The Top Five Retail Checking Trends for 2013


outlook-new.jpg2013 holds much promise and potential for financial institutions (FIs) willing to think, believe and invest in checking product design and delivery that takes into account the top trends shown below. For those FIs that don’t, good luck waiting for overdrafts to make a comeback or for customers to start gladly paying for traditional checking-related benefits.

#1 Customer Friendly  Fee Income Will Continue to Emerge

2013 will mark the beginning of many more FIs deciding to design checking accounts that are so good that their customers will actually want them enough to willingly pay for them. Design previously   employed to devise complicated account terms and conditions that result in customer confusion and unfriendly penalty fees will be rechanneled into innovative design of great products focused on a fair exchange of value with customers for a reasonable monthly fee. This customer-friendly, fair value approach is the only way to generate massive, growing and sustainable fee income in today’s regulatory environment.  

#2 Relationship Building Will Necessitate  a More Engaging Product Experience

The rapid and projected growth of online and mobile banking (e.g. a March 2012 Federal Reserve study) has reduced branch traffic (25 percent over the past five years per consulting firm Bancography). This limits the number of opportunities for customers doing routine, checking-related transactions to interact directly with branch employees and experience firsthand exceptional customer service.

This means the checking product’s inherent value has to step up to play a larger role in building customer relationships. To do this, the checking account’s “customer connection factor” (CCF) will need to be much higher than it is today. In 2013, more and more FIs will realize the growing importance of the checking CCF and design and deliver accordingly. The top FIs are already there.  In 2013, they will smartly integrate applicable retailing best practices like local, mobile and social into their design and delivery. Those that wait to improve the CCF and rely solely on great customer service will regret this decision.

#3 Fixing the Unprofitable Relationships Will Be Required

The primary revenue generators (loans and fees) will continue to struggle to recover in 2013, while operating costs will continue to rise. This stubborn financial pinch will necessitate that FIs can no longer ignore dealing with the approximate 40 percent of their checking household relationships that are unprofitable (and make up only 3.5 percent of total revenue and 2.2 percent of all other deposit and loan relationship dollars). FIs will fix these relationships by actively employing the first two trends and not depending exclusively on the elusive cross-sale. Otherwise, the financial pinch will continue its squeeze and hurt.

#4 Optimizing the Existing Base of Profitable Checking Customers

Just as important as financially optimizing the unprofitable relationships is getting as many of the approximate 60 percent of customers who are profitable to experience your product’s improved CCF. This is the plan to optimize protecting (retaining) and growing existing profitable customers.

The top way to do this is to let them experience checking products with higher CCF than what you offer them today. Getting this done means FIs must also use innovative ways to get these enhanced products into the hands of these customers via unordinary marketing strategies like sweepstakes, contests, satisfaction guarantees, email communication, viral promotion and small business community tie-ins. Free or modified free checking will still be the dominant product strategy (only 9 percent of community banks have gotten rid of it and another 9 percent plan to). The difference maker when it comes to optimizing the experience of your best customers is for products to be better, not just free.

#5 Simple, Simple, Simple Will Win

This has been a trend for many years before 2013 and will most likely continue for years after. There are the three simple things FIs can do to win the retail checking game more in 2013 than in 2012. First, simplify your line-up down to three accounts (two if you don’t offer free checking) and clean up the grandfathered ones. Second, don’t invest in a branch sales report that tracks more than just direct sales, cross sales and referral sales by product that can’t be ranked in terms of sales performance down to the individual employee. Third, your checking-related sales incentive plan must be always on, (not just “on” when connected to a product or marketing campaign) and  explainable and calculable in less than thirty seconds.

Statistics stated are from StrategyCorps’ proprietary database of over two million accounts and polling research of about 100 FI executives.  

In Search of the Perfect Checking Line-Up


perfect-score.jpgMany bankers are nobly searching for the perfect consumer checking line-up: One that connects better with customers, is more financially productive, differs dramatically from the competition and meets the changing needs of customers.

