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In this special report, "Channel Superstars", Bank Systems & Technology takes a look at some of the leaders and innovators in retail banking.

The ideal retail bank customer acts like an annuity, sending a steady stream of cash flows back to the bank.

But real customers are far from ideal. They demand access to a broad range of expensive customer channels, some of which they use infrequently if at all. They ask difficult questions and keep calling for answers. Plus, they'll walk out the door for any reason at all without warning or apology. Maybe someone offered them a better deal, maybe they disliked the furniture at your branch, or maybe they waited too long on hold. You'll probably never know.

That's why community banks such as Republic Bank (Fla.) and Liberty Bank (Conn.) strive to know exactly what their customers might want next, and then provide it with a smile, or why Michigan Heritage Bank updated its Web offering. It's also why Key Bank created a check image archive, so that representatives can answer customer inquiries without delay. It's the strategy of superior customer service: "Don't give anyone a reason to leave."

A saturated banking market with severe price pressures, as faced by Lloyds TSB in the U.K., calls for a slight variation on the theme: "In particular, don't give your least-risky customers a reason to leave."

And if you're like Italy's Banca Primavera competing against banks trapped in a regulatory straitjacket, or MIDFLORIDA FCU, competing against banks that have to pay taxes, then several attractive customer service strategies arise: "Give your competitors' customers a great reason to leave."

When Internet customers have difficulty filling out an application, Bank of America sends someone to the rescue for an online chat. When customers walk into a Citizens Bank branch, they'll now find a streamlined account opening process. These illustrate a related strategy: "Get off to a good start, and they're far less likely to leave."

While virtually any bank can provide superior customer service by throwing enough money at it, a sustainable competitive advantage only comes from providing great service for less money. Take Comerica, for example. No slouch in the service department, the bank's branches have been quietly humming along on late-'90s-era PCs supported by a strong mainframe customer information system. Only recently, after the bank installed a new multi-channel hub, did the bank make the hardware upgrade decision. That's the lowest-cost-of-ownership strategy: "We give them everything they need for less-why would they leave?"

But winning at cost-of-ownership is like doing the limbo dance-how low can you go? That's what Scotiabank hopes to find out with its outsourced technology infrastructure and centralized server farm for branch systems. It's also the approach taken by National Commercial Bank, Jamaica, which has an ambitious plan to saturate the island with low-cost, high-quality banking. Not coincidentally, both banks intend to export their business models and technology architectures to other areas.

Through all these strategies, at least one thing's for sure: Banks will do whatever it takes to keep their "annuities" happy.

In this special report, "Channel Superstars," Bank Systems & Technology takes a look at some of the leaders and innovators in retail banking.

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