New Study Highlights Online Self-Service Flaws Among Retail Banks

Customers relying on the Web sites of the top U.S. retail banks are unlikely to have a satisfactory experience, according to a new study by the Allen Bonde Group (ABG), a market research and management consulting firm based in Wellesley Hills, MA. The study, entitled "The State of Web Self-Service: Search Effectiveness and Performance of the Web Channel at the Top U.S. Retail Banks," highlights the results of a survey of the Web sites of the 50 largest retail banks and thrifts. It is a sequel of sorts to an earlier ABG study on self-service at retailers ("Study Reveals Retail Web Sites Offer Poor Self-Service"). Focusing on two key metrics -- effective search and navigation, and site availability and performance -- the new study concludes that many retail banking sites "provide a confusing or frustrating user experience." In fact, 20 percent of sites surveyed don't even offer a search function at all on their home pages for consumers. ABG refers in the study to what it calls the self-service paradox: that despite "the amount of money being spent driving customers to the Web...businesses continue to drop the ball when it comes to providing online customer service." "Banks are not taking advantage of what they could be doing online," says ABG president Allen Bonde. "The majority of banks are doing some things, but...their marketing is ahead of their actual capabilities when it comes to their online properties." Relying in part on data gathered by Web measurement firms Keynote Systems and Empirix, the report notes that as many as one in 10 transactions fail; there is as much as a threefold difference in Web site performance between the best- and worst-performing banks; banks often deliver slow response times to customers using the Internet; and, among self-service options, the Web delivers the most inconsistent customer experience. Of the 40 sites that offered a search function, only seven were able to answer successfully ABG's three sample search queries: "Where are your bank branches?" "Do you offer a 20-year fixed-rate mortgage?"and "How do I contact customer service?. Twenty-five were unable to answer any of the three. Even when a search produces a result, however, ABG contends that the results don't often provide a useful answer. On average, about 67 percent of sites with a search engine provided at least some response, "but about 75 percent of the time the information was irrelevant," the report found. In other words, the study says, "Web sites can be highly effective at providing the wrong information." Most banks, the report notes, "are doing a poor job when it comes to providing the type of search, navigation and performance...necessary to provide an effective (seamless, multichannel) self-service experience." Nevertheless, David Hybels, ABG program manager and lead author of the study, contends that Web self-service can be a differentiator among retail banks, provided it's effective. "Our premise is that if you're providing a true multichannel experience, you need to be providing a consistency across channels," he says. "You should at a minimum be able to support the types of everyday-language question you might ask if you were talking to a teller or to an agent on the phone." And poor self-service, according to Allen Bonde, remains worse than none at all. "We know there's a lot of benefit in using an online channel -- but if it's not done well, you may as well not have a Web site," he says. "Customers will vote not just with their wallets, but with their clicks." The Web sites of several large banks performed admirably in ABG's study, with those of SunTrust, Bank of America, and Wachovia topping the list. Other top performers in terms of search effectiveness included AmSouth Bank, Huntington Bancshares, Charter One Bank, and Charles Schwab. ABG ascribed these success stories to natural language search and navigation tools, noting that sites with those features "performed better than their peers, and consistently did well on a broad range of queries, showing both the effectiveness and flexibility of their enhanced search capabilities." The difference, Bonde says, is clear in each bank's approach to technology: "Some banks are a little behind the curve, and sometime bill themselves quite proudly as 'late adopters'...[but] some banks are differentiating based on service." According to ABG's research, Bank of America and Charter One Bank both use Inquira, SunTrust uses Kanisa site search, Charles Schwab uses iPhrase, and both Amsouth and Huntington use solutions from Mindfabric.
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