Regular readers will know that I sometimes take a step away from the dynamic and fascinating world of payment testing to look at other aspects of the financial services industry. My recent "shopping" experience is worthy of a recap that, to me, reflects the future of banking in the USA.After finishing my recent tax return, I decided that it would make sense to open a CD (also known as a term deposit) to safely tuck away a few dollars for the rest of the year. CDs have been around for a long time and there really isn’t anything too special about them. All you really need to know is how long you want to set the money aside. From there it’s just a matter of seeing which financial institution will give you the best interest rate and then you are good to go. For the sake of this discussion, I was specifically looking at banks to ensure the money was covered by the US FDIC program.
Now the internet has certainly changed the way the way that you can shop for CDs. There are lots of services like bankrate.com that can help you see programs and rates from banks all across the country. And today there are many internet-only banks that offer good rates and fully insured deposits, without the overhead of a brick and mortar retail franchise. And while I did think about going this route, I decided that I would start the process by visiting a few of the big national banks to see what they could offer.
So last Saturday morning, as it was raining yet again here in Atlanta, I set out to see what I could find at the local branches of 3 top tier financial institutions. The mission was simple. Find out who had the best programs and rates and see what it would take to open the account. All three selected branches are pretty close to my home and the determining factor of which order to visit the locations was nothing more complicated than my desire to minimize my time in traffic and make all right hand turns.
I arrived at Branch A easily within a few minutes. I had never been to this location before, but the atmosphere was nicely done in rich wood tones and warm muted colors, with soft music playing on the sound system – very bank-like. As I walked into the main body of the building, it was pretty easy to see that I could either go wait in the line for a teller or talk to the “greeter.” Well, I could see where the greeter was supposed to be, except that there was actually no one there to do the greeting. Since there were already a number of people in line for the tellers and I really did not want to take up their time, I sort of hung out in the middle of nowhere waiting to be greeted. As I stood there for several minutes various other bank staff (obviously not greeters) walked around the place going from one office to another or through the door marked “staff only” – all the while being careful not to look in my direction. We are definitely not off to a good start.
Eventually, a greeter did show up to ask me why I appeared to be loitering in the bank and was I looking for something. I said that I wanted to get the daily CD rates. She explained that I would have to “register” to get this information. I asked why would I need to do this to get public domain information. She seemed quite taken aback that I would question the process and further explained that banking is a serious business and that it would be necessary for the bank to know to whom it was giving this important financial data.
So I gave her my name and was told to wait for one of the “banking officers” to assist me. Apparently, the daily rate information is so sensitive that mere greeters cannot be trusted with it!
I went quietly to the waiting area to see would happen next. It was cold and wet outside, but warm and dry in the branch, so I figured I would just let things play out. Unfortunately for me, it seems that all of the banking officers were otherwise engaged with more important activities. While I was there waiting, I did hear a rather interesting conversation between the greeter and one of the other bank staff who seemed to be having a bit of an argument about working hours and conditions at the branch. Interesting I say, but not very professional.
After about 20 minutes it was finally my turn. I sat down at the banking officer’s desk and asked for the daily CD rates. I was again to “register.” I again questioned why this was a requirement. The answer this time was less about the safety and security of financial information and more along the lines of simply proving that staff met with a specific number of people on any given day. Well, from there it took about 10 seconds for the rates to be brought up on the PC and displayed for me to see. The rates were not actually competitive and there was no offer to print or otherwise pass this highly sensitive information over to me. All in, it took about 30 minutes to get an answer to my 10-second question.
The stop at Branch B was a completely different experience. The inside was all white. That included the floor, the walls the cubicles, etc., very cafeteria-like. In this case, there was no greeter, just two tellers in the whole place. I am not sure what the extra offices and cubes were for, but they were all unused on this Saturday. I walked right up to the teller and asked for the CD rates. She said one moment please and she would print the information for me. 10 seconds later I had the information in hand. Which was great, except the teller also indicated that she could not actually help me open a CD. I would have to come back during the week to meet with a banking officer when they were available. Damn.
The Branch C experience was somewhere in the middle. The facilities were not as rich as the first stop, but not as spartan as the second. In this case, I walked in just before closing time but was still greeted warmly and professionally. I asked for the CD rates and got a printout directly from the greeter in about the 10-second target. Some of the rates were pretty attractive and since I actually have some accounts at this bank things were looking up. Except not really. It seems that this bank has learned some lessons from the cable companies and mobile phone carriers (spoiler alert, these are not good lessons). The “good rates” are only available to new customers, i.e. someone else's new money is better than my old money. I questioned the greeter on this and was told - politely, but firmly - that no exceptions could be made.
All together this was an interesting, but frustrating, experience and one that may not bode well for the long term future of traditional retail banking.
It should not have been so difficult or complicated to get answers and assistance while actually visiting the branch. All three of the organizations involved tout their mobile banking capabilities, but shouldn’t a face-to-face experience be as good or better than a virtual one? I do think there is a middle ground here. How nice it would have been to walk into Branch A to be immediately “greeted” by an information kiosk that would have allowed me to ask my question and manage a self-help dialogue? Then in the event that I actually did need personal assistance, I would be informed and ready to engage in a more detailed dialogue with a banker.
There is still a need for traditional face-to-face banking services, but the dialogue should be richer and deeper than what you get on a phone or a PC, not the other way around. The technology clearly exists to weave these channels together for a truly enhanced experience.
I just hope that in the drive toward “digital everything” financial institutions have not forgotten the importance of personal banking.