My mother the phone banker

My parents and I seldom discuss technology, but not long ago my mother couldn’t wait to tell me about an access service that allowed her to update her accounts and conduct transactions from the comfort of her home.

She has discovered telephone banking.

Not wireless banking, mind

you. We’re talking about the old-fashioned touch-tone technology. Sounds quaint, perhaps, but Mom is more cutting-edge than our next-door neighbour, who discovered she couldn’t enjoy telephone banking because she still uses a rotary dial. Yes, there are still such people in the world. Familiar interfaces, reliable service and apathy keep them away from the innovations the IT industry champions. Financial institutions, particularly the Bank of Montreal, should try getting to know them better.

BMO late last week said it was ending Veev, the groundbreaking wireless banking service it offered retail customers across North America. To say “”across North America”” suggests the service was booming, but only an estimated 6,000 people have signed up in the last three years. The decision not only hurts those customers — it’s like punishing someone for being an early adopter — but also Toronto’s 724 Solutions, which provided the software and used BMO as one of its chief Canadian success stories.

BMO’s retreat might not be as significant if it weren’t considered such an early adopter itself. When we started covering wireless banking, there weren’t a lot of sources at hand, apart from the biased vendors and the hopeful industry analysts. While companies like Nokia, 3i, Accenture and Sampo were collaborating on software packages, the banks were mostly silent, taking a “”wait-and-see”” approach. (This is what we say when no one will talk to us.) BMO was the one firm that didn’t wait, piloting Veev through a series of tests that revealed the platforms shortcomings: slow speeds, high costs and a clumsy interface.

Though she’s a focus group of one, I only have to look at my mother to see that the interface is the biggest barrier of the three. When she sits down to do her banking now, Mom gets set up at the end of the couch with her purse, her bankbook, a large assortment of bills still in their envelopes and the telephone. She can listen to her options and proceed accordingly: there’s nothing to “”see”” other than the paper bills themselves; no squinting at a cell phone’s tiny display. If she had a PC, that’s probably what she would be using, but in any case banking for her is still a stationary activity. It’s something that she pays attention to, not something she’ll dash off while she’s pumping gas or waiting in line at the supermarket.

If the price of large-screen cell phones comes down and the brokerage business picks up, there’s still a possibility that the market for mobile banking will grow. Most of the banks have since followed BMO’s lead, including CIBC, and late last year IDC conducted a survey in the United States where banking on cell phones or other mobile devices was one of the most requested services from cell phone owners. There are also some interesting push-style applications — like a service that alerts users if a cheque is about to bounce — that may complement the immediacy of a mobile platform.

Whatever happens, you can’t blame BMO for pulling the plug on a bad investment, considering it took a chance before anyone else. We venerate the pioneers in this industry after their risks prove successful, but real pioneers know it’s a hit-and-miss game. By sticking its neck out, BMO allowed many other competitors to take crib notes that could help them avoid Veev’s fate. If necessity is the mother of invention, maybe it gave birth prematurely, and wireless banking is still in utero. Just because everyone sings its praises, wireless is not always a reason to cut the cord.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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