Online Banking: Not Ready for Prime Time

When I signed up for online banking, I thought it would be easy, fast, and efficient. Here’s what I thought would happen.

I’d sign up for an online banking account that I could use with my Quicken software. Then, I’d be able to download the details on those pesky credit card bills and not have to enter them each individually. I’d be able to check on my balance easily. I’d be able to make electronic payments that would zip across the company at the speed of an electron. And I’d be able to do all of this from my computer, wherever I happen to be in the world if I could just connect to the Net.

If you’re thinking about online banking, and that’s your vision, read on.

Signing Up

The first thing I did was I went to my bank’s Web site and I went though the process for signing up for an online account. This was about as easy as could be. They used my social security number as my user name and asked me to pick a password. Once I did that, my accounts were online. I just needed to select which ones I needed to work with.

My first inkling that my bank may not have had its total act together came when I went to make a funds transfer using my shiny new ATM/Credit Card. It came from my bank. In my bank I have a linked checking and savings account. Those accounts were linked online as well. Silly me, I just assumed they would be linked on the card.

That was not the case. The ATM blinked back at me the message that my accounts were not linked, and I could not transfer funds. I could remedy that if I only called a certain 800 number. Seems like the online linking and the in-branch linking did not extend to the card linking.

I called the 800 line and got the account switched, then I ran over and made my deposit. But I had this bad feeling that banking was not as easy as I thought it would be in the digital age.

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Signing Up II

Ok, I thought, I’ve got my online banking set up, now all I have to do is link my Quicken to it.

So, I fired up Quicken, made my Internet connection, and clicked on the button to get my electronic banking started. Sure enough, my bank was one of the ones they’d already set up, so I clicked on the link to the bank’s site.

It was the bank’s site. It had the bank’s logo and URL. So I was surprised when I got a new signup form. I’d already filled one of these out and was already signed up for online banking.

There was no way for me to figure out what was going on the Web site. There were no buttons to help me answer the question of what do I do if I’ve already got online banking setup.

So, I signed off the Web and dialed the 800 number from my bank. It was the wrong 800 number. The nice customer service person on the other end of the line gave me a different 800 number and told me that was the number for online banking, which evidently is different than the bank itself.

I called the online banking number. After listening to on-hold music that sounded like Jingle Bells played on a nose flute, I got another chirpy customer service representative. “Oh,” she said, “You’re signed up for online banking with us, but what you were trying to do was sign up for online banking with Quicken. They’re different.”

I was puzzled. I mentioned that the Web page that Quicken took me to was on the their website. “No, it’s not,” said the online banking person. “Yes it is,” I replied, “the URL is”

The customer service representative paused for a moment. “What’s a URL?” she asked.

I knew I was in trouble. I got her to explain the situation. It goes like this. My online banking signup with my bank has nothing to do with Quicken. Quicken has its own online banking that costs an additional $3.00 a month. It’s signed up through Quicken. I thought that meant it wasn’t my bank, but the customer service person assured me that they processed the application after Quicken took it. It would take about a week.

Let’s stop for a minute here. Here we have two firms, my bank and Intuit in some kind of a strategic alliance, except that it really doesn’t work very much like a strategic alliance. Instead there are two different banking systems side-by-side. In addition, it takes a week for my bank to process the application that I put in through Quicken that covers the same information that I’d already put in through my online banking on the bank site. And, since the Quicken page is on the bank site, while I might think that meant it was part of the bank, the bank didn’t think so.

I decided that this was just too much for my little heart to bear and that I would just stay with my bank’s online banking system for a while and continue to do the Quicken things manually.

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Paying a Bill in the Not-So-Digital World

At least, I thought, I could use the online bill pay that my bank had. I decided I’d try with a credit card bill I had that was due in about a week. Normally, I’d have to write the check that day and fire it off via the US Mail and that US Mail would take just about seven days to get the check there. I’d use electronic bill payment this time because that would be faster. Not!

I went to my bank’s Web site and I checked out the credit cards that could be paid. Sure enough, my credit card was there. I filled in my account number, I was ready to go.

I clicked schedule a payment. I selected the credit card company I just entered. I picked a date. I entered an amount. I clicked go, or whatever it was that my bank’s Web site wanted me to click. The electronic funds were on their way. Wow, I thought, that will be there tomorrow. Not.

The next day I checked my credit card to make sure the payment had been received, It hadn’t. Well, I thought, maybe they do the transfer at night and it misses the processing time at the credit card. I’ll wait one more day.

The next day I checked the credit card again. Still no credit. I called the credit card company who told me they had not received a payment of any kind, electronic or paper.

I called the customer service people at my bank and explained that I had made an electronic payment to a credit card company and that they had not received it. I needed to know what to do next. They informed me that that would be handled by the Online Banking Division. I was transferred.