In that search, there are a lot of factors to consider, including macro and micro market segmentation, an array of home grown ideas and third-party solutions, a myriad of consumer buying trends and personal preferences, plus a lot more too lengthy to mention. It’s enough to make your hair hurt.

So, is there such a thing as the perfect consumer checking line-up? And if not, what should you focus on to get as close as possible to the perfect checking line-up?

From my standpoint, there’s not a perfect line-up today that every bank can “plug and play.”  Rapidly changing technology, evolving consumer behaviors, individual financial requirements of a particular financial institution, and most recently the fluid checking-related regulations all make a perfect line-up impossible.

To get close to the ideal of a perfect line-up, I suggest you subscribe to an “easy as 1-2-3” way of thinking, deciding and then doing.

The first 1-2-3 will work no matter your financial institution’s situation because it is consumer-centric and not bank-centric. So start your thinking here and you’re on your way:

  1. Understand how consumers really choose a checking account.
  2. Make the line-up as simple as possible to make it easy to buy and sell.
  3. Make the products as good as you possibly can so you’re not only competitive but also have at least one account your customers will happily pay for.

Once you have these as your guiding principles, let’s focus on each one individually.

Consumers choose an account based on their buyer type. So here’s the second 1-2-3, the three types of buyers:

  1. A Fee Averse Buyer – This buyer wants free checking if it’s available or the cheapest account you offer.
  2. An Interest Buyer – This buyer wants the best yield possible on their deposits and expects a market yield or above market yield.
  3. A Value Buyer – This buyer wants the best account at your institution, is most focused on account benefits and is willing to pay for the account if there’s a perceived fair exchange of value.

Your branch bankers’ product knowledge or your online merchandising message will play a significant role in helping customers decide which type of buyer they are. Top-performing retail financial institutions know this stone cold. They don’t automatically assume nearly every customer is a fee adverse buyer because they’re not. About 50 percent are. Value buyers make up about 40 percent. And in today’s interest rate environment, about 10 percent are interest buyers.

Once you understand how your customers choose checking accounts, what type of accounts should you offer and how many? The answer is the third 1-2-3. For line-up simplicity and ease of buying and selling (and the sanity of your customer and your branch banker), there are only three types of checking accounts you should offer:

  1. A No/Low Fee Account
  2. An Interest-Bearing Account
  3. A Value-Based Account

Of course, the most common no-fee account in today’s market place is unconditionally free checking. However, more and more institutions are now offering  free checking with conditions, that is, free if a simple condition is met, like getting e-statements instead of paper ones or keeping a minimum balance. If this condition is not met, then there’s a penalty fee, which is sometimes modest and at other times extremely penal for the value received.

For the interest account, customers still want as much interest as they can get (which isn’t a lot these days) and feel like the higher the balances they keep in the account, the higher the interest rate should be. Here we find a tiered-rate account with interest beginning at a stated (reasonable) balance level rather than from the first dollar. This rewards and encourages higher balances for these buyer types while letting you manage your interest expense.

The value account is one that’s not as easy to design. Having only basic checking services and charging fees for them is risky. So there is the need to enhance the value account beyond the most basic checking services. And consumers have stated in studies and in their buying actions that they will happily pay for selected non-traditional checking account benefits. (See my earlier article on BankDirector.com, “Getting Bank Customers to Happily Pay Fees.”)

If designed right, this value account can generate significant, customer-friendly revenue of at least $75 per year from about 40 percent of your customers.

So while there’s not a perfect line-up that’s an easy “plug and play” into every financial institution, you can get very close to it and produce great results by following the guidelines mentioned above.

Getting Bank Customers to Happily Pay Fees


giving-money.jpgIt seems hard to believe after years of customers not paying for basic bank services due to free checking accounts, there are actually some services many are willing to pay for.

Nearly all bank customers feel basic banking services typically found in checking accounts should be free due to providing the financial institution with low cost funding from account balances. Free checking, the dominate consumer checking strategy over the last decade, has successfully reinforced this feeling.

