Monday, January 7, 2013

Bank of America Mobile Pay Just Goes Part of the Way

Because I've worked for a large corporation for which I had some affection, one that was caught in the maelstrom of a fundamental technology shift, I'm one to, at least, hope for a good result when the behemoth incumbent in an industry attempts to replicate what the nimble start-up has done.  If the incumbent can serve its current customers with something good enough to keep them in place, then, I generally call it a success or a successful stalling tactic until the next upheaval comes along, because these successes happen so rarely.

In mobile payments, that nimble start-up role has fallen largely to Square, Jack Dorsey's company that has successfully scared the hell out of half of the merchant services industry.  The other half is too dumb to be frightened and will go the way of the buggy whip manufacturing sector.  Square's done a great job making payment acceptance simple and receipting graceful for the cardholder.  With its Square Wallet and Register it is now going well beyond payment acceptance.

So, when Bank of America came out with its snazzy looking Mobile Pay dongle, all tricked out in B of A red, white, and gray, I thought the behemoth bank's merchant services business unit might be teaching itself to dance a simple two-step if not the Square merengue.  

From what I've seen, it's a one step.  And even that's revealed a certain lack of grace.

The New Merchant

My daughter Anna is a registered dietician.  She's opened up a private practice recently and decided to use BofA's new Mobile Pay service because the $9 monthly cost was offset by the free small business checking account she was offered and the fact that she could download her transaction files for use in QuickBooks.  At 1.8%, the transaction fees are 0.95% lower than Square so she figured she'd come out ahead.   She's used Square, liked it, but thought, on balance, the costs and potential integration with her banking relationship would be more advantageous.  Seemed reasonable.

So far, her initial experience with setting up the device and getting her merchant account functioning has been less than smooth.  She's been stymied by an incompletely thought out process, less than knowledgable customer support, the still inelegant onboarding process for a new merchant, and the delta between her mostly slick mobile user interface and the Web 1.5 (that's "web one and a half") interface provided by the BAMS merchant services site.  


Even the customer receipts show their merchant services undergarments with irrelevant, even off-putting transaction detail.  Let's start there.

Here's a screenshot of one of my Square receipts.  Merchant-branded.  Simple.  Elegant.  Enough information for me as the cardholder to know where, when and how much, i.e. what I care about.  And enough info to track it down if I need to complain.

Here's the receipt I received from the Mobile Pay service.  The red arrows are what I don't like.

1. The B of A Merchant Services logo is the first thing you see.  Now, that may be adjustable through the merchant services site but there's no reason to yell BAMS branding at the consumer.  Compare that to Square's pitch at the bottom of the receipt.  
2.  Because a database field was not big enough to hold her business name, Whole Life Nutrition Services, the name is truncated.  The letters S-E-R are orphaned and odd.  That's no help to the merchant's own branding which is what a receipt should support first and foremost.
3.  Response / Success???  OK, that's clearly of interest to BAMS and its processor, it's even of interest to the merchant but it's meaningless if not marginally offensive to the receipt recipient.  Again, compare it to Square.  The customer is the one who reads a receipt.  It has to be put into customer relevant terms.
4. What is Stan?  Why does the customer care?

The receipt doesn't address the needs of its multiple customers.  It's too complicated and too provider oriented for the accountholder.  For the merchant, it doesn't support the merchant's branding needs.  And it's ugly.  In this day of high quality design and production standards, there's no longer an excuse.  The merchant services industry continues to get it wrong.

Mobile Software Installation

My daughter grew up with computers.  She knew some MS-DOS commands and was facile with Windows and a mouse since she was very small.  But, like most of us, she's grown to expect smartphone software to be quick and clear when it comes to installation.  She's also hasty on occasion, like some of us.  So, she got herself in trouble by installing the wrong Mobile Pay software from Bank of America, one that was not compatible with the new reader.

In the Apple App Store, she searched for 'bank of america mobile pay' and found three apps. 
Would you have been confused by the first two?

She certainly was.  Both the first and second app have the words 'Mobile Pay'.  So, she installed the first one on the list which happened to be a more complex product written by Apriva.  It didn't work.  The confusion was only straightened out ten minutes into a support call with a perfectly polite but obviously out of her depth customer service rep who said, "you have to pick the one with the picture of the card reader."  


The Card Reader

She then plugged in the card reader.  It's quite an elegant little device, supports BofA branding nicely through color and a logo embedded in the face.  But it's less elegant in use.

BofA logo in the plastic

The protector over the audio jack is more easily pivoted off of the holder on the left than it is pulled straight off of the unit.  

The red notch indicates which side the magstripe on the card has to face.  Not exactly obvious.  You have to learn it by trial and error.

