Charging More for Branch and Call-Center Transactions Compared to Online Ones

image Recently, I spent 34 frustrating minutes in a branch completing a single international wire transfer. And 22 minutes of that was with the branch manager. How much did that cost the bank compared to the same transaction online? 2x more? 5x more? 50x more? 

And more importantly, what’s the customer experience?  How much happier would I have been to do the transaction online in the comfort of my own home? 2x? 5x? 1000x?

In this particular case the question is moot, because my primary bank does not support online or call-center wires unless I upgrade to a much-pricier commercial checking account.

But for those financial institutions that do offer a choice, the math is pretty clear. It costs WAY less to complete a transaction online and (most) customers are WAY happier to complete routine transactions online, assuming sufficient security is in place.

Yet, many banks still price the services the same regardless of the channel. While this is understandable from a simplicity standpoint (and you don’t want to alienate branch/call center users), it’s time to start using price to reward self-service.

For example, in my most recent Chase business checking account statement, I noticed that the bank is instituting a new fee structure for stop-payment requests. Beginning Nov. 13, each request made in branch or over the phone will cost $32. In comparison, online requests will be $25 each, a 22% savings. Wires are also $5 cheaper online than in the branch (see below).


The downside is that customers may be outraged by a $20/$25 fee for a transaction they initiate themselves online. But the discount, combined with the time savings, should help ease the pain.

Do "High-Touch" Branch Experiences Help Your Brand?

image I honestly don’t think branches will be extinct anytime soon. Yes, I think they will drastically shrink in size/staff as transactional activity is eliminated. But they are part of the American landscape, provide a convenient place to open accounts, and reinforce your brand.

Or do they?

I spent 34 minutes in a branch today and came away with a number of brand impressions, none of them good. Here’s the blow-by-blow account (skip to the Bottom Line section if you, too, have recently sent a wire from a bank branch). 

Yesterday, I went to a small branch of a major bank to send a $20,000 international wire, something I’ve done only once before. I missed the “12 or 12:30” cutoff time and was told I’d need to come back tomorrow (note 1). They were nice about it, but it was 15 to 20 minutes wasted, although I did grab a tasty Americano across the street, so it wasn’t all bad.

Today, I was near a much larger branch, so I decided to give it a try, hoping that the process would go faster with more staff available. It was mid-morning on a Friday (note 2) with only two or three customers in the branch and at least six employees, so I thought I’d made a good decision. Unfortunately, the only person available that could process an international wire was the busy branch manager (note 3), and I was directed to a seat on the couch where I waited for 12 minutes watching the six employees handle a trickle of customers.

No one approached me during this time to offer an update on the wait. Finally, the harried branch manager stepped over and apologized for being “slammed” (even though the branch was nearly deserted) and went on to explain his staffing woes that would soon be over since there were “three job offers out at that moment.” 

At that point, I had to turn over my driver’s license, tell him my Social Security Number, and then wait another 22 minutes as he hammered away on the computer to complete the wire. At least once I’m pretty sure he was typing an email to someone, and he also made a quick phone call about another matter. Along the way, he asked me for the symbol for British pounds. Since I didn’t know, he proceeded to the back room (where more employees were hidden, note 4), and since they didn’t know, he said he would Google it. And he did. 

Next, he handed me all the info on the transfer so I could proof his work. And, like the last time I sent an in-branch wire, an error popped out. The form stated payment was for a boat, which, besides being incorrect, was especially interesting since the money was headed to London. He blamed the autofill on the computer (why would autofill be enabled on wire transfer forms?).

I said I wished this could be done online, and he said it had to be done in branch to reduce fraud and money-laundering. While that may have been an okay answer, he then contradicted himself and said if I did more than two wires per month, I should consider the bank’s $100/mo commercial service. So much for the fraud problem, I guess.

imageFinally, he walked across the room to call in the wire (why didn’t he use the phone on his desk?). He completed the process by scratching in pencil on the back of his business card my confirmation number and U.S. dollar equivalent of the transfer (see inset). Apparently, the branch’s wire system doesn’t provide an automated receipt.

Bottom line: Branch proponents say that consumers value the “personal touch” and hand-holding that branches provide on major transactions. And that those warm feelings create trust and positive brand associations. 

So what were my takeaway “brand impressions” after my experience today? (And I’m not saying these things are necessarily true, but they are my very real perceptions). 

  • They do not value my time: First, I had to make a second trip since I’d missed the cutoff. Then on the second trip, it took 34 minutes to complete the process.    
  • The bank is inefficient: The branch manager had to spend 22 minutes with me to generate $50 in fees. And I was in a huge, 10,000 square-foot structure with a large parking lot and 30-foot ceilings, that was serving a trickle of customers with a bevy of staffers. 
  • The staff is poorly trained and/or lack tech support: The branch is “slammed” with 3 customers across 6 employees! The branch manager has to use Google to fill out the wire transfer form.
  • The systems are cobbled together: Employees have to find currency abbreviations on their own. The wire had to be “called” in by the branch manager.  My “receipt” was handwritten on a business card. 
  • They made me feel less than secure: I had to tell him my Social Security Number out loud, which is always unnerving when you don’t really know who’s listening. And they left me scratching my head about wire fraud.
  • It must be a crappy place to work: They were down 3 employees, despite a 9+% unemployment rate.  