This sentiment may be changing for a new type of bank services. According to the Integrated Study on Service Fees, which was conducted by San Anselmo, California-based Market Rates Insight in April 2012, and included responses from 1,500 current bank customers and credit union members 18 years old and over, an average of 67 percent of consumers are likely to use and pay for what was identified as “lifestyle financial services” (see table below).

Lifestyle Financial Services

Overall likelihood of use (%)

Identity Theft Alerts

82.5

Credit Score Reporting

73.7

Personalized Couponing

69.2

Overdraft Transfer Service

67.9

Personal Money Transfer

66.2

Mobile Remote Deposit Capture*

63.4

Prepaid Reloadable Cards

47.1

Average All Services

67.1

* Per deposit

 

 

The study states that consumers feel differently about lifestyle financial services. These services have emerged as technology has advanced and personal lifestyle behaviors have changed. The result is a much more acceptable value proposition due to the services embracing increased consumer mobility, personal financial management, informed purchasing, time efficiency, digital identity protection and media connectivity.

So how much are consumers willing to pay for these lifestyle financial services? The study respondents state they are willing to pay an average fee of $3.63 per month for each of these financial lifestyle services.

There is market validation for some of the study’s results already. StrategyCorps, which provides consumer checking account solutions that incorporate some of these lifestyle financial services, has found a material percentage of consumer checking customers do indeed pay for them happily. The most popular services are personalized couponing and identity monitoring/alerts (along with cell phone protection and insurance programs), which are all mainstays of our best performing fee-based checking solution.

Our experience is that the price point customers will pay for these popular lifestyle financial services bundled in the checking account (rather than sold separately) are averaging nearly $6 per month. The typical sell rate is about 30 percent of new accounts (when unconditionally free checking continues to be offered and 60 percent+ when not offered) and 40 percent of existing accounts, when these services are properly designed in the checking account, the account is smartly positioned in the overall consumer checking lineup and product merchandising is aligned with customers’ purchasing behavior.

While customers acknowledge the value in these types of services, our experience is that product design, lineup positioning, and aligned merchandising play a critical role in a customer’s willingness to pay. In other words, these services, despite their inherent value, don’t easily sell themselves like free checking. However, when properly offered to customers, the sales rate is very high.

This means a lot of new customer-friendly fee income at a time when non-interest income at U.S. banks generated from fees on deposit accounts decreased $2.1 billion or 5.8 percent in 2011, the continuation of a five-year trend. Pile on top of this trend line the continuing regulatory pressure on overdrafts and a full year’s impact of the Durbin amendment not captured in the 2011 numbers, and the challenge of getting more fee income without ticking off customers gets even more difficult.

It‘s clear that trying to generate new fee income from just basic banking services is a proposition that customers will not accept. The market has definitively spoken on this strategy.

The good news from the results of this study and StrategyCorps’ proven market experience is that there are fee income based checking solutions that do work in addressing the fee income challenges faced by every financial institution.

Which Fee Income Camp Are You In?


fee-income-squeeze.pngThere’s no debate: Every bank needs more fee income, as do a lot of credit unions. The only debate is how a financial institution is going about meeting this need.

In StrategyCorps’ interactions with hundreds of banks and credit unions, we’ve identified three distinct camps in the need-more-fee-income challenge.

The Do-Nothing Camp. This group of financial institutions seems to be waiting for a sign that this recent decline in fee income will eventually pass. We’re not sure if that means they believe overdrafts are going to make a comeback or the Dodd-Frank Act will be repealed, or are simply in a state of denial over the fee income body blows the industry has been dealt. This camp nearly always seems to have fee income replacement on the to-do list, just not at or near the top, and oftentimes it is easily displaced by other things that are not as hard to deal with.

