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The personal touch Banking
 content and the individual


It seems a trend in human societies that every rigid structure gives way to it's opposite. Society used to be rigidly defined, with movement between 'class' almost impossible. Today we are closer to a meritocracy; with individuals free to pursue whatever ends they (legally!) desire. It used to be that banks provided loans, chequebooks and current accounts; now I can 'bank' when and where I shop for groceries. As humans we are free to act as individuals and have been accustomed to being treated as such. As a service 'banking' is now offered by any business with the appropriate requirements; cash, accessible interactions with customers and sound financial credentials.

A great drive for the change in banking; away from traditional 'big four' banks, and the Building Society distinctions; has been the change in work habits of the population. Today's consumers are wealthier, work longer and have less 'free-time'.

Given that customers today are fairly spoilt for choice and have little free-time to interact in person with financial institutions; ranging from traditional banks to grocery stores, telco's, etc; how can banks ensure they keep their customers? This article takes a look at some crucial technological dimensions to this puzzle.

Keeping your Customers
Customers are attracted by:

n Being able to interact with the bank when they want;

n Having information accessible to them (in terms of level of understanding and not having to wait for connections), and

n Being treated as an individual; and a valued one at that.

This presents a number of issues for banks. Clearly, it is too expensive to have BAM offices open all hours, and most web sites only offer static web pages, or dynamic web pages that are fairly unintelligent. The challenge is to provide content that is dynamic and responsive to the customer's actions at that point in time; to have electronic access available at all times, via any media, and for that content and service to be personalised for the individual user. All this wrapped in a secure environment? A wild dream for the future? Actually, no. The technology is here today, and some leading financial institutions are taking advantage of it already.

Technology: A slave to the business
It seems hard to believe, but some businesses actually pursue technology to do things faster and flashier and with all the latest TLA's , and that's it. Technology for technology's sake. It's easy to forget that, actually, technology is only an enabler; business activity is still centred on the same basics it was fifty years ago: sell what the public wants, at a profit to you. The internet has not changed that, but it has opened up the field to more competition from anywhere in the world, and has altered the cost basis of businesses.

In fact, the web offers a fantastic potential for fulfilling our three requirements. The technology is there to enable business users to target the appropriate content at the appropriate users at the appropriate time.

Content is about informing people; about providing the right information to prompt people to buy. It's also has legal and financial dimensions. To get the best out of content, it needs to be manageable; precise, timely; re-purposeable and re-usable.

So how can we achieve this? Firstly, we need to decide how to store it, and the rapid adoption of XML across many industries has held considerably here. XML allows documents to be structured and tagged so that each discrete unit can be defined and therefore; potentially; re-used or re-purposed. If we know what each paragraph is, we can re-use it in other documents (dynamic compound documents) or we can re-purpose it for a different media. XML pre-supposes a separation of data from format; so an XML document can be associated with several different visual styles for say, the web, print and WAP. If the style is separate from the text, we can easily manipulate the text without worrying about what it's going to look like in a different setting. It also means that branding can be changed by just changing the style file, rather then going through each document individually; vital in today's brand conscious market!

Secondly, we need to be able to combine the text in such a way that the customer is provided with the correct text at the correct time. Navigation through the text can be dynamic, with the web engines responding to either what it knows about the customer (see personalisation, later); what it observes about the customer (what they have done during this session) and what you want them to see whilst they're here. This provides the customer with information that is timely and in context with what they are looking at.

Finally, the management of this content should be easy and be undertaken by the people responsible; the authors, the business users and the marketing strategists. Content should be created in user-friendly tools like MS Word, and should be version controlled and secure. It should respond to changes in information or business environment dynamically.

So what does this all mean for content? It means that it can be stored and managed in distinct, discrete components (the XML part) which can be dynamically styled for different visual effects, and can easily and instantly updateable. Given that, we can selectively push/search/navigate to the correct information at the correct time.

Availability means being able to get on-line to a site, and to interact with it without long periods waiting for the screen to refresh. Lack of band-width has long been the nemesis of internet based interactions. So how can we ensure that the system will allow our customers to connect fast and smoothly? First, we should build the site with a realistic idea of the number of people likely to connect to it; then we should ensure that the system gives priority of access to a combination (as defined by business users!) of favoured customers and people about to do the things you want them too (such as about to sign on for an account, or begin a loan application, etc).

Availability also means using the appropriate channels; if your customer comes into your site via their WAP-enabled phone, then your system should recognise this and not send them the entire web-page, but rather re-purpose the key text chunks for WAP displays, and send that to the customer.

Personalisation is the philosopher's stone of the internet world. It is the ingredient that turns browsers into customers and customers into repeat customers. Personalisation means matching content against the particular user at a particular point in time; it means for example, providing information about pensions and mortgages to a customer who's just got married (surname changed); or offering a discount on a loan to a customer who's been to this page three times before and is weighing up the costs; it means providing real information for the needs of the individual. Personalisation can take the three forms indicated in Figure 1above.


Personalisation is the triumvirate of information given by customers, observed by the system as customers interact with it, or pushed by the banks to that customer (or type of customer).

Personalisation is also about customised home pages, with alerts that tell you information is available about things you've said you're interested in. Although these things may appear slightly tacky; if done correctly, and given a real business rationale, then they can be the little things that keep customers coming back.

A very important side effect of personalisation is the marketing information that you can collect. Beyond just who went where and for how long, personalisation lets you see the context of a customers actions, and allows the correlation between their actions and revenue generating activities. This allows you to set up business rules to ensure that, for example, since customers who watched stock market sector a were more likely to buy stock b, then any customer who's looking at information a or c related to a, is presented with the chance to buy b (perhaps at a discounted commission if they are a valued customer?). Intelligent up-sell and cross-sell can thus be guided by the activities of the customer as they happen; a response inside a context which has a far greater chance of success.

This matching of user information to available content comes close to achieving the ideal of one-to-one marketing; the idea that the entire site becomes customised for a specific individual. Business users, who match behaviour against business activity, drive these rules. Given that they have statistical feedback on the success (or otherwise!) of marketing and ad campaigns conducted on the site, these rules can be affectively applied and dynamically changed.

Security is important to customers by it's absence rather then it's presence. Customers hate filling in endless passwords and mother's maiden names have never taken such use and abuse in all human history. However, if an institution gets the reputation of being unsafe, then that can be catastrophic for them. On-line banking needs to be secure using SSL technology, 128 bit encryption and, in the near future, personal electronic signatures and certificates.

Security is an area which should be hidden behind the business imperatives of the site, but should permeate all layers of technology comprising that site.

So what does a personal banking-offering look like? Actually, not that different from a normal bank, but the whole ethos revolves around servicing the individual customer; it's about letting that customer control their environment; personal home pages, statements when they want, dynamic navigation through content based upon their context. It's also about using what you know about customers; watching the correlation between surfing behaviour and business revenue generating actions; knowing when and what to cross-sell and up-sell.

Web sites must be controlled by business rules, directed by business users and dynamic in adapting to changes in the business environment.

Make your site work for you; make customers the business focus and apply technology to those ends!

Steven Allison
BroadVision UK




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