts when
    questions arise; before the issue festers
  •          Creates a written record of questions and answers to make followup more efficient
  •          Potential for higher quality answers with links to more
    detailed information, attached documents, and so on
  •          Potential for customer to interact with the same rep for
    follow-up questions
  •          Customer can save or print answers for future reference
  •          No more looking up account and phone numbers, then
    navigating tedious phone menus
  •          Efficient and detailed incident tracking to ensure
    satisfactory problem resolution
  •          User satisfaction of finding their own answers
  •          Serendipity: finding useful related information you might
    never have inquired about (e.g., discovering Roth IRAs when looking for
    year-end tax info)

Better market data

  •          Easier to categorize and track customer concerns
  •          Provides a steady flow of user feedback that can be
    captured and tracked over time
  •          Easier to route individual questions/comments so others
    (e.g., marketing dept.) can “hear” what customers are saying, unfiltered
    and in real time

Potential* cost savings

  •          Deflect branch, call center, and email queries
  •          Ability to handle some questions during off-peak times
  •          Ability to route questions to lower-cost centers where
    language fluency is less of an issue (compared to telephone support)
  •          Ability to outsource certain question types, such as tech
  •          Ability to automate answers to routine questions

Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04

*Since most financial institutions are early in the learning curve,
cost savings are mostly unproven. However, long term the impact is
expected to be dramatic.

Service Quality

No matter how much time you spend analyzing service quality, in the end it
all boils down to this: Satisfied customers receive products and services that
meet or exceed their expectations. Table 4 below outlines nine components of
online service quality.

Table 5

Customer Service Expectations Retail Banking

*relative ease of exceeding customer expectations using online service





Ability to Exceed*

Preemptive support




   account alerts



very high

   personal attention

very low


very high

   identifying potential probs








   saving time








   quality of results




   search results




   maintaining privacy



very low

   “do it yourself” satisfaction




   providing input to bank








   solving the problem

very low

very high

very high

Responsive support


very high

very high

   email/web inquiry




   immediate autoresponse




   response time




   thoroughness of response




   personal attention

very low



   ability to escalate




   efficiency (not restating)




   providing input to bank








   solving the problem


very high

very high

Source: Online Banking Report estimates, 3/04

Because customer expectations are relatively low, there are numerous
opportunities to impress even your most jaded customers and even pick up share
from less-enlightened


E-Service 2.0* — Service with a :-)

Making the case for improved online customer service is easy. Online banking
customers now prefer it almost 3-to-1 over telephone support (see Table 1,
). Done right, e-service
can increase customer satisfaction, decrease support costs, and lead to
increased sales. What’s not to like?

The problem is that costs are front-loaded and benefits are difficult to
measure. Bottom line: You’ll spend hundreds of thousands or more in anticipation
of future, largely hidden, returns. That’s a tough sell in any environment, but
especially in the low-margin financial services arena.

What’s a banker to do? Start by demonstrating the reach of your website to
both online banking users and other bank customers. This requires an effort to
persuade non-online banking users to register so you can track them over time to
measure the entire impact of self-service.

Next, continually add self-service tools and content to improve the online
experience. You can do this in baby steps if need be. For example, add one
capability each quarter, such as an online tutorial
on how to pay bills. If resources are tight, look for college interns or
tap in-house volunteers to do the work.

Table 1

Service Channel Preference

percent of respondents preferring each channel, n = 2000



Preferred Method of Support





Any electronic channel




    Email/online forms




    Live online chat












        Online instructions/tutorials








Source: Vividence survey of online banking customers, Mar. ‘04 and Sept. ’03;
Question: “Which would you prefer to use most often?”, n = 2,000 both years

Another option is to outsource the entire process, including live tech
support if desired. Experts such as SafeHarbor, the company powering much
of Washington Mutual and SunTrust’s self-service capabilities, can
provide speedier implementation and state-of-the-art knowledge. In any event,
the day of the annually updated two-page FAQ are over. Customers expect and
deserve more dynamic help as they attempt to do business with you in cyberspace.

— Jim Bruene, Editor & Founder

WAMU & EBAY Test CD Auctions

Washington Mutual testing the waters by selling CDs with

In January, Washington Mutual became the first bank to test selling
certificates of deposit with eBay. The test was conducted on a standalone
co-branded site, rather than being integrated with eBay. Users were required to
register to participate in the CD auction. EBay credentials were not accepted
nor did the certificates turn up on regular eBay searches


Although not the first to try retail CD auctions, Washington Mutual
(Seattle, WA; $289 billion) is the first bank to team with eBay to add
legitimacy to the unusual deposit-gathering scheme at  http://www.wamucdauction.com/
a co-branded site, hosted by eBay. The Bid Your Rate test is
scheduled to run from Jan. 15 through February, with one-hundred $1000, 6-month
CDs auctioned per week, for a total of 600. Apparently WAMU approached eBay with
the idea and paid an undisclosed fee for the development and limited marketing
to eBay users.

Auctioning CDs was tried by several banks in the late 90s, most notably by
Bank which ran auctions on its website for about a year beginning
in Sept. 1999. Several other smaller banks, including the now-defunct USA
, gave it try but it never caught on. But that was also before
eBay became a cultural icon.

How it Works


It’s much like an eBay auction but the bidding runs in reverse. The
auction begins with a high interest rate and is bid down in increments of 5
basis points. In our tests we found the reserve to be 10% and proxy bidding, as
is customary on eBay, was not used. Your bid was automatically entered at the
lowest rate you selected.

From our observations, the bank needn’t have worried about using a 10%
reserve price since all the CDs were quickly bid down to competitive levels. For
example, at mid-day Feb. 9, the 12 CDs closing later that day had all been bid
down to 2.05% or 2.10% rates. In comparison, that day
http://www.bankrate.com/  pegged the
average U.S. 6-month CD rate at 1.23%, with Stonebridge Bank offering the
highest at 2%. You could also get 2% with a savings account at ING Direct.
In Washington state, Washington Mutual’s website offered a 0.95% rate on 6-month
CDs. That CD featured the option of adding to it at any time during the term for
the same rate.

Apparently the test was promoted on a limited basis with banners and links on
eBay, although we never saw one. However, there is no integration with the eBay
search engine. We tested various search terms and found no mention of the WAMU
CDs. Washington Mutual issued a press release on January 14, but is not widely
promoting the service. We found no mention of it on the bank’s website (Feb. 9)
nor did it appear in site search results.

Here’s what you see after entering a successful bid (in
this case 10%) that’s met the reserve and taken the lead, at least for the
moment. Final winning bid was approximately 2%.


At this point, CD purchasing on eBay may be too small a niche for a large
bank to profitably serve. However, it might be a good way to attract hot money,
without repricing your current deposit base, or to create some interest in your
deposit and/or online services. Long-term, we are more optimistic and expect
deposit auctions to eventually become a common practice; after all retail
investors already purchase T-bills directly from the U.S. government in a
similar fashion.


Doug Marshall is SVP Deposit Strategy and Product Management at
WAMU; Gary Dillabough is VP Strategic Partnerships at eBay.