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Instant Messaging and its strange survival in B2C banking

The BBC News website had a great article last week on the slow but steady decline of Instant Messaging.

It was not so long ago that Instant Messaging (IM) was seen as the tool that would replace e-mail. Some technology players still think this might happen (think of Google Wave, for example) but the majority now view IM as a technology that has passed its peak. Instant Messaging had some great advantages over e-mail, such as immediacy, the ability to see it the other party was present and small message size, yet it largely failed to prevail.

The BBC provides some thoughts on why this has happened, such as the initial incompatibility of IM platforms and, perhaps more importantly, the rise of social networking sites. Facebook may have an inferior instant messaging system to the stand-alone applications, but it is very convenient and integrates everything into a single interface.

The one area where Instant Messaging is growing is the "Click to Chat or Call" functionality that you find on websites. While I don't have hard statistics, my suspicion is that banks (and insurers) are steadily investing here. Over the last few months, I've had an increasing number of requests from financial institutions to help them integrate web chat into their contact centres.

There's a number of things that I think are driving this. Firstly, banks have trained consumers well not to respond to e-mail for fear of phishing. This is a valuable security development, but it does make communicating with consumers difficult, especially when outbound calling is heavily regulated and traditional post can also have low response rates in relation to cost. Instant Messaging integrated into a bank's website offers a cheap way of potentially capturing a high value interaction that might drop out of the web channel.

Secondly, and more interestingly, IM offers a mechanism for bridging channels. Traditionally, channels that could serve customers remotely were restricted to voice (real-time & interactive, but finite information presentation) or post (slow & static content, but information rich). Adding IM to the website (or part of the website once the consumer has commenced a product purchase) allows the financial institution to start the transaction in the information rich web environment and then move the transaction into something more interactive, be it a pure IM chat or an IM chat that progresses into a call. This, is the other cause of the decline of the stand-alone IM application, that development of Skype and the increased availability of bandwidth removed some of the great advantages of IM.

The final factor is that IM is blending into social media and new channels such as Twitter. Facebook and banking still looks to me to have significant potential issues around privacy and security, but launching an IM capability on its website gives a bank the opportunity to start experimenting with new service capabilities with some control over the environment. I've looked at this back in 2008 (see my blog post "Online banking and contact centre" for a look at what Rabbobank was doing with IM), and this need to experiment with a selection of functionality at a targeted audience remains a very valid approach.

To me this is a key point. Cloud based services offer a great potential for the rapid deployment of these web 2.0 and IM type technologies, but all the ones I have worked on have run into security or operational issues. It's not that cloud can't be secure, rather that cloud providers struggle to guarantee that they comply with every detail of a bank's security policy, especially when it comes to managing changes in that security policy.

In short, a premises and application based IM approach still enjoys a lease of life in banking. Cloud, social media and web 2.0 approaches may all offer greater functionality, but the underlying security concerns do mean that IM remains an attractive channel strategy option in the B2C financial services world.
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