The “Fee-ectomy” Camp. A fee-ectomy is simply charging a fee for the same thing(s) that have been given away for free for a long time and with no corresponding additional value. As the name implies, the extraction of more fee income from customers on this unfair exchange of value basis is seemingly an easy and convenient way to generate more fee income. That is, until it starts causing significant heartburn for customers, provides negative headlines in the media and prompts the politicians to start politikin’. (Think $5 debit card fee.) This camp is comprised primarily of the larger banks that must feel the industry is basically an oligopoly, given their acceptance and commitment level to this fee income pricing strategy. Unfortunately, the by-product of the fee-ectomy strategy is an increased, or at least an ongoing, level of distrust for all banks that eventually breeds things like “bank transfer day” and unflattering customer reviews on Facebook.

The Back-to-Basics Camp. For years the industry talked about relationship banking, but never got around to doing much about it as the lucrativeness of overdrafts from free checking drowned out such discussion. Now smart financial institutions are genuinely trying to figure out what this means as a way to restore fee income by charging new fees for added value and also trying to cure the thousands of unprofitable accounts rather than firing them with arbitrary and value-less fees. This back to basics camp is approaching the fee income challenge by designing products with new features customers gladly pay for (for example, cell phone protection), marketing in a purposeful way that customers actually notice, creating better connections with customers through customized e-communication and reinforcing product education and sales training to frontline branch staff.

It’s pretty obvious which of the three camps will be the winner here (hint, it’s not the first two). But as those institutions that have adopted a back-to-basic strategy will attest, it’s not the passive way or the easy way. However, with clearly superior financial results and much happier customers, it is proving to be the right strategy for banks and credit unions that genuinely commit prioritized time and resources to addressing this issue.

If $5 Foot-Longs Sell, then Why Not $5 Checking Accounts?


sandwich.jpgYou may have recognized that Subway is running their $5 foot-long sandwich campaign again. (Are you like me, once you hear that jingle, it’s almost impossible to get it out of your head?)

So while I was humming this jingle, this got me thinking—why are consumers willing to pay $5 for an average foot long sandwich ( I don’t claim to be a sandwich connoisseur or even a sandwich “artist,” but I eat plenty of sandwiches and put Subway’s in the average category at best), yet are extremely/ violently reluctant to pay a similar amount monthly for a checking account? The checking account, after all, provides a tremendous amount of security, access and convenience when it comes to doing a financial transaction with a third party.

Looking beyond, but not overlooking, the overall consumer sentiment that one should not have to pay for access to use one’s own money, what strikes me is that consumers don’t see the offering of a “good deal” as benefit of a checking account.

Part of this is brought about due to the utter domination of free checking for the last decade or so, which has numbingly conditioned consumers that checking and all things checking-related should be free. But another big part of this is because banks and credit unions haven’t put a “good deal” in their checking accounts in terms of account benefits that help the consumer save money when they have to spend it. And they won’t promote it like they should to let their customers know they have a “good deal” in their checking product. In essence, that’s what the $5 foot-long sandwich does. It saves a consumer a buck or two when they have to spend it on lunch or dinner. And Subway uses it effectively as part of their customer connection/engagement strategy.

It seems that with the success of daily-deal companies like Groupon and LivingSocial, and the all-time high usage rate of coupons, paper and electronic, by consumers of all demographics (even the affluent), that banks are reluctant to include or promote these kinds of discounts as a checking account benefit. It’s easy to calculate a tangible dollar savings here and let’s face it, saving money on a sandwich or an oil change or on a hotel room is much more appealing and competitively different than a discount on a safe deposit box or free cashier’s checks.

At a time where there’s no debate that every bank and nearly every credit union needs more fee income and that the public won’t readily accept fee income that is not customer-friendly and adds no incremental value, it is time to re-think the benefits that consumer checking accounts’ delivers to consumers.

If you can successfully figure this out then you might hear folks humming, “five dollar…, five dollar…, five dollar checking accounts.” And if your financial institution could sell a just fraction of these compared to the number of $5 dollar foot-longs sold, you would be well on your way to finding fee income that is getting smaller and smaller every month.

Nothing for Something?


empty-tray.jpgEvery consumer is intrigued by the offer of something for nothing. Retailers have depended on the positive, natural response of consumers to this marketing message for decades to generate purchasing interest.

