“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1871
Building the Better Mousetrap. That’s Topic #1 on the syllabus given to the still-pimply freshmen as they drag their sorry carcasses into their first college Marketing class. The aloof professor will tell the youngsters that my man Emerson was dead wrong. Just making something more complex doesn’t mean there will be any demand for the new, improved product. “Better” has to be defined by the market, not the inventor.
Serge the Marketing Prof goes on to describe any number of attempts at more artfully designed, constructed, and packaged mousetraps that only gathered dust on the shelves as the brutally effective, old-school rat whackers sold by the truckload. The spring-hinged spine snappers were effective, cheap and one of middle America’s only opportunities to get Medieval on household pests. Some things just don’t need improvement.
Did you know that there is a contingent in our esteemed industry trying to build a better ATM? No lie. Why, in the American Banker just last week, a rep from NCR suggested that soon Americans would be using ATMs to buy stocks, pick up plane tickets, and print photos from a digital camera. And some say ATMs will be Web-enabled so you and the missus can access the local Harkins site and buy a couple tickets to “Sweet Home Alabama.” The enhanced ATMs, according to others, will also distribute coupons so that Americans will no longer have to spend those countless, grueling hours clipping them from the newspaper. Oh, and add wire transfers and bill payments to the many tasks you’ll soon take care of at the ATM. Hope the line behind you is patient and unarmed.
Yeah, I know – 290 words in and I haven’t yet made my point. Here goes: Any attempt to make the ATM anything more than a box that gives consumers money and takes the odd after-hours deposit is destined to abject failure.
The idea of the enhanced ATM is clearly a case of applying technology to a product, contrary to all common sense, just because It Can Be Done. Can you even believe we’re debating this? I am utterly flabbergasted that the enhanced ATM concept made it past the Idea Burst planning session with the marketing staff, but clearly the debate is raging. Nationally distributed banking periodicals are devoting valuable column space to debates between enhanced ATM vendors and their relatively sane detractors.
Even TowerGroup is weighing in, saying that improved functionality is necessary to grow ATM revenue. But in the same paragraph they admit that consumers have not at all accepted enhanced ATM functionality in the past. “Postage stamps were followed by mini-statements, movie tickets, coupons, check cashing, money orders, and prepaid cell phone minutes. But in most cases, the customer’s appetite has not been there to consume the products offered by the bank.”
Despite admitted history that would suggest the contrary, TowerGroup predicts that global revenue from advanced ATM features will grow by $210 million over the next five years. In “A Gap in Expectations for Next-Generation ATMs” (American Banker, 11-5-02), Tower’s Jerry Silva said: “It seems that ATMs are trying to become more and more kiosk-like, while the kiosks are coming in the opposite direction to try to meet the ATM. At some point there will be a whole spectrum of machines that will have different functionalities depending on location and the target market being served.”
But surely the vendors don’t want another kiosk debacle on their hands. Remember the kiosk, ATMs’ sickly little cousin? Just seven or eight years ago the rags were chock full o’ speculation that the all-purpose banking kiosk would replace significant numbers of branch and lending staff. Alas, amigos, kiosks are dying a slow, tortured death.
Let me remind you of one of the Pioneers of the kiosk industry, Affinity Technology Group – developer of the first automated loan machines (ALM.) The company started with juiced up press coverage and chest thumping that made Khrushchev look demure. Affinity’s CEO, in a 12-8-94 American Banker interview, stated, “Just as the ATM replaces tellers for basic transactions, so does the ALM replace loan officers.” Riding the publicity crest and claiming to possess the Vision Thing, Affinity signed contracts with big banking wallets such as Dime Savings, Citicorp, Mellon and Bank One. Today, Affinity is a mere shell of its former self, relying on mortgage processing, not kiosk sales, for most of its diminished revenue. Why?
Because consumers did not use kiosks. Nothing fancy here, GonzoBankers. We didn’t use them then, and we still don’t use them. Probably won’t anytime soon.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
–Leroy – my former soccer coach and competitive barbecue chef, explaining why he was bucking the decided trend toward molasses-based rib sauce, Austin, Texas, 1994
Never thought I’d say this, but I have to side with Leroy and Serge over Emerson on this one, Gonzonians. I know some of you will say that we naysayers are stifling innovation. Snuffing out the faintly glowing spark of advancement in favor of the dependable status quo. No, sir. I just don’t think ATMs are broken.