Consumers Want More Practical Online Tools, Portable Bank Account Numbers

Portable account numbers, designed to make switching between banking providers easier, would be welcomed by customers across the world. And they say banks on social media channels doesn’t interest them. Instead consumers would prefer more useful online tools, like user product reviews and live chat.

According to a study conducted by BT and YouGov, 61% of banking customers in the U.S. favor portable banking account numbers.

The research, which surveyed more than 6,500 people across six countries, found most consumers agreeing that a portable account number — one allowing them to switch banks without changing account details and causing major disruptions — would be useful. Some 76% of consumers in Spain, 70% in Hong Kong, 64% in France, 62% in the U.K., and 61% in Germany felt portable account numbers were a good idea.

The notion of portable account numbers is one that has seen more traction in Europe than in the US. The UK’s banking industry has flirted with a system for portable bank account numbers for some time now. Alas, the US financial sector has been slow to catch on and there has been little dialogue about it, so it’s not surprising American consumers trail behind others in the desire for tools that increase account motility.

Back in July 2012, another study revealed 32% of consumers would be more likely to switch if they had a portable account number that they could take along with them to a new bank, just like a mobile phone number.

Indeed the mobile phone industry may serve as a harbinger of things to come for the financial industry. Readers in the US may recall when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, requiring phone companies to offer local number portability. It seems that — extending Congressional reasoning — portable bank account numbers are an inevitability. It’s a question of when, not if.

Reality Check: When consumers can switch banks with only a few taps on their iPad, that’s when things are really going to heat up in the financial industry. Your online banking tools had better rock, because competition will be fierce. What will banks and credit unions do when  consumer inertia — the feeling that a consumer is held hostage by their banking provider because it’s too much hassle: “Ugh, I’ve got to change all my online bill pay details…” It’s the only thing preventing most consumers from making the switch, and has long been a trusty crutch favored by retail financial institutions.

“Almost three quarters of consumers see their local branch as the most vital link with their bank.”

Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents in all markets did not consider “engaging in dialogue with their banking provider in social media channels” a priority, nor was their any interest in using social networks to share the kind of information necessary to conduct transactions. This despite the efforts of financial institutions worldwide to embrace sites like Twitter and Facebook.

On the contrary, when asked which three tools they would most like their bank to provide, customers indicated that they would like to see more sophisticated, more practical online tools — all hosted on the financial institution’s main website. The features most desired by consumers include peer review sections (32%), live chat functionality (23%) and compare-my-bank style services (29%).

When asked about which three factors would be the most appealing when considering moving banks, the results were fairly consistent across all countries. Good online banking facilities (39%), the presence of a local branch (45%) and the ability to access banking services 24/7 (29%) were ranked highest.

An earlier study from BT titled found that found that despite the growing use of new delivery channels, almost three quarters (73%) of consumers see their local branch as the most vital link with their bank in the future — second only to ATMs.

“Banks must be careful not to lose sight of the need for human contact.”

Respondents in Spain placed more emphasis than others on having trust in a bank’s brand (37%) and reputation for security (36%) — ranking higher than factors such as 24/7 availability of banking services (only 22%). This is obviously the result of the widespread economic turmoil afflicting Spain right now, particularly in the banking sector.

Some interesting geographical differences also emerged in the perceptions of banking technology, with German consumers being the least likely to choose mobile banking as one of their top three most-trusted banking technologies, followed closely by the UK. Only 5% of Germans and 10% of Brits said that mobile banking is one of their three most-trusted technologies, although the results were low across all countries. Across the board, internet banking, in-branch self-service and ATMs were viewed as the three most trustworthy technologies.

“Banks are increasingly focused on providing services via smart phones and tablet devices in order to keep pace with digital changes and innovation,” noted BT’s Tom Regent. “While this is an important strategy, banks must be careful not to lose sight of the need for human contact in either the branch or via a local call center agent.  Our research shows that these continue to be customers’ most trusted and preferred channels.”

“Financial marketers have a long way to go before they convince consumers that mobile banking is safe and secure.”

It also suggests banks and credit unions have a long way to go before they convince consumers that mobile banking is safe and secure. Smart financial marketers are always sure to stress security when positioning mobile solutions with consumers.

While there has been much buzz about alternative payments systems such as Bitcoins, Facebook Credits and virtual wallets, consumers are leery. The percentage of respondents who had tried an alternative payment system was less than 10% across most of the countries polled. Respondents from Hong Kong and Spain said they were the most likely to try alternative payment methods in the next 18 months (43% and 36% respectively). Respondents from the U.S. and Germany were least likely to say they would experiment with an alternative payment system some time in the next 18 months (12% and 9%).

The study’s total sample size was 6,647adults in France (1,010), Germany (1,053), Hong Kong (518), Spain (1,006), the USA (1,000) and the UK (2,060). Fieldwork was conducted December 11-27, 2012. The survey was carried out online.

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