Does It Really Matter What Retail Banking Consumers Want?

A leading consulting firm surveyed banking consumers to find out what they wanted, and discovered that “the vast majority considered responsive customer service, competitive pricing, convenient branch locations, online banking offerings, and convenient branch hours to be either important or very important.”


What a useless list. When have you ever heard a banker say “we don’t need to worry about pricing our services competitively or having convenient branch locations and hours because nobody thinks that’s important”?

The problem with the list is two-fold: Providing all of the five things doesn’t guarantee a bank’s success, and a bank could fall short on one (or more) of those attributes and still be wildly successful. In fact, the research found that “at least 75% of those surveyed described themselves as satisfied or very satisfied with the banks’ customer service, and branch hours and locations.” That says two things:

  1. People who rant and rave about how terrible banks’ customer service are wrong.
  2. Providing “responsive customer service” and “convenient branch locations/hours” are no more than table stakes since, apparently, most banks are doing that just fine, thank you.

Other consultants would argue that what matters is not what consumers want, but how they feel. One firm in particular has attempted to popularize the following construct, looking at “likelihood to annoy” versus “likelihood to delight.”


Personally, I have no idea what those percentages represent, but the gist of the chart is spot on. There are “moments of truth” that, if handled correctly, will delight consumers, and if not handled correctly, will annoy them. That should be a DUH! finding, but it isn’t because some execs get blinded by:

  1. Data that shows generalities about the desire for convenient branch locations and hours, and
  2. The fact that not all consumers face moments of truth in any given year.

The second part of that statement is the real issue. How many consumers, in a given year, apply for a loan, report fraudulent activity, or file a complaint? The percentage of those who do the first two things are pretty low. And if “at least 75% of those surveyed described themselves as satisfied or very satisfied with the banks’ customer service,” then it’s likely that not a lot of people are filing complaints.

I have no idea if the first consulting firm cited above asked consumers in its survey how important it was to lodge a complaint, apply for a loan, or report fraudulent activity. If it did, the percentage of respondents who said those things were important couldn’t have been as high as it was for the five things listed in the chart above. Yet, the five things listed in the chart aren’t the “moments of truth” that annoy or delight.

This leads us to the question at hand: Does it really matter what consumers say they want?

The answer is no. What people say they want is (or can be) shaped by how we ask what they want, and people don’t always know what they want if they haven’t been in a particular type of situation.

Apple didn’t develop the iPod, iPad, and iPhone based on surveys of what consumers said they wanted. Those products were developed (or shaped) by visions of what could be possible.

The lack of vision in the banking world is a far bigger issue than the “lack of innovation” that so many people in the industry rant about. Fintech startups won’t “disrupt” banks because they’re “digital.” If it happens, it will be because they’ll build and deliver new products, service, and features based on their vision of what could be.

No market research told Lending Club that people want to borrow from other people. No market research told Venmo young consumers want to share snarky comments when they reimburse their friends for lunch. Similar examples abound.

Yet, traditional bank and credit union execs default — like a conditioned reflex — to not making decisions without first asking “what do our customers want?” If they don’t have the answer at hand, they go off and conduct research. That takes months to design the survey, field the survey, and then analyze the results.

And this research produces what? A list that says “the vast majority of people we asked considered a bunch of features to be ‘important’ or ‘very important.'”

Bottom Line: Stop asking what consumers want, and start developing your financial institution’s own vision for how you will differentiate yourself and succeed in banking.

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Check out more of his ideas and research on Cornerstone's Insight Vault. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

This article was originally published on January 28, 2016. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Another great piece Ron. I would totally agree with you. After all, we are all customers at the end of the day. We don’t we start by developing and building a bank that we ourselves would love to use. Or course you need some way to validate your vision. But asking customers who are used to branch banking about the possibilities that the internet and technology can bring is like asking olden day cowboys about faster horses rather than automobiles and airplanes.

  2. Thanks, Aidan. Regarding your comment about “asking branch customers about Internet possibilities”, I wrote about exactly that almost 5 years ago:

    See point #3 on The Blepfard Effect.

  3. Greg Shaver says:

    Your very last sentence is exactly what everyone in our industry should be doing.

    “Start developing your (FI’s) own vision for how you will differentiate yourself and succeed in banking.”

