Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Challenges of On-Line Versus Bricks: Banking and FSA

Had an experience the other day which IMHO shows the hurdles FSA and other agencies face when they try to combine bricks and mortar offices with online service.

The situation: dealing with my bank, with which my wife and I have several accounts, savings, checking, brokerage, IRAs, etc., basically operating under an umbrella which they call the PMA. They're the result of a history which started back in 1968 when I set up an account in DC in a bank which has been merged and remerged and remerged, and as my wife and I made decisions about savings and investments and consolidating accounts.

Anyhow, we have a branch office near our home, but we mostly do our banking online.

Though I haven't seen an organization chart for the bank, I deduce that they have a unit responsible for their branches,  a unit responsible for PMAs, a unit responsible for their brokerage accounts and IRA accounts, and a unit responsible for online banking. So we go in the branch to get a safe deposit box and straighten out a situation with the 1099 for 2015 taxes (I won't go into detail on that, because it's an embarrassing story--recalling the old lesson for software: when all else fails, read the manual.)

So the banker with whom we talked couldn't resolve our problem, so she made a call to the PMA help desk unit. We talked with the PMA person, without success, because she needed to talk to the online banking person.  At that point we decided to go back home and work the phones from there. I called the online banking help, who couldn't resolve it, and wanted to talk to the PMA people.  About that point I realized that it was my screw-up so I said thank you and hung up.

What's my bottom line:  in the old days dad would take the egg check and milk check to the bank, deposit them, get cash.  He knew the tellers and the bankers because it was a locally owned bank.  I'd imagine the general operations were very similar to those of the ASCS county office back in the 60's or before.  But as banking got more complicated, with different lines of business,, and more automated, that's changed, as witness my frustrating day.  More complexity means less mastery by the teller/clerk--even though the person is likely more educated, specialization means less total comprehension.

And the effect of the specialization/automation online operation is to create a frustration trap for customers and operators: 90 or 99 percent of the time it's a routine operation which goes smoothly, but the minority of the cases become much more problematic simply because there's a lack of centralized knowledge. [added--The point with my bank is the interaction among their various silos/units; the point with FSA would be the same.  The fiscal silo and the conservation silo and the payments silo all look separate to the Washington bureaucrat; they're one thing to the producer in the field.]

How successful has FSA been in moving its producers into online program servicing?  I don't know.  But organizing and educating to make that process work will be very challenging.

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