The Tremendous Opportunity Hiding in Plain Sight

There is a tremendous opportunity for community and regional banks to enhance the international payments, receipts and foreign exchange services they provide their commercial customers.

In 2021, the total amount of U.S. imports and exports totaled $6.5 trillion. In fact, 27.9% of U.S. gross domestic product was imports and exports. What other “new” product line has such an addressable market? According to the census, 76% of U.S.-based companies that import or export have less than 20 employees; 97% have less than 500 employees. These are businesses that community and regional banks are already servicing. But these institutions are hindered by the belief that they lack the size, sophistication and resources to confidently capture the opportunity.

The good news for banks is that there are technology solutions that can enhance their offering to customers that require international payments, receipts and foreign exchange services. These solutions provide more opportunities for sales and service on the bank end and help their business customers mitigate risks more effectively.

Quantifying this opportunity will vary for each institution, and location and asset size alone are not accurate predictors. Cross-border activity occurs across the U.S., not just in the most obvious international trade areas. Financial institutions should start by looking at their existing volumes to determine the opportunity. Within outbound and inbound payments, banks need to examine the number of transactions that took place, the total notional volume, the U.S. dollar and foreign currency split, what origination and destination countries are included and whether these are commercial or consumer payments. This initial analysis leaves out the potential for future growth through enhanced capabilities.

Many financial institutions are surprised to see that this is an opportunity hidden in plain sight. Frankly, it doesn’t take much activity — as little as $1 million a month of international payments going in foreign currency — to make this an interesting capability for executives to consider. That’s because banks can leverage technology to capture it more effectively.

Enhancing international payments capabilities doesn’t mean banks have to give up cultivating the experience that their customers expect. Controlling the customer experience here starts with offering the capability via multiple channels while retaining flexibility and control on pricing. This can lead to capturing more of the customer wallet, which provides additional insight into customer activity and, ultimately, a stronger and deeper relationship.

Community and regional banks that enhance their international capabilities can sell with more confidence, better retain existing business customers and potentially attract new ones in the face of others competing for the same business customers. They can even extend the product offering by offering risk management solutions.

Once a bank decides to take more control over the customer experience in international payments, the defining characteristic of success is how quickly it can produce revenue from these enhanced capabilities. It starts at the planning stages. The foundation of any transition is a detailed implementation checklist and, as importantly, a timeline that maps out the process.

All bank areas need to be in full support and aligned on the changes. You need both an executive sponsor and a product champion as part of this. Once implemented, institutions that properly incentivize their bankers should generate significant improvements versus the rest of the industry landscape. But it is critical for banks to engage an experienced and trusted partner to accompany them during this journey and guide implementation.

The opportunity for community and regional banks to enhance their international payments, receipts, and foreign exchange services they provide their commercial customers remains one hidden in plain sight. Leveraging technology to capture the value associated with both existing and prospective activity provides benefits to the bottom line and the customer experience. Don’t be surprised by the size of the opportunity, the activity with business customers, and the relative ease with which it can be captured and enhanced.

Trends in Corporate Leadership

In this episode of Looking Ahead, David Ingles and Stephen Amdur, partners at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, focus on the rapidly evolving financial industry. Some of this technological shift, they explain, has been propelled by declining development costs and greater access to capital —and they point out where private equity investors are seeing opportunities. They also explore how large regional and national banks have shifted their M&A strategies to acquiring technology platforms.

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence in 2022

Around a quarter of bank executives and board members reported that their institution used artificial intelligence (AI) and/or machine learning in Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey — leaving room for more banks to adopt these technologies over the next few years. Slaven Bilac, CEO of Agent IQ, shares use cases for AI and offers advice for bank leaders seeking to add these solutions.

  • AI Applications
  • Requirements for Adoption
  • Overcoming Barriers
  • Questions to Ask

The Do’s and Don’ts of Digital Lending Transformation

For many mid-size community banks, the shift to technology has been slower than expected. There can be a resistant mindset when it comes to implementing financial technology practices, hindering any results that the technology can provide. Bankers try to make the tech fit to their existing processes, rather than the other way around.