    It’s amazing how many have no clue (vision) to where they are going. They continue to do the same things they have always done with no sense of urgency. If you can’t do it from within, collaborate with vendors or other institutions to establish the differentiation you need to survive. Otherwise you’re about to become a dinosaur.

  4. Great article, Ron.

    The part, I believe, which hits home the most is, “Fintech startups won’t “disrupt” banks because they’re “digital.” If it happens, it will be because they’ll build and deliver new products, service, and features based on their vision of what could be.”

    IMHO, at the end of the day, it’s all about the customer experience, and Fintech companies realize this and are building products, services and processes that make the experience faster, easier, less expensive, more transparent, more convenient, etc. That’s why they are succeeding and have traditional banks scratching their heads.

    Thank you.

  5. This couldn’t be more spot-on, Ron. Ten days ago my daughter’s debit card (placed with a top 4 US bank) was compromised. Still don’t have a replacement card after numerous phone calls and attempts to resolve. AMEX – same issue with fraud (about a year ago) – had a new card on my doorstep via FedEx in 48 hours. I am super annoyed and won’t forget it any time soon. And I don’t go to the branch – ever – so I care not where they are located or what their hours might be.

  6. Greg: Here’s what’s scary: A recent Harvard Biz Review (online) article reported that just 8% of senior execs are really good at both strategy and execution. Yet the planning processes in most organizations FORCE them to be part of the strategy formulation process. But they’re not good at it! So they pretend like they’re making great contributions, and go back to business as usual.

    Roger: Thanks for the comment. Fintech companies may very well be building products, services and processes that make the experience faster, easier, etc., but for now, many are NOT succeeding at anything more than generating press.

    Mark: I really need to meet you in person. I’ve never met a man who was mad that his daughter DIDN’T have an ability to spend money. What the hell is wrong with you? 🙂 Just kidding, of course. I’m actually surprised to hear that. Would’ve thought the top 4 banks would have had the card replacement process down pat.

  7. My take… focus groups and surveys suck when trying to figure out what consumers want. We used to run them for banks and CUs but stopped because they end up in group think and provide no clear insights. And the questions for focus groups suck too. It really is so easy to game responses.

    Instead, we have found live user testing on websites (observational research) a much better way to plan and implement around the consumer. Consumers are more honest in this setting… especially when comparing one digital experience to another.

    It is always fun to deliver user test videos to a client as they provide an unbiased opinion about their digital experience.

    Moving in a digital focused direction does provide banks and CUs a real opportunity to update their vision and do something different than the other lemming FIs.

    But as Ron noted, change is hard to implement. And according to John Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency, Kotter observed that about 70% of needed changes fail to be effectively carried out by organizations.

    My theory is this comes down to two things:

    1. Three innate fears:

    2. Saying no and letting go:

    Banks and CUs must be able to answer the question of why do you exist?

    Here’s a hint… an FI’s existence should be positioned around the customer… not the FI. This is a very hard paradigm shift for many but it is nothing more than a reflection of the narcissism found in society and amplified by social media.

    The banks/CUs (and startups) who can first answer their reason for existence, with a response that goes beyond the standard response of providing “great rates and amazing service”, and second communicate this reason will be the ones who grow in the years to come.

  8. Ron,

    I should have been more clear. I was referring to the building of products and services themselves. I realize that most Fintechs have a long way to go to attract a critical mass of users/clients before becoming mainstream.

    Thank you again for your spot on insight.


  9. To tweak the famous Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to a marketing context, product managers can’t find out what consumers really want when consumers know that they’re being surveyed by the market researcher. That said, I second @JamesRobertLay’s view that product managers can gain useful insights about what consumers want by observing what they’re actually doing in real life situations. Nevertheless, such observation can yield, at best, a basic product aka MVP. They’re merely necessary – but not sufficient – inputs to create pathbreaking products. I totally agree that Apple developed Passbook, Apple Pay etc. by using “visions of what “could” be possible”.

    To me the key questions in the context of retail banking are:

    (1) Have most banks gone past the stage of MVPs for most of their products?

    If yes, they should obviously envision the possible to take their products to the next stage where they become pathbreaking.

    If not,

    (2A) Should they (merely) listen to what customers want (via live behavior studies, not surveys) and develop the MVPs first (without envisioning of the possible)


    (2B) Should they leapfrog the MVP and envision the possible to create pathbreaking products?

