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Bank of America Dominates Bank Monitor Awards

Bank of America has earned the top spot in New York-based Corporate Insight's2008 Bank Monitor Awards. BS&T was given an exclusive look at the seventh annual report for online banking excellence where the online banking operations of 15 Bank Monitor banks are examined and rated based on several criteria.

As expected, the financial crisis played a large role in this year's rankings as banks scrambled to deal with reorganization, and the messaging and capabilities changes that go along with that, according to the firm. As a result, says Doug Miller, a senior analyst with the company, there was a noticeable lack of innovation on these sites this past year.

"The main issue related to any sort of banking slowdown, including the woes of 2008, is a lack of new online banking initiatives," Miller told BS&T. "It's highly unlikely that any downturn in the banking sector short of a bankruptcy or merger would affect existing major online banking functions, as firms are unlikely to remove a pre-existing feature, such as online bill payment, even if their online banking development budget was cut to zero dollars. Instead, what was most likely lost over the past year was innovation and tool refinement within the online banking space."

Therefore, rather than introducing anything revolutionary to the online channel in 2008, Miller says banks dedicated most of their efforts to upgrading their sites and playing catch-up with one another. Some introduced new features, but many times, these were usually already being offered by the competition, such as mobile banking.

One area that did catch the attention of Corporate Insight was in funds transfers as more banks expanded the capabilities of the ACH. "Traditionally, banks have allowed clients to move money between linked depository accounts, but not to many other places," Miller explains. "[Last year] not only saw more firms introduce ACH transfers to outside banks and transfer-like payments to internal credit accounts, but also saw banks introduce new and innovative transfer options."

Two initiatives in particular that he mentions are the re-introduction of New York-based Citibank's Global Transfer service, which allows account holders to transfer money to other Citi clients fee-free (a capability currently offered by four firms), and the addition of the QuickPay Service by New York-based Chase, a feature that allows both clients and non-clients to make peer-to-peer payments and transfers, provided they have an e-mail address.

"These types of expansions and innovations in online transfers and payments did the most to improve the power and attractiveness of online banking in 2008," Miller states.

Other banks are starting to broaden their view of what constitutes an online banking service. Wells Fargo (San Francisco), for example, introduced its vSafe online electronic document repository in 2008. "This tool was one of the few truly new online capabilities developed during 2008," Miller relates. "While it is thus far unclear if users will warm to this tool, it shows some of the potential for non-traditional online banking services going forward."

Miller also lauds Wells Fargo in another area: communications. With things as they have been over the last several months, he says many banks have been trying to convey the right message to accountholders that their money would be safe. "A major theme of our Year In Review section within the Monitor Awards Report was site-based communications to clients, and while many banks tried to assure their accountholders about the status of their firm at various points during the year, few outreach efforts have been as consistent or comprehensive as the Wells Fargo transition blog," he comments.

After acquiring Charlotte-based Wachovia, Wells Fargo implemented the blog so employees from both companies could share their thoughts and communicate with each other as the two banks become one. "We have been very impressed with the Wells Fargo-Wachovia transition blog thus far," Miller says. "It does a nice job of combining perspectives from both of the firms involved, including occasional posts from upper-management types, while also answering the basic questions that clients have, such as 'when will the transition be complete?'"

Miller says Cleveland's National City instituted something similar after it announced it would be acquired by Pittsburgh-based PNC. It provides links from its homepage to an information sitelet that discusses the merger.

Going forward, Miller believes more banks will deploy Web 2.0-type tools like blogs and Twitter accounts in their battles to gain and retain customers as they reorganize or merge. Although several banks are starting to provide these services today, Miller says they need a bit more work to move from being promotional in nature to truly interactive and informative.

In the end, however, Miller does not think Web 2.0 tools will be the single element that makes the online banking site of tomorrow. Instead, it will be the more traditional tools, such as advanced transfer capabilities, personalized customer service answers via secure messaging and the information provided about a client's account on the private site, that will "continue to separate the best online banking sites from the also-rans."

Miller further notes that Bank of America, for example, consistently receives high marks within the report each year because of the variety of "well-cultivated tools that they offer. The firm provides accountholders with almost all of our benchmark tools and features, such as offering advanced funds transfer capabilities and a variety of account and security alerts, and does so in a well-organized private site. In addition, each year Bank of America seems to introduce new self-service capabilities to its private site, as well as refine its existing tools, even if just in small ways, a process that helps their site retain its Monitor Awards in various categories."

Each year, Corporate Insight looks at the 15 Bank Monitor banks and rates them on how well their sites perform against eight criteria/banking tools from both the public and private site areas of their sites, including: account selection tools, account information, bill payment capabilities, transfer capabilities, self-service features, alerts, private site help and online applications. The firm emphasizes that these specific site features are analyzed without attempting to rate banking services on an overall quality basis, nor does it represent a general endorsement of any one bank's site as a whole.

As a result, some high-quality banking sites many not receive many "Monitors" while other, less well-rounded sites may receive Monitors in recognition of particularly strong attributes. Excellence in the eight select categories of the report earns firms distinction.

Eleven Bank Monitor banks were given awards this year. Bank of America garnered the most awards in the most categories (seven out of eight categories) and is followed by KeyBank, E*Trade Bank, Chase, Wells Fargo, Wachovia, National City, Citizens Bank, Citibank, U.S. Bank and HSBC.

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