If you’re already considering a digital transformation, you might be tempted to run out and overhaul your entire system right away. However, this can be an overwhelming approach, destining the project for failure. One recent study finds that most financial institutions that have partnered with fintech firms have seen moderate gains, but there is still a need to distribute more dedicated resources to a true digital lending transformation. However, there are a few quick do’s and don’ts that every institution can benefit from:

Don’t try to overhaul the entire thing at once. Take an assessment of not only your bank’s current technology state, but also of your current practices and approaches. Too often, financial institutions want to focus on “the way it’s always been done,” rather than looking to see how digital solutions can make processes easier and more efficient. Keep what works in today (and tomorrow’s) environment and find ways to adapt the rest.

Do start with the most profitable areas. One of the best ways to see the most return on an investment in digital is to begin with the areas that drive revenue and profit to the institution. Your back office and credit department will benefit the most from technology that allows them to operate more efficiently and make decisions faster, making them logical starting points.

Don’t try to mix and match solutions. When it comes to implementing technology into the branches, many choose to try and piecemeal different products and systems together. While you might think this approach saves money by only buying certain products from certain vendors, your bank is most likely losing key integrations that can come from having a single solution.

Do trust your technology partners to guide you. Finding a partner that understands what it means to work in a bank, with these current processes, ensures that you’re getting support from folks that understand what you’re trying to do. The key here is trust. Too often, banks are resistant to the idea that their technology partners might be able to teach them a more efficient way.

Don’t try to change the technology. Rather than looking at how the bank can adopt the tech to its processes, consider leveraging technology partners to explore how your bank can simplify processes through technology. When you purchase a solution from a financial technology provider, you’re also paying for their expertise. Don’t throw your money away.

Do adjust your mindset when it comes to tech. Tech in the banking industry has made giant leaps in the last five years, let alone in the decades prior to that. If your bank’s mindset when it comes to implementing or adding technology into your processes is that certain things can’t be changed because it’s always been done this way, you’re setting yourself up to achieve fewer desirable results.

When the coronavirus pandemic sent everyone to their homes for months in 2020, many banks were forced to recognize that an online portal or a mobile app wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Adapting to a fully automated process has become necessary, not optional. Now is the time to learn from this and to take control of your technology. Don’t wait until the next unexpected issue forces you to adapt, when you can get ahead of the game.

About Baker Hill
Baker Hill empowers financial institutions to work smarter, reduce risk and drive more profitable relationships. The company delivers a single unified platform with modern solutions to streamline loan origination and risk management for commercial, small business and consumer lending. The Baker Hill NextGen® platform also delivers sophisticated analytics and marketing solutions that support sound business decisions to mitigate risk, generate growth and maximize profitability. For more information, visit www.bakerhill.com.

FinXTech’s Need to Know: Augmented Intelligence

Banks are exploring how to best develop and retain personal relationships as financial interactions move online.

Here’s what they need to know.

Replicating in-branch experiences isn’t only about providing customers with tailored responses and greeting them by name. It’s also about giving those customers the ability to control their interactions: how, when and with whom they handle their financial situations.

Some customers may want to call, some may feel more comfortable texting and some may change their mind and want to head to their local branch in the middle of a conversation. Chatbots — often powered by rules-based artificial intelligence — can automatically populate responses, but may fall short when it comes to fluid and intuitive communications that customers want, potentially complicating their issue resolution.

To address this shortcoming and improve digital communication capabilities, some banks have decided to build their own technology. Umpqua Holdings Corp., which has $30.9 billion in assets and is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, launched its customized Umpqua Go-To platform in 2018. The stand-alone app was developed and built in-house at Umpqua’s innovation lab, Pivotus Ventures, according to The Financial Brand. Umpqua Go-To allows customers to personally select which banker they want to interact with based on who was available online.

But many banks don’t have the bandwidth, resources or budget to build their own technology from scratch. Instead, a bank can choose to partner with a financial technology company such as Agent IQ.

The San Francisco-based fintech helps banks communicate with their customers using augmented intelligence. Augmented intelligence is used to enhance and assist human-based communication, unlike artificial intelligence, which often aims to replace it.

At institutions that use Agent IQ, customers can choose a specific, personal banker to communicate with through digital channels, which can include mobile messaging, web chat and SMS text messaging, as well as social media channels like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger.

Agent IQ uses asynchronous technology: Customers and bankers can pick up conversations where they left off, at any time and through any channel. The conversation records are saved after a banker or customer leaves a session and can be referenced afterward by either party, by another banker or for compliance purposes.

Bankers are always looking to improve their customers’ experience. In fact, Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey found this to be the second most popular response driving banks’ technology strategy; 68% included it in their top three objectives.

