It seems that our wonderful Canadian banks aren't better than their U.S. counterparts at everything.
U.S. banks helped launch a global recession with their bad mortgage lending decisions, and they've gulped down billions in federal rescue funding. But give them their due: They're better than our more stable Canadian banks at making life convenient for customers by making it easy to research and buy products online.
Okay, you probably don't care much about the idea of signing up for bank accounts and credit cards quickly and painlessly over the Internet instead of voyaging to a bank branch or working through those tedious menu options on the phone.
Forrester Research, a U.S. analysis firm that has just issued a ranking of Canadian bank public websites, said its most recent numbers show just 11 per cent of Canadians who signed up for a chequing account did so online, compared with 16 per cent of Americans.
By 2013, Forrester projects that almost one-third of Americans setting up chequing accounts will do so online, compared with one-quarter of Canadians.
"Canadian consumers are just not as open to researching and applying for financial products online as people in the United States," said Brad Strothkamp, the Forrester analyst who produced the ranking.
Maybe this helps explains why Canadian banks, with the possible exceptions of Royal Bank of Canada, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank, aren't better at allowing customers to research and then apply for products online.
Another explanation is that there are tighter rules in Canada for allowing people to read and disclose documents online and indicate that they agree with the terms. That makes it a bit more complicated to sell products online than it might otherwise be.
Or, maybe it's just that Canadian banks are slower to jump on technological advances. Mr. Strothkamp said our banks lagged U.S. banks in adopting online banking in the first place.
Whatever the explanation, it's time for Canadians to wise up and recognize that online banking is no longer about transferring money from your savings to your chequing account at 9 o'clock on Sunday evening, or paying your cable bill without the hassle of finding a postage stamp.
Today, banking online can also mean the 24-hour convenience of researching and then signing up for products online using a safe and secure website. The more we research and buy online, the more the banks will improve this service.
I'm telling you this as someone who signed up for a Tax-Free Savings Account online last fall. It took me about 90 seconds and the account activated itself at the beginning of the year, when TFSAs became operational. If you need a savings account, a credit card, a TFSA or anything else, try getting it online.
Forrester covered the Big Six banks plus Caisse Desjardins in its ranking of public bank websites. Each was reviewed on more than 60 criteria related to a fictional target user who wants to set up a chequing account online and research and potentially apply for a credit card as well.
The big story for 2009, according to Forrester, is the major improvement by RBC, which jumped 12 points to the No. 1 position after a complete redesign of its home page and deposit and credit card pages.
Both RBC and TD got high marks from Forrester for being good at selling on their websites. Specifically, they answered obvious questions and provided tools, such as side-by-side product comparisons, to help customers make decisions. RBC and CIBC did well at allowing customers to actually sign up for products online.
On the whole, though, Forrester was not too complimentary about how Canadian banks rank at flogging products online.
"Over all, Forrester was disappointed with the lack of progress over the past year, but we believe that the 2010 Canadian public site ranking will show a vastly different result. By the 2010 review, several other Canadian banks will have followed the path of RBC and finally figured out how to effectively sell on the Web."
The online bank ING Direct, a specialist in high-interest savings accounts, has started a marketing campaign built on criticism of other banks for the service fees they charge (check out fairfees.ca). ING doesn't have any fees, but neither does it have chequing accounts, credit cards or other products that tend to generate the most banking fees.
Suggestion to ING: Show the other banks how it's done by offering a true no-fee chequing account. With the worst of the global financial crisis seemingly over, it would be nice to see a competitor to the big banks step up and challenge the fee and interest rate increases they introduced in the past six months.