This was better than the last time, when they couldn’t transfer me, just give me another 800 number. Still, I was beginning to feel uneasy.

Angela, the nice woman from Online Banking, heard my story. “Oh,” she said, “that’s handled by Electronic Bill Paying. I’ll transfer you”. She did. At least the bank can transfer calls, even if transferring money seems to be a problem. And they know who’s on their internal phone directory, even if they don’t know who’s on their website.

The woman from Online Bill Paying listened to me patiently. “Oh,” she said, “that won’t credit for another week.”

There was a long pause at my end while I processed this information. “Why not?” I asked.

Now, as someone who’s been reading and writing about electronic commerce for a while, I figured that what would happen was that the electrons representing my payment would shoot on over to the credit card company where they would become electrons taking care of the crediting of my account. Nope. That’s far too simple a concept.

The Online Bill Payment person explained to me that what actually happened was that my bank received my scheduled payment and cut an electronic check which went to the Federal Reserve. It sat there for a while, and then was sent on in paper form to my credit card company. I asked why. Seems my credit card company “doesn’t accept electronic payments.”

I asked why that wasn’t mentioned on the site when I selected that company. I was told it was covered in the terms and conditions and that the nice woman at Online Bill Payment would be happy to send me a copy of those. Now, I’d read the terms and conditions and I knew it was buried in there, but by now I was feeling a bit nasty. Well, actually more than a bit.

“How about emailing it to me?” I said. “I can’t do that.” she said. I might have known.

So I asked my final question, “If there’s going to be a paper check cut anyway, what’s the advantage to me of using online banking?” I was told it was easier. And, in a sense it is. I can schedule a payment and it gets made. I don’t have to actually write out the check, and I don’t actually stick it in an envelope.

But, at least in this case, the payment would be slower than a paper check sent by mail.

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There are several things that happened here that made me ponder what has to happen before electronic commerce becomes a reality, at least in the consumer side of the world.

First, banks have to get their acts together. If the SmartCards, and the Online Banking, and the ATM’s, and the Branches don’t work together, there’s no real benefit in having the electronic tools. All they’ve created is a wonderful opportunity to listen to that awful music on hold.

In addition to that, having three separate customer service people, each of whom can hand off a problem to someone else without solving it doesn’t make for good customer service. What it makes for is significant frustration and no problems being solved. At least not from my end. They think they’ve solved the problem because they’ve passed it on. And their appraisal system probably thinks so, too.

Clearly, if the bank is going to get together with a company like Intuit so that the firms each benefit, it would be a good idea if they coordinated their efforts. I’m just a dumb preacher’s kid from the Bronx here, and I may be missing a nuance, but having separate parallel systems doesn’t strike me as a stunning advantage for strategic partnership. At least not from my end. They probably think they’re being good businesspeople by not wasting time and effort on merging the systems.

And think about my signup process. In order to bank using my software, I needed to make a separate application that would be approved by the same bank that’s already approved an almost identical application. Yet, the two don’t seem to be able to be brought together. That probably works from their side, since they don’t have to modify much in their procedures.

And then, there’s truth in advertising. Give me an easy way to find out how payments are going to be handled. “Electronic Banking” or “Online Banking” means to me that things move electronically. If they don’t I’d like to know about it. When you list that credit card company that doesn’t “take electronic payments”, tell me that it doesn’t and explain to me what that means. If you’re going to have a special area on your site devoted to a particular strategic partner or vendor, take responsibility for what appears there, it’s your site, dammit.

Again, that probably works for the bank and the other players. After all, they’ve got it covered in paragraph 38, subparagraph B of the Terms and Conditions, which they can’t even email to me.

In Summary

What we’ve got now in online banking is a giant Velcro ball of solutions. I little solution here, stuck to another solution there, stuck to another solution there, until we get a great big jumble of stuff. In one of his books, the excellent management writer, Russell Ackoff, defined a mess as “a system of problems.” Online banking today, if my experience is typical, is a mess.

It won’t get better for a while. That’s not because of technology. The technology is there to make it work today. No, the problem is exactly what it is in many other business situations. The companies involved are so focused on their own problems, procedures and solutions that they just don’t care about their customers.

Till that happens, online banking may be a great article in Futurist magazine, but in the real world it’s like a giant swamp filled with chirpy, snappy “customer service” people and awful music on hold.

Things have gotten better for lots of folks. In general the technology works better than it used to. Folks using money management software find it pretty easy to handle their online banking once they’ve gone through a set-up stage.

On the customer service front, though, things are still pretty rocky for lots of bank customers. It’s still very hard to find someone at a branch who really knows anything about online banking. Maybe they don’t use it. It’s still rare to have to talk to only one person on the bank’s help line if you’ve got a question about your account and about online banking.

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