Thursday, October 20, 2011

Is Bank Transfer Day a Small Bank Trojan Horse?

"A Good Day to be a Credit Union" is the headline of an article from Myriam Digiovanni in the October 19 Credit Union Times discussing the upcoming November 5 "Bank Transfer Day".


According to numerous news articles and coverage in both mainstream and social media, community banks and credit unions across the country are rallying around the anti-bank sentiment that has germinated from the announcement of a $5 debit card fee by Bank of America on September 29 and the increase in fees by other large banks. Not only have new account openings reportedly increased at several large credit unions, but social media traffic on the official Bank Transfer Day Facebook page and on other national credit union sites such as and have also seen spikes.

But is all this attention and potential new business a fortuitous gift or a potential threat to the well being and revenues of community banks and credit unions? It may just depend on who you ask and how the financial institutions on the receiving end of the disgruntled customer exodus handle their new customers and members.

Bank Relationship Inertia is Powerful
First of all, the number of people who are complaining may be much higher than those willing to switch. "As angry as you might be, the effort of figuring out some alternative relationship, choosing one, getting set up and the risk that the new one might be no better than the old one . . . those are huge costs," states Peter Fader, a marketing professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "Personal relationships, the accumulated points, the brand relationship, the start-up costs and the learning curve are all intangible costs, but they are very powerful," Fader goes on to say.

The power of the relationship is also reinforced in an academic study conducted by Purdue University entitled, 'Relationships and Individual's Bank Switching Behavior' where a very weak correlation was found between the propensity to switch banks and pricing. In contrast, a much higher correlation was found between the depth and tenure of relationship and the propensity to stay with a current financial institution.

Banks have worked hard to achieve engagement with their customers through the cross-selling of additional products and services such as direct deposit, online and mobile banking, online billpay and other services. At Bank of America, there is even the possibility of a linked savings account established as part of the Keep the Change savings program. This 'stickiness', in addition to the potential tangible costs of switching at some banks who may charge a fee for closing an account (especially a newly opened account where a premium or offer may have been involved) make the changing of banks daunting for many.

The Friction of the Switch Process
For those consumers who decide to switch, many will not complete the switch process either by not associating the aforementioned engagement services or by not funding the new relationship. As a personal example, while my family moved from California to Ohio over three years ago, I have not completely severed ties with my previous bank where direct deposit and automatic payments still remain. While my new banking relationship in Ohio is sufficiently funded to avoid fees, my primary checking relationship remains in California.

According to a brand new research report from Javelin Strategy and Research, 'Faulty Process Hobbles FIs in the Battle for Acquisition, Profitability and Retention', the process of opening account online is both flawed and frustrating. In a study of the top 10 banks and 5 technologically advanced smaller organizations, the likelihood of being able to successfully open and fund a new checking account is just slightly over 50%. If you are new to a financial institution, the chances of success go down even further.

With almost one quarter of new account holders opening their desired account online in 2011, the financial and relationship impact of a poor online account opening process is significant. Hampering the process at many banks is the fact that there may not be a way to open the accounts online according to the Javelin study.

The Demographics of the Disgruntled
According to an American Bankers Association study conducted in August, as many as 70% of consumers don't pay anything for their checking account today. These households either were enrolled in a Free Checking account or (more likely) held balances or related services that allowed the fees on the account to be waived. Of those households surveyed, an additional 11% paid fees of $3 or less. That leaves only 19% of U.S. households that were paying a fee of more than $3 a month for checking as of the August survey date.

So who is still paying a fee and might be the most vocal of the disgruntled? Most likely, it is those households who do not carry an adequate balance in their account(s), do not have a direct deposit or online banking relationship, or do not have a deep enough relationship to get their fees waived.

The scenario that Bank of America (and other large banks) may be actually 'firing' unprofitable, low balance relationships was well documented in Ron Shevlin's blog, 'Maybe Bank of America Has a Plan'. With the new fee being imposed, the customer has the choice to pay a fee for their debit card at Bank of America, expand their relationship at Bank of America or leave. In his post, Ron shows how Bank of America's profitability could actually increase with the diminishment of lower balance accounts and how the recipients of these relationships (smaller banks and credit unions) could be adversely impacted by the influx of new customers.

The Importance of Engagement and Onboarding
Finally, for those customers who are walking into the doors of a new bank or credit union, the importance of a robust process of new customer engagement and onboarding couldn't be more important. According to Mike Bartoo, Regional Manager at Marquis and  financial industry veteran, "Hope is not a strategy" when it comes to building new relationships. According to Mike, banks should look back to the last 6 months of account openings to determine how well they have done with getting new customers to open 'sticky' services. If success in cross-selling has been poor, attrition has been more than desired and relationships are not profitable, there is no reason to believe the new influx of accounts will perform any better. In fact, the results may be worse.

I have covered the importance of engagement, onboarding and cross-selling extensively in this blog over the past two years, illustrating that the future profitability of a relationship often will be determined by a bank's outreach during the first 6 months of the relationship. History shows that most relationships that are unprofitable after 6 months remain that way.

So, while there may or may not be a significant amount of movement of accounts between financial institutions leading up to and following Bank Transfer Day on November 5, banks should be cautious of the types of accounts they open and determine whether they are prepared to make sure these new relationships are profitable (or are relationships at all).

What is your organization's perspective on Bank Transfer Day? Does your institution stand to benefit or lose from customers leaving or coming to your offices? Or will Bank Transfer Day be a non-event in your opinion?

I would love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I wouldn't be basing any conclusions on the ABA fee study. That was pure spin pumped out by a highly-incentivized trade association. It wasn't science, it was lobbying. The ABA asked people what they THOUGHT they paid.

  2. But isn't perception reality, especially when we are discussing propensity to take action? If I don't think I am paying a fee, I am less likely to be impacted by the noise in the marketplace around BTD. At the end of the day, Bank of America will lose many customers that were at the bottom tier of their profitability segmentation, many(?) new accounts will be opened at new organizations and these accounts will be just as disengaged and lacking the depth of relationship that they were at their previous bank unless the new organization has a better process of opening, onboarding, engaging and cross-selling. Beware of gifts from strangers.

  3. I'm with Jim on this one. I have my main accounts at a local branch of a MegaBank (not BofA). Although they don't have a fee yet, they probably will.

    But all they have is my checking account and direct deposit into it.

    All my loans are with another very large Regional Bank, but I don't have any bank accounts with them. I do have insurance there also.

    I have other accounts at a credit union, but outside of zero fees, they don't differentiate themselves much from the local MegaBank.

    So what keeps me from consolidating. The hassle. I would have to change over direct deposit. I would have to change over all of the online pay accounts to pull from another account.

    And sadly, the banks charging the fee know it. Most people will just take the fee. Changing over isn't worth the time.

  4. With the sheer volume of media coverage and credit union mobilization, Bank Transfer Day is finally providing fed-up, frustrated consumers with what they need: a real course of action.
    Bank lending Criteria