And as it turns out, customers respond well to 24/7 access to personal bankers.

Independent Bank Corp., the $14.5 billion parent of Rockland Trust Company based in Rockland, Massachusetts, has seen significant engagement with the Agent IQ platform since its implementation. Since late May 2021, over 37,000 customers — approximately one fifth of their online customers — have used the platform without the bank marketing it or notifying customers of its presence, said Patrick Myron, Rockland’s senior vice president of retail network strategy and sales analytics, during a recent webinar hosted by Agent IQ. That’s an average of 500 to 600 weekly conversations that customers are opting into because they want to reach their banker digitally.

“We’ve done customer surveys,’’ he said. “The majority [of the results] are seven out of seven. They really like the engagement – the ability to talk to a banker any time they want.”

Chatbots are built to interact with customers with predetermined responses. That automation can be useful for directing traffic to certain webpages or answering yes and no questions, but many financial situations are complex and can’t be appropriately addressed solely by chatbots. Instead of being transferred to a bank representative 10 minutes into a conversation with a chatbot, Agent IQ will show the customer who’s available to communicate at the start of the interaction.

According to Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, chatbots may not even be what banks want. Seventy-eight percent of respondents stated the bank doesn’t use chatbots. Only 15% had chatbots and 7% were unsure if the bank had them.

Augmented intelligence can enhance digital communication between banks and their customers, not replace it with algorithms. Firms that leverage it, like Agent IQ, may be an attractive solution for banks looking to create and maintain digital relationships with their customers.

Agent IQ is included in FinXTech Connect, a curated directory of technology companies who strategically partner with financial institutions of all sizes. For more information about how to gain access to the directory, please email finxtech@bankdirector.com.

What the Heck is Web3?

With increased interest around Web3, making sense of the latest and newest technology trend — and its potential impact on financial services —  could add value to strategic discussions as leadership teams and boards consider their long-term strategies.

For early and seed stage venture capital, the top 15 firms invested $1.3 billion in Web3 and decentralized finance in the third quarter 2021, according to Pitchbook. The research company said investment in the space — which includes $900 million into the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and $120 million in Offchain Labs, a blockchain-based, smart contracts platform — beat out the separate fintech category, which landed in the No. 2 spot with $860 million invested.

Not everyone is convinced. In a December 2021 tweet, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called Web3 “more marketing buzzword than reality right now.” He was responding to a video of a 1995 interview of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates with David Letterman, in which the TV host asked, “What about this internet thing?”

That question seems quaint today. Amazon.com had just opened for business as an online bookstore; Mark Zuckerberg would start Facebook roughly a decade later.

Facebook represents the current state of the internet, characterized by centralized platforms that own or leverage user content. But the web continues to evolve; venture capital firms and tech titans are using the term “Web3” to discuss this next phase. These changes encompass concepts that bank leadership teams and boards should be watching and regularly discussing.

“Web3 is really just a rebranding of a lot of the things we’ve already been talking about for a while,” says Alex Johnson, director, fintech research at Cornerstone Advisors. “It’s the collision of the internet and crypto in a way that allows for users of the internet to have verifiable ownership over the companies and products that they interact with.”

The expansion of digital assets underpinned by blockchain — including cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which represent ownership in art, music or even real estate — are reshaping the way that internet users think about ownership.

“There will now be the capability to give verifiable ownership — over content, over relationships, over access to special features, over [intellectual property] — to customers or users. And the potential impact of that is that companies that do that will have a significant marketing advantage and retention advantage,” says Johnson. Companies could use tokens to build loyalty and community, granting partial ownership to customers of products or ideas, similar to a referral bonus or share of stock.

Leveraging blockchain technology, investor Ryan Zacharia envisions consumers and businesses building digital identities. “People are going to effectively own and control their own identities and information, and hold that information in a digital wallet,” providing access when applying for a loan, for example. Zacharia is general partner at JAM Special Opportunity Ventures, which invests in up-and-coming bank technologies on behalf of partner institutions.

At the same time, a few banks are using blockchain to power real-time transactions. Last month, I watched the first real-time interbank transfer of stablecoins — cryptocurrency pegged to a stable currency or commodity — between two banks, $53 billion Western Alliance Bancorp., based in Phoenix, and $2.5 billion Coastal Financial Corp. in Everett, Washington. The transaction was facilitated by Tassat Group, which provides blockchain-based payment solutions for banks.

