Wireless Banking: It’s Money in the Hand

The clock may be ticking for your friendly local bank teller. No more long lines, lost withdrawal slips, or misplaced statements; the Bank of Montreal’s innovative Veev service integrates banking, brokerage and other functions and makes them immediately accessible through a mobile phone or handheld computing device. Veev’s secure, "transaction-centric" application allows consumers to do their banking on the road, in the office or at home – at any time. By forming alliances with important software and telecommunications partners, the Bank of Montreal has positioned itself to tailor products and develop new financial service offerings dynamically – as consumers ask for them.

Speaking at Wharton’s second annual Emerging Technologies Update Day on Feb. 11, the Bank of Montreal’s Alicja J. Turner and Mark Dickelman sketched the trajectory of all-in-one banking solutions, from physical to wired-Internet to wireless. The event was organized by the Wharton Emerging Technologies Management Research Program. Turner is senior manager, wireless and mobile initiatives, and Dickelman is vice president, at the Bank of Montreal’s Emfisys division.

One of the largest banks in North America, the Bank of Montreal has U.S. $152 billion in assets and more than 32,000 employees worldwide. In 1996, it established mbanx™, the first North American virtual bank. Consumers, however, wanted a complete banking service, not just a standalone branchless bank. In its current form, the Bank of Montreal’s mbanx service allows customers access to their accounts through various tailored plans. Veev takes this one step further by "unwiring" the connection, eliminating dependency on place and time. Its successful "first-in-pocket" strategy has already been adopted by other banks.

The Gartner Group projects that nearly 1 billion people will subscribe to mobile phones by 2003. Veev aims to tap that market. "Consumers want true anytime-anywhere access," said Turner. "They want an integrated banking experience." Through Veev’s interface, consumers can view accounts, pay bills, access their portfolios, get the day’s news headlines, read horoscopes and even execute online trades – all through a cellular phone or Palm connected device. They can read stock tickers and have alerts sent to them via e-mail, pager or phone. The service can be personalized; if consumers set their preferences on one device, the same preferences will be in effect whenever they access the service from any other device.

Veev’s strategy has several parts: The Bank of Montreal sets the direction and invests in an idea. The company develops the features for the product; it then builds relationships to increase visibility. The continual challenge is to attract new customers and design e-commerce solutions that are helpful and easy-to-use.

The Bank of Montreal forged partnerships with key players, such as software developer 724 Solutions and wireless service provider Bell Mobility, to ensure that customers’ experience would be seamless and the devices as transparent as possible. "Customers won’t tolerate technical limitations," said Turner. When users complained that the screens on phones were too small for some of the functions, Veev’s partners listened; new cell phones with more lines on the screen are due out shortly.

Working with device manufacturers in the product development stage is indeed an unusual step for a financial services firm, but it allowed the Bank of Montreal to specify security needs, for instance, that were unique to the banking industry. By focusing on standards-based technologies, the bank hopes to keep its service independent of operating systems, added Dickelman. He emphasized that the service is free: "We don’t charge for our service; consumers pay for airtime based on their carrier."

Participants in a 90-day Veev market trial in the greater Toronto area last year liked the convenience and portability of the service. They tended to be on-the-go, with above-average income. They used Veev in vehicles, at work, in transit, even at home. Turner emphasized this point: "Even when they had other options available – such as a home computer – many still chose to use the mobile device. They were very positive about the Veev experience."

Offering financial services on a handheld device raises issues of ergonomics and biometrics that were largely irrelevant in the branch banking model. A cell phone or PDA is more personal than a bank building; people care more about how the device looks, for example, or how it feels, and how easy it is to use and store. "There’s a fundamentally different level of interaction that people have with intimate or personal devices as opposed to even kiosk devices," said Dickelman. "They protect them differently, with a ‘My life is on this’ attitude." The Bank of Montreal takes these concerns seriously and is always mindful of them when developing new products and services, he added.

Dickelman sees future generations as a vast untapped market. "Think about this: Most youth will never have a landline phone or go to a bank branch in their lifetime." That’s exactly the kind of consumer the bank hopes to attract to Veev as it expands its service offerings to newer devices in years to come.

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