December 23, 2008

Since the early days of online banking, bank Web sites have improved in areas such as account alerts, authentication, navigation and design. But these mostly are modest changes that have not had much of an impact on the overall user experience.

At the same time, many brokerage Web sites have made significant strides. To compete, banks need to make some serious changes to their sites. Below are some best practices that would make bank Web sites easier to use and more valuable to customers and prospects.

Account Information

Upgrade your check image platform. A Corporate Insight survey found that 79 percent of regular bank Web site users consider check images "very" or "extremely important," making this one of the most important bank Web site features.

The good news is that nearly all banks offer the service. The bad news is that most sites suffer from key weaknesses in this area. Image archive is the biggest problem; half of the firms we cover offer archives of three months or less. Some firms also present images that are grainy or that fail to show the front and back of the check on a single page.

Banks should expand the depth of their archives to at least a year. Firms also should allow clients to see the front and back of an individual check simultaneously. As for image quality, grayscale is preferable to simple black and white.

Account Servicing

Offer more self-service functions to clients. Bank sites may offer a good mix of account information and transactions, but self-service capabilities often are limited -- a missed opportunity for the industry. The industry leader here is Citibank.

Banks must embrace the concept of client self-service. For example, firms should allow clients to stop payment on checks by completing a simple online form. Clients should be able to change their contact information, and order checks and deposit slips via the bank site, rather than through a third-party site. These basic self-service functions will increase the value of a Web site, saving customers the trouble of having to contact customer service to make simple requests.

Prospect Experience

Add an account-selection assistant tool. The typical retail bank offers many different checking, savings and money market accounts to consumers, along with CDs, investment accounts, loans and other products. With so many choices, prospects may find it challenging to select the right account or account combination when navigating a bank's Web site.

Firms should address this issue by following the example of the big banks, such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, which provide top-notch account-selection assistant tools. Taking the form of a questionnaire, these tools probe the prospect's interest in cash-management services and ask for basic financial and biographical information. Using this information, the tool suggests the account or combination of accounts that best suit the prospect's needs and offers links to open the account. Any financial institution offering more than a few different types of accounts probably could improve their customer conversion rates by offering a well-designed account-selection assistant tool.q

Michael Ellison is a weekly contributor to BS&T's online blog, available at banktech.com/blog