So it is odd, strange and frankly confusing that mega banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo), which claim to be retailers, are doing just the opposite by offering “nothing for something” when it comes to charging their customers for debit cards.

Sure, debit cards have inherent value. But financial institutions of all sizes have diluted that value by giving the cards away for many years. This has trained consumers to feel that banks can make money by providing them for free and are now being greedy by charging for them.

Three, four or five dollars per month for a debit card probably won’t put many more people in the poor house, but it sure feels unfair. Response has been overwhelmingly negative by customers, non-customers, consumer advovcates, politicians and even other financial institutions.

As a practicing amateur psychologist, it is easy to see why the reaction has been so negative. Nobody: rich/poor, male/female, black/white/brown, gay/straight, or city slicker/hayseed likes to get nothing for paying something. It violates what economists call the “fair exchange of value.” It violates what I call common sense.

And that’s what these big banks miscalculated here. It’s not the amount of the fee itself that is riling up the masses, nor is it the justification of why fees must be charged:—the government made us do it.

Rather, it’s the perception of the fee as unfair that’s causing the uproar. Earlier this year, Russell Herder, a Minnesota-based marketing research company, conducted a survey of more than 500 United States bank and credit union checking and savings account customers to ascertain if, and to what degree, loyalty to their financial institution is impacted by fees.

The bottom line, according to the survey: “The belief that a particular bank fee is unfair has a much stronger impact on consumer sentiment than the fee itself. In fact, as long as charges are perceived to be fairly assessed, the research showed no negative impact on consumer sentiment whatsoever.”

If you don’t believe these results, tell me how you feel about having to pay for your luggage when you fly.

It’s this miscalculation of the impact of these fees on the collective psyche that provides a fantastic opportunity for competing financial institutions. It offers a “bags fly free” type of marketing opportunity to gain market share and mind share of consumers just like Southwest Airlines has.

There are smarter ways to get more fee income from consumer checking customers than, in their minds, getting charged something and getting nothing. You have to be creative and not rely solely on traditional checking design and pricing, because these also face customer backlash given the value perception in customers’ minds anchored around “getting charged for using my money”.

But it can be done. Hundreds of banks are successfully doing this already and there are millions of checking customers gladly paying fees equal to or greater than what these big banks are requiring customers to pay for debit cards. Customers are willingly paying $5-$7 per month for benefits like local merchant discounts, identity theft protection and accidental death insurance (bundled with traditional checking benefits). These benefits provide tangible value to customers in terms of real savings and ample personal security. In other words, banks are simply asking customers to pay a modest fee for something that is perceived as and is valuable, instead of for paying something and getting nothing new for it in return.

Someone said “chaos creates opportunity”. And when it comes to consumer checking accounts, this is just the beginning of chaos that we’ll see as banks try to recapture lost fee income. For some of you reading this, it’ll be your “bags fly free” opportunity. For others that follow the lead of Bank of America, it’ll be just another reason for consumers to broadly brush banks as out of touch with their customers.

Which one are you? 

What’s Next for Consumer Checking after Durbin?


checking.jpgThe two major checking-related fee income sources have been the targets of regulation. Durbin will decrease interchange fees by about 45 percent (44 cents per average transaction down to 24 cents). Sure, there’s still uncertainty regarding the exclusion for financial institutions with less than $10 billion in assets, but even the most optimistic banker will concede that interchange fees will not be at levels where they’ve been before. Add to that, the estimated financial impact of FDIC and OCC overdraft guidance – a reduction of an additional 15 percent to 25 percent on top of Reg E’s first year negative impact of about 10 percent to 20 percent. So, checking account products and pricing will have to change to adapt to these new rules.

These changes to replace lost fees won’t be popular, given overall consumer sentiment towards banks these days. This challenge is compounded by the fact that free checking has convinced consumers that traditional checking benefits aren’t worth paying for. In the minds of many consumers, since banks have been able to financially justify not charging for these benefits for the last decade or so, no longer doing so is just another “fee grab” by greedy banks.