  10. Roger: Thanks for the clarification.

    JR/KS: Thanks for the insights. Agree with both of you. But want to add one more point that I didn’t address in the article, and hasn’t come up in the comments: SEGMENTATION.

    An FI needs to know which segment(s) it intends to serve. Identifying the needs and wants of “consumers” is great, but that will produce a list that no one bank or credit union can adequately address.

    I’m sure some will disagree with this….but I think segmentation is key to USAA’s success. They design everything they do around the “active, deployed military member.” Sure, there are other segments they serve (e.g., non-deployed military, retired military), but those other segments seem happy with the capabilities developed for the core segment.

  11. Ron, I agree wholeheartedly, segmentation is key and plays a very critical role in the marketing of most any product, within most any industry. Look at most any successful product overtime and chances are it was a product directed, marketed, intended, etc. for a very specific audience, not the general mass of consumers. Sure, that specific audience might at times be very large (e.g., military members, etc.), and mass-like, but in reality it is a segment of the whole.

    Regarding focus groups, plenty of studies have shown that all they do is help to reinforce the opinions, thoughts, ideas, etc. of the people conducting the research. Very little is gained in regard to a truly breakthrough or aha moment.

    I agree with KS above, and the operative word being used is “leapfrog.” Companies, banks or otherwise, need to understand what it means to jump ahead of the competition and, by this, I mean they need to look beyond the norm or what currently exists and really push the envelope. This is what it means to be truly innovative and visionary. The trick here, however, is that it can’t just be done once…leapfrogging needs to be a regular practice within an organization, but it’s difficult, no doubt. Maybe this is what’s giving the Fintechs a boost when it comes to product innovation and creation versus the traditional banks.

    To JRL’s point (Moving in a digital focused direction does provide banks and CUs a real opportunity to update their vision and do something different than the other lemming FIs.), I don’t believe digital is always the key. Look at the example above with the bank card being lost/replaced…this is pure customer service, nothing digital per se. Banks or any company can become as digital as they want, the competition will follow and, as I have often written about, commoditization will set in if it’s not present already. Sure digital may help to enhance, achieve, deliver, etc., but companies need to focus on the overall experience, not just products, services, digital. mobile, etc.

    Thank you.

  12. @Ron – Yes segmentation is the key. And it is the right pillar of the Digital Marketing Blueprint. You can’t be all things to all people and banks/CU leadership has to find the courage to start saying “no”. I speak about segmentation in this video here:

    And by saying “no” to market segments does not mean we won’t serve them, it just means that we won’t position around them. USAA is a great example. The same is true for Simple and even SoFi.

    @Roger – my perspective of digital is that it is the primary point of interaction/communication/experience for a consumer regardless of if it is a first touch during the awareness stage of a buying journey or in onboarding during the adoption period. And as digital as things get, humanity is and still will be a very important part of this journey.

    You are right that the competition will always follow. Just look at any bank and CU website and they are all the same. The messaging is the same. The products are the same. The stories are the same. Ron wrote about that here:

    And one way to go beyond commoditization is to tell a different story. A story that places the consumer as the protagonist while the bank/CU takes a secondary role as the helpful guide. Because without a guide there is no hero. And without a hero, there is no story. For example, without Obi-wan, there is no Luke or Star Wars. And without Gandolf, there is no Frodo or Lord of the Rings.

  13. @RogerMarquis:

    I agree with you that leapfrogging competition is tough for banks. That said, it does happen once in a while. I noticed it most recently in the case of mobile wallets for bill payments. Banks in India were asleep at the wheels when MNOs launched mobile wallets like Vodafone M-PESA and third parties like PAYTM launched their own versions. At last, banks woke up and came up with their own version of mobile wallets. Nothing notable until HDFC Bank came up with PayZapp. I wouldn’t call it pathbreaking but it delivers the best possible CX under the present regulatory environment (stubborn insistence on 2FA by the banking regulator). Whether it surveyed customers of competing mobile wallets or beta users of its own mobile wallet or simply used common sense, it “envisioned the possible” and came up with a design that eliminates onboarding friction that was endemic with MNO mobile wallets and sidesteps the CVV and VbV friction hotspots present in third party mobile wallets, and still delivered a product that is fully compliant with 2FA mandate. More at, should you wish to know more.

  14. David Kreiman says:

    Love this frickin article!

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