The banking industry wants to be just like Amazon


Love Hearts sweets wait to be sorted and packaged on the production line at the Swizzels-Matlow factory in New Mills, northern England February 13, 2012. The sweets were first produced in 1954 as novelty gifts in Christmas crackers and now feature over 200 different messages. REUTERS/Phil Noble (BRITAIN - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD SOCIETY)

It started out as mild infatuation, but now it seems bankers have developed a full-blown crush on Amazon.com.

From Citigroup to SunTrust, banking industry executives are gushing over the Internet retailer's use of analytics to figure out what customers want, a model that bankers see as the salvation for an industry being invaded by more nimble retail, tech and telecom competitors.

Just like Amazon, banks collect vast amounts of information about their clients. Your bank knows what you buy, how much you spend and whether you have anything saved. That kind of intel could be used to anticipate whether you need a credit card, car loan or investments.

It's one thing to simply offer a car loan, Thong Nguyen, the head of retail banking at Bank of America, said at a press breakfast in Manhattan Thursday. "It's more interesting to see that you are on month 33 of your car loan payments...and then present you the opportunity to get a cheaper rate,"

Consumers--whether they are buying a Kindle or opening a checking account--want companies to make products relevant to their individual needs, Nguyen said. There is something to be said for getting an email of feminist reading suggestions from Amazon, after you've finished a Bell Hooks book on your Kindle.

The banking industry is betting that the same sort of tailor-made approach could work for mortgages and credit cards too. The trick will be to do it without appearing creepy or intrusive.

"We’re chasing after the Amazon experience," Nguyen said. "Amazon keeps moving to improve customer service. And we're going to invest more" to replicate that kind of service.

Nguyen said for banks to be successful at data-driven customer service, they would need to drill down into each client profile. The financial needs of a 28 year-old customer making $100,000 a year is not the same as a 63 year old with the same salary. Sure, they're both prime candidates for investment products, but would require a different mix of stocks and bonds. Or they may need different types of home loans.

"The things that we offer you won't change--credit cards, home loans, investments and what not--the way I engage you, make it relevant for you will," Nguyen said.

This sort of individualized approach runs counter to the traditional banking model that relies heavily on a high volume of transactions. Who has the time to figure out what each customer needs when dealing with millions of accounts? But the entrance of Google, Wal-Mart and even Amazon into the payments space is putting pressure on banks to find new ways to reach and keep customers.

Yet if banks use customer data solely for the purpose of selling more products, they may miss an opportunity to develop meaningful relationships, said Jennifer Tescher, president and chief executive of the Center for Financial Services Innovation.

"Banks could make a huge impact by using data to help consumers optimize their cash flow in real time," she said. "Using data to predict a life event that's going to require a high-margin banking product is not the place to start."

She noted that PNC Bank and KeyBank track their customers' transactions and create a financial calendar that lists when bills are due or money scheduled for deposit, helping people manage their finances.

"Technology should enable us to solve the problem of having to juggle your inflows and outflows, particularly when the timing and the amount of money you have varies dramatically from month to month," Tescher said. "If banks are able to do that, it would be an incredible value to customers."

It could also help to ease some of the consumer anxiety surrounding mobile banking. The platform is catching on, especially among  folks under the age of 35, but a good segment of the population remain distrustful of conducting financial transactions through their smartphones.

A recent study by the National Council of La Raza and the Urban League found that nearly a third of the 5,000 people they surveyed were concerned about security controls. Banks and credit unions actually have tougher regulatory standards to guard consumer data than merchants do because of the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act of 1999. That bit of information, coupled with the promotion of basic money management, could draw even more people to mobile.

Nguyen said smartphones are the next frontier. Building out intuitive digital platforms, with the ability to send spending or bill pay alerts, could give customers the same sort of user-friendly experience that has made companies like Amazon popular.

About 15 million Bank of America customers use their smartphones to transfer money or deposit checks, a number that Nguyen said has been growing at 20 percent a year. By comparison, the number of customers that bank online--roughly 30 million--has hit a plateau.

As a result, Nguyen said Bank of America is investing in its mobile platform, with an aim of someday moving into mobile payments, whereby a merchant can scan a customer's smartphone to collect a payment.

"The next frontier is the payment technology," Nguyen said. " We're going to be working with people who make phones, with people like Google, eBay and Paypal and see where it goes from there. The whole payment system is going to evolve."

Disclosure: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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