Don't bank on it

In the Australian market, banks are the archetypal large IT customer: they've got lots of technology of differing vintages, have to spend a fortune on services to stitch it all together, and are also obliged to meet a super-strict regulatory regime which would make most lesser enterprises quake in their virtualised boots.

In the Australian market, banks are the archetypal large IT customer: they've got lots of technology of differing vintages, have to spend a fortune on services to stitch it all together, and are also obliged to meet a super-strict regulatory regime which would make most lesser enterprises quake in their virtualised boots.

Banks are also renowned for being secretive users of technology, frequently forbidding their staff from discussing major IT projects for fear of losing competitive advantage or just causing general corporate embarrassment. Yet however many firewalls, real and virtual, that Australian banks put up, there's no escaping the fact that their technology strategies need a major overhaul.

A recent analysis of the Australian financial services market from Forrester Research highlights some key challenges that bank tech titans are still grappling with. Of these, the inability to integrate processes and data from different systems remains the most critical.

"These isolated organisational structures get in the way of a firm's ability to meet its customers' needs," writes local researcher Alyson Clarke. "The challenge is to evolve from these archaic models and become flexible enough to meet the changing needs of customers." Clarke also notes that banks must learn to grow their businesses organically, by attracting new customers or getting more business from old ones, since the much-debated "four pillars" policy makes growth through acquisition difficult.

Technology could play a key role in that process, but at the customer-facing end, banks have a difficult time of it. For every customer like me who would happily do every banking task online, there's an aged talkback radio listener who views a branch down the street as some sort of constitutional right and who, in any event, can't distinguish a phishing e-mail from the genuine article.

Meanwhile, the customers like me resent being made to ring the bank to set up an online account in the first place. Add to that the general perception of banks as profit-hungry, money-grubbing and faceless and it's a tricky customer service challenge.

Clarke makes one intriguing suggestion: financial institutions should offer free services on their sites that could benefit customers, even if they don't profit from them directly. A bank that doesn't sell home insurance, for instance, could offer an online calculator to help customers choose the best insurance package for their needs. It's an ingenuous thought, but it would take a brave bank to suggest spending money in that way, I fear.

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