This means the easy and convenient changes like starting to charge fees for the same benefits that have been free or instituting certain requirements, like minimum balances to avoid penalty fees, is a risky move. It will anger customers, especially the most profitable ones, and chase many of them away to competitors. Plus, history has proven that these kinds of checking changes will generate only a fraction of the revenue that needs to be replaced.

Banks must make changes to their retail checking accounts to incorporate a fair exchange of value with customers. This means an upgrade in what they get when their bank begins charging fees for services. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but charging fees for benefits that customers haven’t paid for in the last decade or adding requirements to avoid a fee is a tough sell, and just defaulting to this approach will be unproductive at best.

So smart banks see the post-Durbin world of checking as an opportunity to launch innovative checking products-including adding non-traditional checking benefits deemed worthy of a charge, such as local merchant discounts and identity theft protection. And look for pricing strategies that simply and immediately reward customers by reducing checking fees based on desired banking behaviors from customers that don’t revolve around minimum balances. This differently defined “pathway to free” will replace the traditional free checking account, which will be hard to justify in the future from a profitability standpoint.

Community banks will still offer free checking, and here’s why


money-checks.jpgAt the biggest banks in the country, free checking is becoming a little less free.

  • Pittsburg-based PNC Bank, the fifth largest bank in the country by deposits, was the latest to whittle away its free checking account last week. Customers will no longer get reimbursed for out-of-network ATM fees if they don’t maintain at least a $2,000 average daily balance and they won’t rack up points for rewards on a PNC Visa credit card. But PNC Bank has decided to keep free checking, for now.
  • Bank of America hasn’t had no-strings attached free checking in years, according to a spokesman for the bank.
  • Wells Fargo & Co. did away with it in July of 2010. After acquiring Wachovia in 2008, Wells Fargo has been getting rid of free checking for Wachovia on a state-by-state basis as it consolidates the two banking organizations.
  •  Citigroup doesn’t have free checking for new customers, either.

With Congress regulating away tens of billions in fee income from banks in the last couple of years, including a rule that will slash large bank interchange income on debit cards by as much as 85 percent, banks are looking to do away with unprofitable deposit accounts.

Mike Moebs, an independent researcher who tracks account activity for bank clients and federal organizations such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, says the move away from no strings-attached free checking at big banks is opening up a lucrative way for community banks to steal customers from the big Wall Street and regional banks.

Most of the nation’s smaller banks and credit unions still have free checking, he says. They have smaller operating costs than big banks, so they can afford to keep offering it, he says. The average cost of a checking account is about $200 to $250 annually for a community bank, Moebs estimates. That’s compared to a cost of about $350 to $400 for a big bank, which has more branches, more employees and tends to operate less efficiently, he says.

Moebs estimates banks with more than $50 billion in assets controlled 45 percent of all checking accounts as of 2009, but that will drop to 35 percent by the end of this year, he says. That’s a loss of about 13 million checking accounts that will migrate to smaller banks and credit unions, he says.

Some credit unions have even added free checking to take advantage of that switch, Moebs says, going from 75 percent of all credit unions offering free checking in July of last year to 84 percent last month.

Banks with fewer than $50 billion in assets stayed about the same since July, with 62 percent of them offering free checking. Only about half of big banks had free checking last month, down from 64 percent last July.

Moebs said smaller banks can make free checking pay by selling other products such as automobile loans or mortgages. They also can attract small business owners, an important clientele for community banks, using the free personal checking account to nab their loan business.

While community banks may end up stealing some customers from big banks with free checking, the convenience of branch banking still will be a significant hurdle to overcome. A recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates found that advertising and branch convenience remain top concerns for customers looking for a new bank, and fees play a less important role.

Plus, big banks may succeed in holding onto the vast majority of deposits, even as they lose account holders who kept small amounts of cash in the bank.

Free checking may help community banks steal some customers. But it won’t make them profitable. That’s up to the bank.