By Marilyn Kennedy Melia
Bolstering the retail backbone.
Checking. From the perspective of a bank marketer, it’s an apt name for this all-important product. It’s the one customers are always checking out.
Ongoing research is standard at large, national banks to ensure that their checking lineup is filling the many needs of diverse demographics, explained Amy Pierce of Bank Strategic Solutions in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Formal research may not be a continual (or even a formal) process at smaller institutions. But all retail banks place a high priority on checking. It’s the product that initially attracts most retail customers to a bank, and it can engender years of loyalty.
Indeed, checking is the basic financial staple consumers need, akin to the bread and milk in a grocery.
As such, it’s top of mind for marketers, who are always “checking” or monitoring what their competitors and peers are doing, said Pierce.
Below, three institutions share how and why they made recent introductions to their checking account offerings.
Each institution is unique, but they share common challenges:
- Determining that the new product fills a need in the market
- Keeping choices simple, yet comprehensive
- Attracting new customers, and moving existing ones to the new offering
Axiom Bank: Casting a net in the wide mobile market.
Jessica Ludvigsen, senior vice president for retail banking at Axiom Bank, occasionally picks up the phone and calls one of the managers of the Maitland, Florida-based bank’s 24 branches, asking what type of customer feedback on checking they’re currently fielding.
It’s just one of many efforts to monitor checking, which the executive team regularly reviews.
About a year and a half ago, one priority emerged: “We wanted to provide even more flexibility to the ever-increasing digital banking market segment,” said Ludvigsen.
In late 2017, the AxiomGO account was launched. Managed through a single app on a smartphone, AxiomGO is a checkless checking account with a debit MasterCard for people who want an alternative to prepaid cards and traditional checking, making it easier to manage their finances—from anywhere, at any time.
The bank also allows users to gain control over their spending with My $ Manager, an integrated personal budgeting tool.
An Axiom team, which included administrative and technical staffers, worked with a third-party provider to create the app. Now, when someone is searching for a mobile bank account, said Ludvigsen, AxiomGO should stand out in the search results.
The market is wide, and includes the many snowbirds wintering in Florida. (Ludvigsen noted that seniors aren’t technophobes.) The offering also appeals to college students, and “really anyone wanting online checking with good mobile capabilities,” she added.
“The first phase of the marketing plan has involved promoting the app through partnerships with financial bloggers around the country, so that they can use it and provide a testimonial about it,” Ludvigsen said. While those blogger recommendations should help boost the app in search results, Axiom is also sponsoring digital ads.
The bank continues to provide a personal, high-touch experience in the branches. But it expects the new offering to reach that burgeoning mobile banking customer who just doesn’t walk into branches, Ludvigsen said.
Bank of the West: Reaching out to the mass market.
This $90 billion, San Francisco-based institution is a subsidiary of European bank BNP Paribas, and has some 600 branches across 23 states.
“We conduct ongoing reviews of all our account offerings,” said Beth Hale, executive vice president and head of product and payment solutions for the retail banking group.
An extensive research effort focused on checking revealed a significant insight. The bank could reach many new customers across its broad footprint by offering a checking account that waived the monthly fee for customers who made a deposit of any amount each month. Deposits by ATM, in-branch, direct, or mobile would qualify, but not account transfers.
“The feedback was clear that an account offering that was simple, flexible, and customer-centered would be well received,” Hale said.
Last summer, Any Deposit Checking debuted. In a news release, Paul Appleton, executive vice president of the consumer banking division, explained the appeal of the new account. “Employees of small businesses, self-employed individuals, and younger customers may not have access to payroll direct deposit, which at many banks means you pay a monthly service charge. We want to provide full banking access in the communities we serve in a way that’s simple to understand and easier to achieve.”
The new account joins Premier Checking as the only two options for new customers. “Any Deposit Checking did not replace accounts for legacy account holders,” Hale explained. “Those customers in legacy accounts remain in them, if they choose to do so.”
“For example,” she continued, “we previously offered student checking, which waived account fees, but required annual proof of the customer’s student status. Customers as young as 13 can now sign up for the Any Deposit Checking, with a parent co-signer, and monthly fees are automatically waived for any account holder under 25.”
For competitive reasons, Hale said that she can’t share stats on account acquisition. But she does say the account “has effectively met our goals of an inclusive, accessible banking account that serves customers of all types, from younger customers to the under-banked, and to more established segments.”
Fifth Third: Sticking to basics, while serving niche needs.
Fifth Third Bancorp offers four different checking programs.
That number is the result of an extensive, ongoing effort to provide a comprehensive roster of features that appeal to various segments of its customer base spread across ten states—while still keeping the number of options from becoming too large.
“It can be confusing for customers to come in and have too many choices,” said Ben Mendelsohn, senior product manager for retail banking.
It can also be bewildering to customers to add, eliminate, or change features of an existing checking program too frequently. “You have to be very thoughtful. Any changes—even positive ones—can be disruptive,” Mendelsohn said.
Still, if changes are necessary, Fifth Third responds.
With monthly reports from customer contact centers, as well as formal surveys, the bank continually monitors customer satisfaction.
Several years ago, Fifth Third merged two checking account options, combining the benefits of both. The bank communicated with customers through letters, alerting them to any changes and highlighting any added benefits.
While four plans form the basic roster, Fifth Third also responds to niche needs.
For instance, high school and college students have the service charge on Essential waived. And military families qualify for no service charge on Essential if they meet one of a number of conditions, like a $500 monthly direct deposit. Military customers can also receive a five dollar discount on any other checking plan fee.
In 2017, the bank announced a checking plan targeted at a very specific niche: Families with individuals with disabilities.
Fifth Third’s ABLE checking, now available in seventeen state plans, offers traditional checking features—like a debit card, checks and access to fee-free ATM transactions—but also allows families to set aside up to $14,000 a year in the account.
The 2014 federal ABLE law allows these accounts, which are modeled loosely after the 529 college savings plans, Mendelsohn explained. The deposits in the account do not impact the disabled person’s eligibility for Medicaid and other government services.
The account isn’t opened through Fifth Third branches—only online.
The state organizations that administer the ABLE accounts promote and market them. “We have worked with the states where we have local branches to help build plan awareness,” said Mendelsohn.
The account does promote goodwill, but was primarily established to help this niche—families with disabled members, he noted.
Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].