Can Your Bank Deliver a Better Customer Experience?

Can Your Bank Deliver a Better Customer Experience?

Steven Ramirez, CEO of Beyond the Arc, explores why customer experience has jumped to front of mind for most banks, and why there is no silver bullet to solve poor customer experiences. Success, he explains, is a medley of understanding your customer, deploying new technology, and keeping your staff happy, too.

Steven will be chairing the Customer Experience Summit Day at FinovateSpring this year in San Francisco, May 7 through 10. Find out more about this deep-dive day, or the full event.

Five years ago, no one in financial services was talking much about customer experience. Customer service? Sure. Customer satisfaction? Perhaps. But organizations weren’t equipped to examine the entire lifecycle of interactions that a person has as they learn about a bank, explore its products, become a customer, manage an account, and perhaps ultimately decide to leave or stay.

For one thing, the siloed nature of many organizations doesn’t create an incentive to think about a customer relationship holistically. Fast forward a few years, and much has changed. Banks and credit unions realize that they are essentially in a commoditized business. They understand that with so much similarity in products and services, one of the only ways to differentiate is based on the experience they deliver. But therein lies the challenge: what investments in technology, processes, and talent are most likely to improve customer experience?

Technology companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google have disrupted a range of industries from advertising, to retail, to computer hardware. In 2019, they’ll increasingly target financial services. With this growth in TechFin, we can expect to see the creation of financial experiences, not just new products or services. The way people receive a paycheck, spend it, and save for the future will be technology-enabled to better reflect their personal needs and long-term goals.

This means you can’t just plug-in a new technology and hope to transform.

The importance of customer understanding

Your first investments need to be in better understanding your customers—both the ones you have today, and the ones you hope to attract in the future. In a recent study about innovation, only 18.3% of companies identified themselves as a Digital Leader. And on a similar note, just 29.5% said they were very excited about “their ability to adapt over the next three years.” Critical to both is the necessity to know more about your customers, and their needs, than ever before. With the explosion of data, and the tools to derive insights from it, you can now improve customer experience by spotting previously undiscoverable trends and taking action. You can see how machine learning, cloud and edge computing, and more robust data integration capabilities could play a role.

Personalization at scale

Investments in customer understanding help to fuel progress in personalization. Cutting-edge marketing from ten years ago emphasized the importance of sophisticated segmentation. Today, your customers want to feel like you’ve tailored your offering to meet their unique requirements. An important implication of this is that you need to communicate with the audience of one.However, you need to do this at scale for thousands, or millions, of people. Each person, as an individual, must feel that you are considering their needs, and only their needs, when they interact with you. Predictive analytics can enable real-time solutions that match customers with the most appropriate products and services, at just the right time for them.

Improve employee experience to improve customer experience

As Beyond the Arc strategist Michelle Espinoza notes in our recently published CX trends article, “Companies are focusing so intensely on CX, they’re losing sight of the employee experience.” She goes on to note that, “just like Amazon set the bar for CX, we can expect to see companies emerge that set the bar for employee experience as well.” I can think of several leading companies that get this right: Disney, Zappos, Ultimate Software (a BTA client), Salesforce, and others. What will it take for your bank to make this list? And what tools and technology might help to ensure your success? Machine learning can help tie your recruitment process to key success factors for various jobs. Business intelligence, real-time alerts, and robotic process automation (RPA) can help you to report on, and streamline, operational conditions so your employees can remove customer pain points.

Tech, transformation, and the future of CX at your bank

Unfortunately, there’s no simple recipe to transform customer experience. If there was one, your raw ingredients would include better customer understanding, personalization, and employee engagement. In their book Outside In, Kelly Bodine and Harley Manning argue that there are billions of dollars at stake. They cite the example of Fidelity: when clients had a good experience, they invested 4.5 times more with the firm than people who did not, amounting to billions in incremental assets every year. And telecom provider Sprint saved $1.7 billion from averted customer service calls per year. Technology can certainly help you to acquire vital new capabilities. But to achieve success, your bank will need to treat CX as a core business process, focus your resources on measurable improvements, and invest in both people and technology.

More resources:

Who is Beyond the Arc?

We help companies apply innovation to attract customers, improve customer experience, and develop data-driven strategies. From telling your story in clear, compelling ways in digital and everywhere else, to unlocking business value with data science, AI, and machine learning, Beyond the Arc has got you covered. Follow us on Twitter @beyondthearc.

