Will Mobile Banking Take Off?

It’s easy to be skeptical about mobile banking. After all, does anyone really need to transfer funds from one account to another while riding the bus to work, or check balances during meeting breaks? And who wants to see a driver zipping down the freeway with one hand on the wheel, the other paying the utility bill?

Then there are the inevitably massive cell phone bills that will result from all the bank data transfers. And the constant concern that a transaction was not completed due to a faulty connection. If wireless customers get frustrated when a voice call is dropped, how will they feel about a thousand-dollar transaction being lost midstream? And security? Fugeddaboudit.

Yes, it’s easy to doubt the viability of mobile banking. But then again, similar skepticism was voiced in the early days of online banking. And you have to wonder: If mobile banking is such a bad idea, why are some of the smartest and most successful financial institutions in the world falling all over themselves to put their mobile banking stakes in the ground?

In February, Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Corp. introduced basic services that let customers check balances, pay bills and transfer money on their mobile devices. Citigroup Inc. recently rolled out a mobile banking application that customers can download onto their mobile devices. Even the wireless carriers are interested in getting into the game: Cingular Wireless, for instance, is in talks with several banks and expects to offer banking services on its handsets later this year. And dozens of smaller banks, particularly online-only banks, are in the process of rolling out their mobile services.

The reasoning among banks for the move to mobile banking is simple, if not compelling: The more time a customer spends transacting with a bank, the more loyal that customer is. In the hypercompetitive banking industry, where companies are merciless in their attempts to lure customers away from competitors, mobile banking feels a little like an arms race.

But not everyone is sold on the soundness of the strategy. “We have struggled to see the business rationale for mobile banking,” says Alistair Newton, a research director at analyst firm Gartner, Inc. “We question the real value to the bank. Chasing after new customers quickly becomes a zero-sum game, where it costs them so much to get a customer from their competitors that it’s not worth it, or they lose existing customers in the meantime. There is a belief that mobile banking will help them retain customers, but I’m not convinced.”

Despite the skepticism, Wells Fargo & Co., the San Francisco banking behemoth with $486 billion in assets, is among those joining the mobile banking brigade. The company already provides customers with mobile alerts when an account balance reaches a predetermined threshold, or a particular kind of credit card transaction occurs. And it plans to add interactive text messaging, which lets a customer text a short code to the bank and receive a response displaying an account balance within seconds. Now the company is poised to take its next steps. “We spend a lot of time talking to our customers, and they are telling us that mobile banking is important to them,” says Steve Ellis, executive vice president of Wells Fargo’s Wholesale Services Group, who is charged with deepening customer relationships and providing consistent products and services across channels. “We need to be where our customers are, and help them get their information easier and faster.”

The company is piloting and testing three routes to the mobile market: text messaging, mobile browsing and downloadable applications. Each has its relative merits and drawbacks, and none is mutually exclusive. But no matter which path Wells Fargo ultimately takes, there will be obstacles. Supporting mobile devices of infinite size and variety is a headache for any IT department, let alone the customer service representatives of a 6,000-branch bank with more than 23 million customers. And giving customers enough confidence in the security of their data without making the authentication process too onerous is a problem not easily solved.

The Wells Fargo team, nevertheless, remains undaunted. “I was highly skeptical of the service myself, and thought I would never be a user,” says Jim Smith, executive vice president and managing head of Wells Fargo’s Internet Services Group. “But I surprised myself by using it many, many times, because I had a true need.”

CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight Staff
CIO Insight offers thought leadership and best practices in the IT security and management industry while providing expert recommendations on software solutions for IT leaders. It is the trusted resource for security professionals who need network monitoring technology and solutions to maintain regulatory compliance for their teams and organizations.

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