When they rate and review mobile apps, users typically aren't shy. The very reason they bother to type in a review is due to strong emotions — they love or hate something about it (and their feelings easily shift from one side to the other).

Keeping users happy is critical for banks as they increasingly compete for business in app stores, rather than on the street with their branches or in people's homes with direct mail pieces.

Partly because there will always be some disgruntled customers, it's unusual for a financial institution to consistently earn five stars, or even four stars, from users.

When we checked in late summer, three financial institutions were regularly scoring more than four stars from users in both the Apple and Google app stores — USAA, Capital One and Chase. Several received more than four stars in one store or the other, including U.S. Bank, Citi, SunTrust, Fifth Third and BBVA Compass in the Apple App Store and Citizens Bank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America in Google Play.

Two characteristics seem to separate the really popular apps from the rest of the pack.

One is, the four-plus-star app makers are closely tuned in to user preferences.

At Chase, which has 21 million users of its mobile apps, the key is "staying focused on customer experience," according to Gavin Michael, head of digital. "We're always looking to build experiences that are making it easier for our customers to interact with information, allowing them to make better decisions. The way we feel we win in that space is by making apps that are simple, personal, human and that work effortlessly and seamlessly."

To make sure it's doing all that, the bank uses a broad set of listening posts, including comment cards and surveys on its mobile and online sites, feedback on social media and public forums, comments from the Apple App Store and Google Play, and feedback from call center agents and bank tellers.

"If we see an issue coming up, we have a number of analytic tools that allow us to track how and where it's happening, the scale of impact," Michael said.

USAA often gets over-the-top comments about its apps from deliriously happy customers (along with the occasional complaint that something's not working). A B-1 fighter pilot wrote, for instance, "USAA, you are like the ultra-cool band very few people know about. You are very much in tune with your audience, and I fear if you get too big you might 'sell out.'"

Patrick Kelly, executive director of emerging channels at USAA, says high ratings and positive reviews are a result of the company's focus on member satisfaction.

"We try to design with their needs in mind," he said. The company's mostly military members are nomadic and therefore appreciate being able to do everything remotely. "When we give them full service in the mobile channel, they respond positively," Kelly said.

USAA's mobile team reads the app store reviews every day through a formal process. "We don't raise a flag up the flagpole every single day but we do have people who look every day, they collate everything to see if something is starting to trend, positive or negative."

The results are sent to Kelly. "I use the App Store comments as the proverbial canary in the coal mine," he said. "[Users] respond very quickly and you usually get polarized responses in the app stores. We use those as early warning systems."

The team pays extra close attention to complaints about login. "That's one of the big ones when it comes to satisfaction," Kelly said. "If you don't get login right, that's a trust issue."

This serious attitude toward app store ratings is common among the front-runners, according to Ken Hans, executive director of financial services at Blackstone Technology Group. "Critical reviews are a key component that provides input into product roadmaps," he said.

At U.S. Bank, along with app store reviews, social media channels and user analytics are important sources of feedback on mobile apps, said Gareth Gaston, executive vice president for omnichannel.

"We pay attention to everything, particularly in the social space — we are very in tune to addressing customer needs on Twitter and Facebook, as well as the traditional channels," he said. "We have had a customer service unit specifically dedicated to the social channels for the past few years. We also have a process for continuous improvement so we can react to customer feedback in both app stores, our survey responses and what we see in our analytics."

A second habit of highly effective mobile banking app creators is they tend to be first with new features. Most financial institutions offer the basics in their mobile apps, such as balance checks, bill payment, remote deposit capture and funds transfer.

USAA often pioneers new technology in its mobile apps, including fingerprint recognition (Apple's Touch ID), facial and voice recognition.

"The difference between a four-star app and a two-star app comes when you start to add features that are above average," Kelly said.

A forward-thinking feature some banks are rolling out is the ability to turn a debit card off or on, said Hans.

"Capital One is offering to do a lot more with managing your cards, which is big," he noted. Easier money management is another category of advanced features for banks and nonbanks, he said.

The flip side of being first with new features, of course, is the need to work out the inevitable kinks.

For example, in late July and early August, USAA issued mobile app updates that garnered negative comments, some about Touch ID not working, others about changed terminology.

"The tradeoff between being first and being perfect is a delicate balancing act," Kelly said. "We have had a few complaints recently but it's inevitable — you're going to release something into the wild and it's not always going to be perfect. Our members are very vocal and very comfortable giving us feedback. We do robust testing to give as high quality as we can before we put something out the door. And then inevitably there's going to be one or two failures. That's the Achilles heel of mobile."

"It's an interesting tug of war between compliance, risk management and the digital channel owners," Hans noted. "We're seeing a tug from banks trying to give people access to information in a semi-authenticated state or more of a trusted state." An example is "quick balance" features that let customers get account updates without logging into the mobile app.

"With Uber, you just fire it up and you're in there," he said. "Banks are different because we're moving money and accessing information. Features that make customers' lives more convenient are worth the risk."

Hans sees an internal battle going on between customer experience, security and compliance. "Where the original approach and philosophy was, 'everyone's job is compliance,' now everyone's job is user experience in the digital channel, even compliance people," he said.

At Chase, there's less pressure to be first and more pressure to get new features right.

"What's important is delivering a great experience for customers," Michael said. "If it takes us longer to do something correctly, but allows us to get that great experience, we'll do it."

Touch ID, for instance, has been a hit with Chase customers. While Chase was one of the first large banks to have it, the bank heavily tested it before rollout.

Sometimes smaller things, like adding the ability to see statements on the mobile device, prove to be popular with customers. QuickPay, Chase's person-to-person payment service, also continues to grow in popularity, especially since the bank connected with other banks through the clearXchange network.


In the coming year, Kelly said, USAA will continue to develop the wearable app it launched this summer for Apple and Android Wear watches.

"We're the only financial institution that's done both of them," he noted. "We're watching that really closely to see how they'll be used."

It will also continue its drive for personalization. "Millennials are all saying, 'it might be your app but it's my phone, so I want everything personalized to me.' We're responding," Kelly said. The company will launch a personalized app in the early third quarter this year with a menu modified for the individual user, taking into account that customer's products and location.

U.S. Bank will be emphasizing making the mobile channel work well with other channels. "We see the mobile device being used more in itself, and also beginning to be used in conjunction with other channels," Gaston said. "To that end, we have a comprehensive omnichannel strategy that will see us continue to make it as easy as possible. We will also look for opportunities where mobile can be used with other channels like in the branch or at the ATM."

This is the first in a series of articles about top banking apps by American Banker.

Penny Crosman is Editor in Chief of Bank Technology News and Technology Editor of American Banker.

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