On the plus side: The staff was very friendly, cookies were on the counter, and I got a blog post out of it. That helps. A lot.


1. I’m not sure why they couldn’t take my info today and send the wire tomorrow, something they had done before on a domestic wire. 
2. He did mention something about an “operational audit” going on, so this might not be the normal experience. Although the last time I sent a wire at another branch, it took even longer because that manager “was learning the new system.” 
3. The astute reader will notice that today is Wednesday, not Friday. I wrote this a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon and held it until today. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to publish another “analyst whines about customer service” post. I promise it’s my last one of the year.
4. I’m not naming the bank, because this is a story about two visits to two branches which may or may not reflect what goes on in other parts of the bank. But I will name the bank via private email if you promise not to publish it. Just drop me a line.
5. Graphic upper right: Kinesis

Bank of America to Eliminate Wire Transfers from Branches, Moving Volume to Online Banking

image When I logged in to Bank of America’s online banking Saturday, I was greeted with a pitch encouraging me to use the bank’s new online wire and electronic funds transfer (ACH) capabilities. Consumer online banking can now be used to move money electronically to most anyone in the country. Previously the bank allowed consumers to transfer funds only to their own accounts (funds transfer FAQs), either within Bank of America or at other U.S. financial institutions.

This is a capability offered by many major banks including Citibank, ING Direct and others, often powered by CashEdge. What I almost missed was the more interesting news in the last paragraph:

Beginning this summer, wire transfers will no longer be available in your local banking center… (emphasis added)

I haven’t been able to confirm whether this is a nationwide change or something that impacts only certain markets or customers (note 1). On the FatWallet forum a member reported seeing the same message Aug 1 on his account. Another member tested the service and reported that the fees were $3 for a 3-day ACH, $10 for next-day ACH, and “varied” for same-day wires.

The bank’s online wire transfer FAQs (for California) still point customers to online banking or their local branch.

What it means: When the nation’s largest online bank starts talking about reducing branches and takes steps to eliminate a traditional (and labor-intensive) branch-based service, you have solid evidence that branch banking growth has stalled (note 2). 

Bank of America login message (15 Aug 2009, 1:30 PM Pacific time)


1. I was served this message when logging in to my business credit card account. When I logged in to my Washington-based checking account (which runs on a different, and much less feature-rich system, than the rest of BofA), I saw no such message.
2. But not everyone agrees. Rob Cox and Antony Currie argue in today’s New York Times that the bank branch still has legs, in part because capital market financing has become more expensive, therefore elevating the importance of retail deposit gathering, a branch strength.   

Money Link from the University of Wisconsin Credit Union Makes Electronic Transfers Simple (like they should be)

imageFinancial institutions vary considerably in how easy they make it to move money in and out of bank accounts.

On the one extreme is U.S. Bank, which still requires a retail customers to visit a branch to initiate an electronic payment (note 1). Plus, if you come in after the wire transfer deadline, 2 PM I believe, you can set it up to go out the next day, but you still have to call back and reconfirm before 2 PM the following day. When asked why they needed a phone call after I’ve already appeared in person, shown my ID, and signed multiple documents authorizing the transfer, they responded in all seriousness, “to make sure you are still alive.”

image Then there’s University of Wisconsin Credit Union, who not only assumes its members are alive, but also wants to keep them satisfied.

The credit union’s novel Money Link service allows anyone to send money to a UW CU member via an email-enabled system similar to PayPal but free of any fees and branded by the CU. The service can also be accessed via UW CU’s mobile banking. 

Transfers from outsiders take 3-4 days for the ACH items to clear. But member-to-member transfers occur in real time. It’s a great way for students to get money from mom and dad in time to thwart that Monday morning overdraft.

image The CU also supports full inter-institutional account-to-account transfers online. There is no cost to move money into UW CU, but there is a $2 fee for outgoing transfers.

Members who can’t wait for the 3 to 4 days for an ACH to clear, can elect the the Express Service that offers one-day turnaround for $10. The Express service has a $2,000 limit where the Standard Service can be used up to $10,000 (see inset).

Bottom line: This is the type of transfer service most consumers expect from their bank or credit union. It’s amazing that it’s still not supported at many financial institutions, including some of the majors.

1. Referring to wire transfers here initiated in the Seattle area. There could be other procedures in other areas of the bank’s footprint. Also, customers can CheckFree-powered online bill pay to pay any U.S. resident or business within 5 days.