Consumers crave more ease in their experiences with banks, and they claim it's worth $2.6 billion to them.
That finding, from a study by the brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale, indicates a potential revenue source just waiting to be tapped by an industry looking high and low right now for income to replace what's been lost to regulation.
According to Siegel+Gale, which surveyed 6,000 consumers in seven countries to gauge perceptions of brand simplicity, U.S. consumers would be willing to pay 4% more for bank products and services if only they came with clearer rules, streamlined options and fewer hassles.
Banks are not the only companies apparently leaving money on the table. Consumers stand ready to pay as much or even more of a "simplicity premium" for things like cars, cellphones, train travel and fitness services. But banks have some of the most ground to make up for in convincing consumers that they stand for simplicity. On the list of 102 brands that U.S. respondents were asked about, the bank that scored highest for simplicity — Wells Fargo & Co. — was 70 spots below the top-rated brand in the survey, Netflix. Even the U.S. Postal Service, hobbled by service cuts and known for long lines, placed better, at No. 31.
(Customers and noncustomers were allowed to comment on brands, but the ratings were weighted to favor customer responses, the firm said.)
Overall, banks ranked 10th out of the 13 sectors examined in the study, trailed only by utilities, insurance providers and credit card companies.
That three of the four laggards deal in financial products is no coincidence. The terms and concepts these industries are based on are, by nature, seemingly at odds with the very notion of simplicity.
But if there's no getting around some of the complexities inherent in the business, banks still have ample room to improve when it comes to other key components of simplicity perceptions, said David Srere, chief strategy officer and co-chief executive of Siegel+Gale. The New York firm, long a specialist in simplification efforts, designed the 1040EZ tax form for the Internal Revenue Service.
"One dimension of simplicity is ease," Srere said. "Another is greater transparency — opening the kimono at least just a little bit."
Drawing on a recent experience his wife had with a credit card hold that seemed to take more time than it should have to disappear, Srere said financial services firms have a long way to go in becoming more transparent about their processes and procedures.
Banks may have done a better job grasping the importance of ease, as evidenced by the longer branch hours pioneered by Commerce Bank and, more recently, by the remote deposit services that JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a handful of other banks have rolled out for consumers who want to do more of their banking over their mobile phones.
Of course, not everyone values simplicity the same way, and the premium they are willing to pay for it — if they are willing to pay one at all — can vary widely depending on lifestyle factors.
Not surprisingly, in the Siegel+Gale survey, the lower the income bracket of respondents, the less willing they would be to pay more for simpler products, services and communications from banks. Among respondents with household income of at least $150,000, 17% said they would pay a simplicity premium, versus 5.9% among respondents with household incomes under $20,000.
It is unclear whether consumers' predictions of their own behavior would prove accurate in a situation that was more than just a hypothetical, although the way the poll was designed — with those who say they would pay more getting asked to choose how much from tight ranges of increments — gives Siegel+Gale an extra measure of confidence in the findings.
But presuming consumers really would pay more for simplicity, and presuming the industry can deliver it, banks would still need to spread the word that they are about to make their customers' lives a little easier. And in a climate of continued wariness about, or frustration with, financial institutions, that's no simple proposition. "In some ways it's almost hard at this point to have a conversation with retail banking consumers, because I think they're not hearing anybody, because they've been promised this many times before," Srere said.
Maybe this time around, there will be a premium awarded for follow-through.
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