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Come On, Zelle!

I love Zelle! In fact, I was one of Zelle’s earliest adopters in the days when it was clearXchange. In my opinion, being able to send payments to another person from my bank account using my mobile phone is the best invention since sliced bread and online banking (which eliminated the need to ever balance a checkbook again). Every time I need to pay someone, I try to use Zelle. And I really am a brand evangelist for Zelle—not only do I spend my days researching and writing about the person-to-person payments market in general, but I also tell all my friends and family to give Zelle a try. I believe Zelle is the future of cash, because sending and receiving digital payments using a bank account for free and in real time is the same thing as handing someone a bunch of dollar bills.

But I am worried about Zelle’s future, because the user experience can be clunky. About half of the time, I can make payments without incidence, but I think user experience issues such as those described below could hamper market adoption. Here are some of my recent experiences:

  • A service provider to whom I have made weekly payments since 2014 using clearXchange would no longer accept my payments with Zelle. The service provider had to call Zelle’s customer service to move her account from clearXchange to Zelle and was not willing to make the time investment required. Now I have to pay this service provider with a check or with Venmo.
  • I hired a cleaning lady for my home, and her financial institution (FI) is one of the founding members of Zelle. I tried several times to send her a payment, and it failed. I asked her to let me look at her mobile banking app to ensure she was enrolled for Zelle, and I couldn’t figure out how to find her account profile in the app. She finally enlisted her daughter’s help, and we got it figured out, but a less-committed user would have abandoned Zelle and gone for a more established payment method.
  • A handyman, whose FI is part of the Zelle network and who had used Zelle in the past, did some work in my home. I tried to send him a payment twice, and my bank automatically cancelled the transaction with no reason provided. I contacted my FI’s customer service, and they could not provide a reason. The handyman tried to request a payment from me, but his mobile banking application was down. Long story short, after spending several hours, we finally got the payment to go through—an average user will not make this type of effort.
  • I tried to send a Zelle payment to a friend whose FI is a founding member of the Zelle network, but the payment wouldn’t go through because she was not signed up to use Zelle. My friend tried to set up her Zelle account using her mobile banking application, but the bank’s application was down more than one time when she tried to access it. It took about three conversations between us to finally make a successful payment, and again, Zelle would have been abandoned if I hadn’t talked my friend into using it.

In summary, it takes less than five minutes to set up a payment account using PayPal, Venmo, Square Cash, Facebook Messenger, or Google Wallet. Once the account is set up, the user can immediately send payments to another person with just five to seven clicks. And I have never had a payment fail using one of these apps—all provide nearly frictionless user experiences. In my opinion, the downside of these apps is that the recipient does not have immediate access to funds, and to get immediate access to funds, the user must pay a fee. I’m not sure this business model is sustainable long term, but if Zelle fails to establish credibility, I could be wrong.

I reached out to Early Warning Services to discuss some of these issues, and here is what Jamie Armistead, vice president and business line leader for Zelle, told me: “Together with our participating financial institutions, we strive to deliver a fast, safe, and easy consumer experience at every interaction. Unfortunately, there are a few instances where there is added friction, and it usually happens at enrollment or with first-time users. Requiring these extra steps keeps consumers safe and allows for proper authentication. However, at other times, we know this can be frustrating, and we have taken steps to enhance the Zelle user experience. We recently expanded our user experience design team, adding several designers and usability engineers. Additionally, we started a user experience forum where we share best practices with participating financial institutions and identify points of friction from their customers. Enhancements to the enrollment process are currently being rolled out across the network, and the clearest indication of our progress is that we’ve more than halved the number of customer service calls per transaction since last summer. Keep the feedback coming. We want our users to have a great, fast, safe, and easy experience.”

If Zelle intends to have mass market adoption, it must work out the kinks. Millennials and Gen Zers, who are the biggest users of Zelle according to my recent research, will not have the patience for the types of issues described above. And older generations, already skeptical of digital payment services, are at risk of abandoning digital payments altogether when there is a poor user experience. This is a call to action for Early Warning Services and every FI participating in the Zelle network: Prioritize providing a seamless user experience for Zelle. The future is counting on it.