I just moved my money to a new bank—a non-traditional, Internet bank where all business is done via web self service or email—and I have yet to speak to an agent. Even without the traditional personal touch, I feel good about this bank. The people there seem to know who I am and what I want and so far have delivered exactly what I need.
I had a long and troubled relationship with my old bank, which I originally chose out of convenience, as it was located within blocks from my home. I started with it as a student with only a basic checking account. Over the years, as my needs changed, the number of accounts that I had multiplied, to the point that all my banking and accounts—my checking, savings, IRAs, CDs and mortgage—were held there.
I thought that, over the years, the tellers would slowly get to know me, my young daughter and our financial habits and needs. In fact, I thought that they would look out for my best interests, such as recommending savings accounts with lower interest rates that matched my banking habits.
I never really thought about my relationship with my bank until I started a home remodel and needed to secure a large amount of cash to pay for it. Initially, after a face-to-face consultation with an account manager, the bank offered me an equity line of credit, which turned out to be much more expensive than a refinance of my current mortgage. The way I figured this out was by taking all the bank rate information home, doing the calculations myself and determining what the least expensive option was for me.
I thought that, over the years, the tellers would slowly get to know me, my young daughter and our financial habits and needs.
The mortgage refinance went through without a hitch. Unfortunately, immediately after I had completed the refinance, my grandmother passed away, and I flew back to Canada for several days, forgetting to transfer funds to my checking account to cover some large construction costs. Upon my return, I saw that I had been penalized $250 in overdraft fees for multiple checks that had failed to clear. I was understandably upset. In the first place, I thought that an agent would have flagged this event and notified me somehow of this situation, considering that I had more than enough funds to cover these costs sitting only an account away. And secondly, I thought that someone would have told me that I could purchase overdraft protection for $5 a month, an amount I gladly would have paid if I had known that it was available.
After 10 years of working with my bank and being consistently disappointed, I considered what I valued in my interactions with my bank. Yes, having a personal relationship was important, but what was more important was that the bank help answer questions that I had, and to recommend basic financial plans tailored to my situation.
I am a savvy computer user who spends large parts of the day online. I wanted the bank to let me find answers on my own. And if a solution did not exist, I wanted to be able to connect to a live agent, either through a chat session, email or a phone call, who would have a record of my searches so I did not have to repeat myself again. I wanted to be able to ask a question either over the phone or over email and get the same answer every time, irrespective of the medium that I used to ask my question.
After a thorough search of bank, I found an Internet bank that, at first blush, seemed to satisfy my requirements. The web site was visually pleasing and easily navigable, with a consistent user interface propagated throughout the site. Visible breadcrumbs (showing where I’d gone in the site) and recently viewed pages helped orient me.
The site offered a variety of self-service methods to appeal to different categories of users. There were decision trees that a novice user could navigate down a particular discovery path to the correct solution. I also found a browsable folder structure and natural-language search capability.
I searched for information on basic checking accounts, answered several clarifying questions to target searches for my situation and was returned search results from the bank’s knowledge base that included the exact information I was looking for. Included in the search results were several links to comments from a discussion board linked to the bank’s web site that extolled the ease of opening accounts.
After more investigation, I decided to see whether I could join this bank and sent an email to the bank. The conversation, lasting over several emails, was threaded—that is, each email I sent back to the bank was appended to my initial email so that the agent had a full history of my interaction with the bank. “That’s great”, I thought, “I didn’t have to repeat myself for once!”
This experience made me want to explore the services of this bank, and I was not disappointed when I did join. From the start, all my visits to the web site were personalized and seemed targeted to me. I was greeted by name. Offers were presented to me that I was actually interested in. My last searches were remembered. I realized that once the bank knows who I am, it does a good job at knowing what I will ask.
The bank also had a memory of every transaction and every action I had performed: my balance, transfers, past and pending service requests, transcripts of chat and email interactions with agents, as well as the history of any self-service interaction that was escalated to an agent. Even though I never spoke to an agent, I had the feeling that I mattered, that my interactions were understood and that my history with the bank was important.
I felt that the bank went beyond simple service. For example, I have many automatic payments set up, and the bank notifies me by email every time a payment is debited from my account. Yet, I am also notified each time my checking account drops below a threshold, which helps me better manage my overall financial picture. And, at times, when I seem to have larger amounts than usual in my checking account, I have also had agents proactively start a chat session with me to inform me that I would earn a higher rate of interest with a short-term CD and that they were standing by to help me just in case I wanted to take them up on this offer.
I actually believe that my bank looks out for me. Last month, I tried to pull out some cash from a foreign ATM during an out-of-the-country business trip. Instantly, I received an SMS message on my phone, alerting me of this unusual transaction and asking me to confirm its validity. It seemed that the bank’s fraud detection algorithms had kicked in, helping protect its customer base.
We have a great relationship, my new Internet bank and I. I now bank via ATMs, email and the bank’s web site. I never go to a branch or talk to a teller, but I know that the bank gives me exactly the service that I want. I know it is not a traditional relationship, and it is definitely not for everyone. I used to think that a long interaction for each service issue led to a better relationship. But now, I am not so convinced. A short, fulfilling interaction where you get what you want by looking for it yourself can be as fulfilling as one in which you are held by hand.