Multi-Channel Messaging is a Mess

Image licensed from Shutterstock Last month, I reported that my “aha moment” at BAI’s Retail Delivery was the realization of just how challenging it had become to manage customer messaging across multiple channels and products.

Consider this 9×12 matrix of 108 product/message options a bank could conceivably use to reach a couple about their banking and loans. The whiteboard in the marketing conference room just won’t cut it any more as the master scheduling tool. 



Card #1

Card #2


Loan #1

Loan #2




Voice home                  
Voice mobile (Sue)                  
Voice mobile (Joe)                  
Email pers (Sue)                  
Email pers (Joe)                  
Email work (Sue)                  
Email work (Joe)                  
Website message                  
Text (Sue)                  
Text (Joe)                  
App (Sue)                  
App (Joe)                  

If that wasn’t complicated enough, unique regulations can govern each channel and/or product.  Some exa
mples: new mortgage rules for a single source of contact; time-of-day preferences (don’t text me while I’m asleep); and privacy issues (don’t alert my spouse to card charges).

And this table gets bigger if you add mail, in-branch, ATM messages or more products such as small business accounts, savings/CDs, and accounts held jointly with other family members. You could also add inbound vs. outbound calls/messages.

But one person’s mess is another’s opportunity. Fintech companies are hard at work on  solutions that turn multi-channel snarls into opportunities to increase satisfaction and/or cut costs.

imageOne key player is Seattle-based Varolii, which delivered my aha moment last month. In a followup last week, I had a chance to sit down with CEO David McCann and have a wide-ranging conversation about customer messaging in the age of the voice/email/text/notifications. I was impressed, both with the enormity of the challenge of coordinating customer messaging, and with the solutions it offers (note 1).

image Then yesterday, I met with Amit Ashman, Marketing Director at Nice, who happened to be here on a whirlwind visit from their headquarters in Israel. His company, which booked $200 million in revenues last quarter, provides call-center technology for large U.S. financial institutions. They have developed a very cool call-center/mobile-app solution about to be unleashed on the world. It blends self-service with agent support in a relatively seamless fashion that I suspect will be the industry standard five years from now.

It’s convinced me to write a report on Multi-Channel Customer Support for our Online Banking Report (note 2). We are also looking to recruit more companies in this area to 2012 Finovate events. So, please email suggestions for solutions providers and/or financial institutions who are tackling the problem.  


1. Great tagline, “Better return on interactions”
2. The multi-channel report won’t be published until early next year. However, we’ve tackled remote customer service and messaging a number of times in previous issues of our Online Banking Report. The last one was Live Help earlier this year.

Bank of America Cleaning Up its Customer Records at Login, but Why the Phone Call?

This is a somewhat perplexing message to receive after logging in to online banking. It seems almost phish-like (especially with that old-school corded phone in the picture):

A recent review of your account indicated that we are missing your date of birth. We use this information to help verify your identity. Please call us at the 1.800 Customer Service number on the back of your credit card so we can update your file.

I guess I can understand the bank wanting my birth date, but it brings to mind several questions:

  1. Why are they asking me now? I’ve three accounts there, with one dating back to the 1980s. Is something wrong? Has my account been accessed by someone else? Then my more cynical side thinks, did this request come from the marketing dept. or the security folk?  Bottom line: the bank should provide a more detailed explanation via a “more info” link.
  2. I have to CALL, really? Why can’t I do this online? Will I have to endure a cross-selling session when I make the call? Will I have to go through the entire phone tree to get to an operator? The least the bank could do is provide a direct line for the task.

The whole thing seems like a ridiculous waste of time. A five or ten-minute journey through call center menus in order to provide six numbers to a live operator. Plus, won’t this extra call-in requirement drastically reduce user response? 

Bank of America interstitial after logging in to online banking (14 Oct 2009, 5 PM Pacific)


Who Has the Best E-Service?

