Do You Want A Concierge And A Mac In Your Local Bank?

The Commonwealth Bank argues that local branches aren’t dead, customers want online access when they visit their local bank and that HTML5 apps are the way of the future. I pretty much agree on the last point, but I’m not so sure about the other two.

As I mentioned in our writeup of the bank’s future Android plans yesterday, I spent yesterday in Brisbane checking out the Commonwealth’s new flagship branch at 240 Queen Street and hearing about its future strategy. The branch is being used as a pilot location to test out new technologies and new customer service models — the ones that work will end up in many other branches, although possibly not on so wide a scale.

Perhaps fortunately for its shareholders, CommBank also recognises that not all of them will work. “Some of those things will be abject failures,” said Ross McEwan, group executive for retail banking services. “For many business people that’s pretty hard. You’d like to have a success on everything but that’s not going to be the reality. We need to roll things out faster and try them.”

The Queen St branch isn’t particularly like a conventional walk-in-and-queue-for-the-tellers arrangement, partly because of its size. When you enter, you’re met by a concierge who directs you to the most appropriate area. That might be the tellers (who are not behind glass, though there is still a very evident security screen ready to descend from the roof). It might be the automated machines for dispensing change, accepting deposits or counting cash. It might be the foreign exchange area. It might be one of the eight touch-screen machines which let you access some bank functions and book appointments with a bank specialist. If you have an appointment, you get a free coffee from the on-site barista; if not, you can buy one. Yes, even banks aren’t immune from the “let’s add coffee” approach to retail.

Most visibly, the concierge might direct you to the plethora of Macs, iPads and iPod touches where you can access NetBank. (Interestingly, the Macs are running Windows, perhaps reflecting the fact that this is still a more familiar environment for most customers.)

I’ll be blunt: I find the idea of going to the bank to use a machine to access NetBank weird. The whole point of online banking is that I don’t need to go to a branch, so if I feel I need to be at a branch, it won’t be to use a machine. Of course, I’m not necessarily a typical customer, but the number of customers who have downloaded apps suggests I’m not exactly atypical.

Overall, 900,000 iPhone apps have been downloaded, split between its main AR-influenced property guide and its main NetBank application. A future update to the main NetBank platform will see the addition of foreign exchange calculators and other bells and whistles. Despite the plethora of foreign exchange calculators online, the basic calculator on the main site has proved popular, attracting upwards of 200,000 visitors a month.

An iPad-specific version of the NetBank application is due in May, and will include options such as a single “transfer” page which handles any movement of money from an account, rather than separate pages for bill payments, movement between account and payment to third parties. However, as we noted yesterday, that app is largely HTML5-based, and bank officials say it will be a relatively trivial task to convert it for Android tablets and other form factors. That in turn means that the real engine for change will be the main NetBank site, which currently attracts a mildly mind-boggling 2.4 million logins a day.

One point about using HTML5 versus apps: one obvious advantage of an app is that elements such as graphics can be stored locally, improving performance. However, the bank’s current security strategy means that it doesn’t store any data on the device (other than, optionally, your login number).

Improvements to the NetBank site are driven through “labs testing”, where small groups of customers are invited to test new features. In a typical round, 10,000 customers are invited to take part, though usually only 10% or so sign up. (I’d hazard a guess that if Lifehacker readers were asked, the percentage would be higher.)

Customer suggestions do appear to influence what happens in future releases. For instance, one feature tested in a Labs round offered a graph of how expenditure happens from a particular account. It turns out customers don’t care about the shape of this graph — which tends to be a rapid descent from left to right — but want markers to indicate which transactions send it drastically descending. So that will be added to a future release, though we didn’t get any indication of timing.

Do you fancy the idea of your bank offering multiple PCs? Does coffee make the notion of visiting a bank more appealing? Or would you rather just have more mobile banking options on your phone? Share your reactions in the comments.

Lifehacker’s weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money. Angus Kidman visited Brisbane as a guest of the Commonwealth Bank.

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