Bank of the West's mobile app now includes a subtle feature that could have a substantial effect on its customers' payment habits.

The $62-billion-asset Bank of the West now offers a "Quick Balance" feature that displays the customer's available funds when a user swipes a finger across the bank's logo within its mobile banking app. It does not require the user to log in each time.

"One of the things people want to do is find out how much money they have before they make a purchase. If they have to do that via an SMS (text) message, that's not a good form factor, and it's not a great experience," says Matt Krogstad, vice president of mobile banking and payments for the San Francisco-based Bank of the West, which is a subsidiary of BNP Paribas. It's also cumbersome to log into the mobile banking app each time and navigate to the balance section, he says.

This simple twist "can be hugely useful in the payments context," says Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst with Celent. Balance queries are still the most common mobile financial service.

"With prepaid products and mobile wallets, the ability to know how much you have left in your account before making a payment can catch on going forward," Bareisis says. "Your account balance is what you are entitled to. It's not information that the bank owns. And it's not critical data [from a security standpoint]. Even if it were to get exposed, the balance is the only information that people would have."

In early use—Quick Balance has been available for just over a week—6% of first-time users of the new mobile banking app turned on the feature and 75% of the users accessed it at least once per day, Krogstad says.

Quick Balance is not currently tied to special offers or merchant acquisition strategy, though there is the potential to link real-time balance queries with other payments information or functions, Krogstad says.

"It's a function that can be used at the point of sale anywhere," Krogstad says, adding the most common current use case is someone at a checkout lane who is deciding between using a credit card or a checking account.

Quick Balance queries are secured by using the consumer's mobile device as an authentication factor. Consumers log in the first time and tell the app to switch on the feature.

For more complex mobile transactions, Bank of the West is also using mobile PINs to speed navigation. Instead of user names and passwords, consumers use a six- to eight-digit PIN for the mobile app. "The long alphanumeric online banking passwords are good for a keyboard but not for mobile," Krogstad says, adding mobile PINs can help in mobile payments as well.

"If we're offering a QR code or an NFC payment or are activating an NFC chip, we will have a PIN to put in front of the user to authenticate the transaction," he says.

Krogstad also addressed the role banks should play in leading mobile wallet development. As SourceMedia's Card Forum and Expo last week, MCX argued for merchant-led mobile payments, whereas Bank of America Merchant Services talked up the bank's role.

In an interview with PaymentsSource, Krogstad advocated a large menu of services tied to payments.

"If you are going with a bank, it's a one-stop financial shop," he says. "If you are with one of the other models, there are other financial services that are going to be outside the [wallet provider]."

Bank of the West is not developing mobile point of sale payments with a particular tech model in mind, but is considering a wide range of options such as NFC chips and bar codes, Krogstad says.  It's a strategy similar to a number of other banks, such as BMO, that are playing wait-and-see with mobile payments at the point of sale.

"We're not going to be a fast follower from a dead stop," Krogstad says. "Every year for the past five years has been the 'year of mobile,' of course, but we are much closer to that now."

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