By Jamison Cocklin
Technology’s intersection with finance and banking was in full view for nearly two weeks when First Place Bank adopted a new online banking platform and locked out frustrated customers who reported problems accessing the new website.
The problem started July 26 when First Place converted its customers to a new operating system, which processes and monitors personal and business bank accounts, loans and allows customers to conduct other online banking activities. It was resolved last Thursday and online operations are back to normal.
First Place was purchased by Michigan-based Talmer Bancorp in a sale that was finalized in January. Talmer paid more than $200 million for First Place, including its purchase price and the capital it committed to help lift First Place out of debt.
Courtney Abela, a spokeswoman for Talmer, confirmed this week that the online banking conversion was a part of the acquisition process.
The bank also issued new debit cards at the time of the system conversion.
Customers were notified of the changes, but many of them failed to realize that the passwords for their online bank accounts would need to be carefully reset in a process that would lock a user out of their account if they failed to follow it correctly.
Alicia Miller, a spokeswoman at First Place, declined to say how many online banking customers the bank has, but said First Place’s call center was inundated by customers who wanted to access their account and talk with someone about the matter.
“Anytime you disrupt a customer’s banking behavior, it is going to prompt questions. In this case, we had a perfect storm of activities,” she said in an email. “We changed their checking-account platform, we changed and issued new debit cards, we introduced new Internet banking and we also changed the telephone-banking platform. Combined in one, these actions triggered calls.”
Debra Bish, another First Place spokeswoman, confirmed this week that the bank’s call-center metrics had returned to a regular level as of last Thursday.
To address the problem, the bank brought in additional employees to deal with the high call volume. Miller said the number of additional employees varied on a daily basis until the problem was resolved.
Asked if customers could expect any other changes at First Place as part of Talmer’s acquisition, the parent company referred a reporter to First Place, which did not return a request to comment.
Four out of five U.S. households with Internet access use online banking, according to Fiserv Inc., which provides the financial sector with technology services. That number is only growing as more consumers turn to their mobile devices for daily tasks such as banking.
First Place’s website isn’t heavily trafficked, according to Alexa.com, which tracks the metrics of hundreds of thousands of websites, but Miller acknowledged that something as complex as an online banking conversion “is not without challenges.”
When it converted, the bank had to successfully and safely transfer the account records of its customers.
“We’re also living in an environment where protecting customers’ information is our No. 1 priority,” Miller said. “And sometimes, adding those barriers for protection comes with unintended consequences.”
James Thurston, a spokesman for the Ohio Bankers League, said that while technology has brought benefits to the world of banking, its applications create “speed bumps.”
“Financial institutions have to deploy complex back-end systems to bring these benefits to the customer,” he added. “When a merger like this takes place, the merging institutions may have different third-party vendors running their online platforms who in many cases use different hardware and software.”
In recent years, even larger U.S. banks have not been immune to problems or attacks on their online banking systems. A number of banks have been affected by hackers who target their websites and slow them down with a flood of information.
In 2011, Bank of America’s website experienced almost a week of access problems that it blamed on heavy traffic and an ongoing systems upgrade.
Miller said banking and technology continue to evolve at a rapid pace. With this in mind, she said, the bank plans to do everything it can in the future to prevent a similar problem from occurring.