It’s difficult for outsiders to judge a bank’s service levels unless you
interview a number of customers as Vividence and others are doing or use the
bank’s products yourself. However, the bank’s website does provide clues to
the relative value placed on e-service. Here are the things we would look
for as a prospective customer, all of which are affordable even to the
smallest organization:

Table 35

Ten Clues You Are Dealing with a Top E-Service

1.       Help function accessible from every page

2.       Easy-to-find prices (not buried on the eighth page of the
account agreement)

3.       Contact Us or About Us section prominently
displays telephone numbers, email,
and mail addresses

4.       Service standards and guarantees prominently posted

5.       Detailed and up-to-date FAQs

6.       Customer feedback encouraged; for example, suggestion box or
satisfaction survey

7.       Third-party endorsements/affiliations displayed, such as
Member Better Business Bureau
, Chamber of Commerce, TrustE,

8.       Hours of operation displayed in appropriate areas

9.       Customer service staff and/or line management (especially branch
managers) identified by name with online bios/pictures

10.    Customer testimonials and/or Q&A forums with actual customer

Source: Online Banking Report, 3/04



Table 36

Customer Experience at Major U.S. Card Issuers*


Card Issuer


Capital One


American Express


Discover Card




Wells Fargo


Bank of America




Bank One (First USA)





Source: Vividence, 4/04; Evaluations took place in July and August 2003;
Banks evaluated but not making the top 5 were: Fleet, US Bank, Wachovia


In terms of actual service experiences, we can only judge the companies
we’ve personally used, they include: American Bank, American Express, Bank
One (card only), Bank of America (card only), Capital One, Centura,
CharterOne, Chase (card only), Citibank (card and account aggregation),
DeepGreen Bank, Everbank, ING Direct, Juniper Bank, National City
(aggregation only), NextCard, Providian, Security First Network Bank, U.S.
Bank, Wells Fargo (card only), Many of these accounts are
little-used, so we don’t have much opportunity to experience the entirety of
the company’s service efforts. However, among those accounts only ING
Direct, PayPal, and before they went out of business, NextCard, standout in
terms of overall online delivery. Other places do a great job servicing our
accounts online, but have not provided a truly memorable experience, the
kind of performance that generates unsolicited word-of-mouth referrals.  

A number of third parties evaluate financial website usability and
service. One of the most thorough is Vividence,* which evaluates
customer experience at the 10 largest banks and ten largest card issuers. In
its latest analysis completed this month, Vividence ranked Bank of
tops in customer experience for existing customers, National
was second, and US Bank third.

The longest-running service evaluation is by Gomez Advisors (now
owned by WatchFire), which ranks online banks across five categories,
including customer confidence. Gomez determines the customer
confidence score by evaluating the bank’s website and mystery shopping
customer service. The most recent Gomez scorecard ranked Citibank first,
Wachovia second, and Wells Fargo third.              


Table 37

Ranking Customer Experience at Major U.S. Banks


Sources: Vividence and Gomez, see below for details

Vividence, 4/04 & 9/03; Evaluations took place in July and August 2003;
Banks evaluated but not making the top 5 were: Fleet, US Bank, Wachovia;
Vividence Customer Experience Rankings are benchmarking studies using
proprietary software tracking behavior and opinions across a 2000-user

Watchfire Gomez Pro 10/03 & 10/99; Banks evaluated in Fall 2003 but not
making the top 5: American Bank/, American Express-Banking,
Associated Bank (WI), Bank One, Chase, Charter One Bank, Citizens Bank,
Commerce Bank (NJ), E*TRADE Bank, First Internet Bank of Indiana, First
National Bank of Omaha, First Tennessee Bank, Fleet, Hibernia National Bank,
Huntington, NetBank, National City Bank, Key Bank, HSBC, PNC Bank,
SouthTrust Bank, U.S. Bank, Union Bank of California, Washington Mutual,
Webster Bank


The Critical Role of Web Self-Service

By Annette M. Jacobs, CEO SafeHarbor

Online banking is no longer a competitive advantage. Today, the value is to offer an experience that is simple, user-friendly and provides the highest completion rates. Customer satisfaction with the quality is critical. Online banking customers have high expectations regarding system reliability and content quality. The level of sophistication among this customer segment is also driving the need for site integration and personalized service options.

It can be difficult for online banking programs to duplicate the high touch of personalized service that customers have grown to expect from a branch-bank experience. Offering customers effective online support can substitute for most of the personal attention offered by the neighborhood teller. Whether customers are finding answers for themselves through a FAQ page or by using assisted alternatives like on-line chat or telephone support, financial institutions need a comprehensive program maintain high customer satisfaction while decreasing support costs. A recent survey of 30 banks and credit union executives by Forrester Research found that 96% felt assisted support is a major priority for the online banking market over the next two years.