The gray wings expand to grab the smartphone to give it a solid grip on the smartphone.  The dongle has two points of connection.  A better solution than the loose-fitting Square dongle.  Here it is ready for a swipe.

However, her experience of using the dongle was less than smooth.  You can't tell which way to hold the card from looking at the dongle unless you know what the red notch is for.  A small indicator on the dongle, embossed in the plastic like the BofA logo, would have been useful.  The dongle seems to be touchy, requiring repeated swipes through multiple tests, to get a good read.  Compared to Square, in her experience, it was a lot harder to get a swipe to take.

Confronting Traditional Merchant Services

And then she was confronted by the web interface on the BAMS portal, still apparently powered by First Data.  That's where the Web One and a Half character showed up and the industry-centric merchant account jargon poured onto the screen.  BofA's Mobile Pay service is a classic merchant account based offering.  It is not merchant aggregation a la Square.  

As almost always is the case with new merchant accounts, Anna had to wait almost two weeks for the dongle to show up in the mail.  Hilariously, she received a metal merchant plate to drop into a knuckle buster, along with a sticker full of card network logos, within a week.  C'mon, people, this is the 21st century.  Update and fix your process. 

Since our first test, she's run client transactions and was caught by the need to close out her first batch before she could start receiving her payment and initiate automatic settlement.  Nowhere was that written or explained to her.  Fortunately, she either found or was assigned an excellent CSR at BAMS by the name of Jose who has continued to guide her through the labyrinth.


She's now taking payments and getting paid.  She's spent at least an hour on the phone in multiple calls with at least two different individuals.  Square took her zero calls.  It's reader isn't as finicky perhaps because it's less secure.

Bank of America Mobile Pay, then, is an often inelegant mash-up, if not an outright collision, between the mobile world and the ugly - in presentation and process - merchant account creation and processing domains.  

It is pretty clear that, on the Mobile Pay team, no one had the power and budget to see this developed as an end-to-end experience for the merchant. You can almost feel and see the multiple agendas of brand managers, processor operations, and mobile product managers trying to respond to Square.  Without that focus on the real users of such a system, the user experience is poorer and uptake will be lower and the costs to deliver the service will remain high.  Square doesn't make it easy to talk to someone for an hour because it doesn't have to.

As a reminder, Bank of America Mobile Pay doesn't even begin to follow Square's other vectors toward the store-based merchant (Register) or consumer engagement (Square Wallet).  It's just a simple, me-too mobile payment acceptance tool, one that should have been much sharper.

To quote Guy Kawasaki, "Steve Jobs taught me that little details separate the mediocre from the excellent."  Square's design aesthetic and process approach is excellent.  Mobile Pay is promising but still mediocre.  Putting a mobile wrapper on the merchant services process won't get the job done.

It's time to get some folks from outside the creaky old merchant services business and put them in charge, not just on the team, of initiatives like this.  I understand that, given culture, tradition, someone's long service, such decisions are hard.  I just don't have any sympathy for leaders who continue to avoid steps just because they're hard.  Merchant services is an industry whose process and cost structures are based on "because we've always done it this way."  On the current path, "always" is getting a lot shorter.   

Rant Alert:  

I pointed out in yesterday's post some of the receipt shortcomings of Bank of America's Mobile Pay service.  While the merchant name field can be edited, believe it or not, the BAMS logo at the top of the merchant receipt cannot be changed to that of the merchant.  Unlike Square.  Unlike LevelUp.


Let's ask a few questions here:

  • Who receives the receipt?  The cardholder, of course.  The customer of BAMS's customer.  
  • Did the cardholder do business with BAMS?  No.  
  • Is the cardholder at all likely to care about merchant services?  Not likely.  Only if the merchant's customer is a small business owner or manager.
  • Is a receipt that is strongly identified with a third party of value to the merchant's branding effort?  No.
  • Does the BAMS logo at the top provide an actionable way to actually do business with BAMS?  No.  Square's receipt provides a way for a consumer to get ahold of Square Wallet.  It doesn't try to pitch card acceptance.

Then, why the BAMS logo at all?  Probably because a product manager, knowing that BAMS was invisible compared to Square, was trying to wave the flag and make some senior executive happy.  At the cost of giving their customer the needed tools to support their own branding which, in turn, helps the merchant get more repeat business, that in its turn makes BAMS the real money from processing.  

Talk about taking your eye off the ball.

Mobile Pay brochure.


  1. This is an amazing recap of a very underwhelming and confusing offering by Bank of America. Very well stated. I literally found your post by searching BoA metal thing. In addition to everything above I was given a metal strip with my companies name and account numbers all over it. I'll keep you posted if I figure it out.

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