There's no real winners in the game of online banking

I recently closed some bank accounts that I no longer use, because jumping through multiple hoops repeatedly helps me lose weight. Banks are notorious for hard-to-use websites, largely due to their security constraints and need for extreme backwards compatibility with legacy systems that would cost too much to replace just yet. So I wasn’t surprised that each one made it more difficult than they had to, each in their own way:

Bank A

You can only communicate online with Bank A through their secure messaging portal once you’ve signed into your account. They use a Digipass 270 device (which somehow I managed to hold onto through multiple relocations) for an added level of security. They did great until I reached the fatal flaw in their process: now that the account is presumably closed, logging into my account just gives me a generic error message: “The information you provides does not match our records, yada yada.” They have no online mechanism in place for communicating with the customer once the account is closed. So I really have no idea if the account is closed or not, nor do I have access to any records from that account. Fine. I’ll take it on faith that the generic error message and “logout” option means that I’m in some kind of post-account limbo.

Bank B

Bank B email me more than most of my closest friends. I closed the account months ago, but I still hear from them almost daily, cheerily telling me things that no longer apply to me. I can get into my account, which is nice because I can access all previous statements, etc. Not so nice is the fact that neither their email robot nor anything about the online interface seems to know that my account is closed. (I phoned to confirm, it is.) Nice of them to keep my old room just the way I left it, I guess.

Bank C

Bank C are Luddites. In order to close the account I have to mail them a letter stating my wishes. Because God knows that’s much more secure than online communication. The mystique of the printed document: somehow having more weight than an electronic one. Frustrating.

It’s infuriating that banks get away with this crap where most other service providers wouldn’t. Here’s what you find in bank online services that you’d never get from any decent web service in the “real world”:

  • Clearly there isn’t any kind of robust testing procedure in place. I can’t figure out what the excuse for this is. They’re clearly not shipping early, because it took all of my banks decades to even get halfway decent websites.

  • Dirty data is just part and parcel of the experience. Seriously. These are the people who want to be trusted with your money, and you can’t even trust them with their own database.

  • The customer’s needs are secondary. There’s so much laziness inherent to the financial sector. I know because I’ve worked in it. The biggest banks are so entrenched that change takes years to accomplish. Plus the internal divisions generally mean that there’s a lot of backbiting, office politics, etc. This is never good for the customer, and you can read it between the lines when you wonder why your bank doesn’t provide [online service that would make your life easier].

Used to be that banks were as good as their reputation. Nowadays (due to the wave of failures) it’s hard to find a bank with a good one. So why they’re falling down so miserably in the online arena — a place where they have everything to lose — is beyond me.

Pretty soon somebody has to wake up and realize that a half-assed iPhone app that you can deposit cheques on won’t cut it. Only then will we see a bank with both stability and tech-savvy on its side, and I reckon that’s a bank you can bet on to last.