Implementation Options

Financial institutions can implement and enhance online banking support several ways: purchase a prepackaged program, build a network internally from the ground up, or partner with a business process service company that can integrate and manage the program. In making that decision, consideration must be given to delivery times, costs, ongoing support, assisted support and the ability to gather or consolidate customer data.

1.       Purchase support tools: At first glance, out-of-the-box support software appears to be a logical starting point. While many offer a broad range of functionality, the features may not align with your institution’s specific online banking needs. It is important to examine carefully the tool’s range of features and determine the existing infrastructure capability. Institutions should also ensure the software can accurately identify, assess and grow, not only with internal needs but also customers’ needs. Additional functionality will also be tied to internal IT release dates or those of the vendor.

  1. Build an internal support service network: As an alternative to purchased software, building a service network internally may seem the most effective way to provide an integrated, customized solution. Proprietary systems can be continually upgraded and enhanced to meet expanding customer needs and support new product launches.
  2. Outsource the process: The third option, outsourcing, can be cost-effective and relatively easy-to-implement. It allows a bank to focus on its business needs by partnering with a business process service company. When you eliminate the organizational burden of building, installing, maintaining and staffing, banks can direct resources to their core competencies of product development, customer relationships and revenue growth.

Partnering also offers the ability for risk sharing. That can be critical as you define the long-term strategy. The vendor generally assumes responsibility for maintaining the software and hardware, which is invaluable to keep pace with technology changes. Many business process service companies can also provide assisted-support staffing, which offers flexibility and leverages the skill development necessary to optimize return on investment.

Business process service companies can bring support systems to market more quickly. Partnering can eliminate time-consuming steps and internal project management. For example, SafeHarbor Technology Corporation delivers a complete customer-interaction support system that can be operational in as little as eight weeks.

Components of a Successful Customer Support System

In designing a customer support system, flexible multi-channel service is the key to increasing satisfaction, loyalty and retention. According to Gartner Research Director Esteban Kolsky, customers would prefer to use self-service if it is comprehensive and easy to use. Below is an example of SafeHarbor’s graphical help function as deployed by Washington Mutual. It walks users through a relatively technical process, upgrading security at AOL, which would be difficult and time-consuming for most bank service reps to handle.

Customers must also have the ability to escalate to other service channels, and the transition must be seamless. Support agents need the ability to track every service-inquiry step. The online banking customer should not be subjected to retracing each step and subsequently reliving the frustration.

Collecting and analyzing this data is also a tremendous opportunity. Identifying customer-user patterns, and the service channels through which they seek support, can be critical to a bank’s ability to accurately assess user needs and provide relevant services.

Financial institutions must take support services to the next level to maximize profitability and ensure customer satisfaction. Support systems can also serve another role by collecting valuable customer data. This should not only guide the strategy, but also identify new opportunities to grow product revenues.

Annette M. Jacobs is the President and CEO for SafeHarbor Technology Corporation, a provider of customer support and delivery services including Web, call center, and analytics to Global 2000 and emerging SMB organizations; founded in 1998, clients include Washington Mutual Bank, SunTrust Banks, T-Mobile, American Airlines, and the State of Washington.


Washington Mutual’s Site Helper powered by SafeHarbor.


SafeHarbor Projections for your Business Case

·      Toll-free numbers displayed throughout your website can increase support costs by more than 25%.

·      A large portion of online banking support goes
toward educating new users; better “getting started” (aka onboarding) content and messaging can
reduce account cancellations and increase
customer satisfaction by more than 50%.

·      Preemptive live-agent support can increase call deflections by 30% or more.

·      Providing access to the online banking support environment for call center agents can reduce call handle times and increase agent productivity by
more than 40%.

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., <>, 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,,
  •        Identifiable service area with its own intuitive URL; for example, <>, <>, <>, <>
  •        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 <>, 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 <>
  •          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 <>

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 <>

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




Example #3: Referral to Web-based form

To: Yourcustomer <>

From: E-Service <>

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 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 Based on current volume, we
should be able to respond to your question within 24 hours. Thanks for your
patience. 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.

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