November 30, 2004

Last month's feature on bank branches included a description of a possible branch of the future, in which videoconferencing technology enables the outsourcing of the product expert. You'll walk into a branch and a sales manager will lead you to a nicely appointed conference room with a widescreen television. Over the video link, you'll be introduced to a banker who may be located anywhere in the world. You'll get personalized advice, sign on the dotted line and walk away a satisfied customer.

Just take a moment to let that sink in ... The concept combines the charm of a salesperson on the floor with the hypnotic appeal of television. How could anyone resist that one-two punch? It would be like watching an infomercial with someone sitting next to you on the couch saying, "You know, that's an excellent price for the 12-piece cutlery set, and it would look great on the counter next to the pasta maker."

Then, Ron Popeil himself would chime in, "Ivan, how much do you think you'd have to pay for this at a typical department store? Especially considering that your department store charge card shows an outstanding balance of $388.72, which we'd be happy to transfer to your bank card if you act now."

Sure, that's not what the proponents of the technology have in mind. But we all know how this really works. At first, you actually would get a live financial expert on the other end of the videoconference, and the banks would be satisfied at having reduced staffing costs in the branch. But then, the consultants would figure out that each half-hour session costs some dollar amount that would be best spread across multiple customers. So instead of getting your own expert, you'll join a "class" of people across the country within your financial stratum for an interactive group chat with an expert.

After that, someone would look through the feedback forms and come to the shocking realization that a half-hour session on banking is less interesting than watching pasta get extruded through a machine.

Throw in an animatronic Ron Popeil, and it's, "Pasta la vista, bankers!"