“The ability to have programmable money is a game changer for the whole economy,” says Chris Nichols, director of capital markets for SouthState Bank. “It’s the first time where you have value, the message and the ability to program all in one unit of code. … [T]his opens up a whole new set of products for banks.” Signature Bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Customers Bancorp and New York Community Bancorp are among the banks exploring blockchain-based products and services focused on payments and asset securitization.

Fintechs competing with banks are also taking advantage of the disintermediation trends promised by a Web3 economy. In March 2021, Block (formerly Square) acquired TIDAL. The artist-centered music streaming platform allows the Jack Dorsey-led digital payments provider to tap into another niche. In a press release, current TIDAL head and Square executive Jesse Dorogusker said the two platforms would “explore new artist tools, listener experiences, and access to financial systems that help artists be successful.”

Musicians and artists have been early movers on NFTs. Just last month, Ozzy Osbourne launched a “CryptoBatz” collection of NFTs, commemorating the notorious 1982 gig where the rocker bit the head off a bat. Earlier in 2021, the band Kings of Leon released the first NFT album.

“There is an opportunity for content creators, music creators, owners and writers and musicians to eliminate intermediation, connect directly to their fans [and] sell their music as NFTs,” says Zacharia. “That can generate revenue for the musician, and the NFT holders can receive programmatic royalties based on [a song] being played …  or what have you.”

Web3 requires an open mind and a firm foot in reality. Research into these concepts quickly unearth ideas that seem more like science fiction than traditional economics and finance. Facebook, for example, recently changed its corporate name to Meta Platforms as Zuckerberg expects people to interact more in the metaverse. Will part of the economy take place in a digital world, where we interact via avatars in a virtual space?

”It’s important to have conversations that contemplate what the world could look like in five or 10 years,” says Zacharia. The metaverse is an unlikely next step for a typical bank, but he could see an early-mover advantage for an enterprising financial institution that figures out how to bank the space. And despite the sci-fi luster, the evolution of the web promises to soldier on, bringing opportunities and risks for banks to consider, including fraud and cybersecurity. “There’s a tremendous amount of talent and effort and capital that’s going into this,” he says. “Frankly, I don’t think it’s a fad.”

Digital Deniers Need Not Apply

There are few bankers who understand the process of digital transformation better than Mike Butler.

Beginning in 2014, Butler oversaw the evolution of Boston-based Radius Bancorp from a federally chartered, brick-and-mortar thrift to one of the most tech-forward banks in the country. Radius closed all its branches except for one (federal thrifts are required to have at least one branch) and adopted a digital-only consumer banking platform.

The digital reinvention was so successful that in February 2020, LendingClub Corp. announced a deal to buy Radius to augment that marketplace lender’s push into digital banking. Now Butler is off on another digital adventure, this time as president and CEO of New York-based Grasshopper Bancorp, a five-year-old de novo bank focused on the small business market. Like Radius, Grasshopper operates a digital-only platform.

Butler will moderate a panel discussion at Bank Director’s upcoming Acquire or Be Acquired Conference focusing on the importance of integrating bank strategy with technology investments. The conference runs Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2022, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix.

Butler says that successful transformation begins with the bank’s executive management team and board of directors, where discussions about technology need to be an integral part of strategic planning. And most importantly, management and the board need to see digital transformation as crucial to the bank’s future success. Butler says there are still plenty of “digital deniers” among bankers who believe they can be successful without strengthening their institution’s digital capabilities.

“Have you embraced the kinds of changes that are taking place inside the industry?” Butler says. “And do you have a very strong cultural commitment to be a part of that change? When you do that, you start to look to technology as the enabling driver to get you to that place.”

Management teams that are just starting out on a path to digital transformation can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential projects. “The most important thing to do is to prioritize and recognize that you cannot do this all at once,” Butler says. “It would be a mess if you tried. Pick two to three things that you think are critically important.”

A third element of a successful transformation process is finding the right person to lead the project. “You’ve got to have the right talent to do it,” Butler says. “That leader better be somebody who has been pushing it rather than you push it on them as CEO. You can’t say, ‘Joe, you’ve been running branches for 30 years, do you believe in digital? Eh, kind of. Okay, I want you to put in a digital platform.’ That’s not going to work.”

Butler goes so far as to say that only true believers should run those fintech projects. “You cannot do this without people that have the passion and the belief to get to the other side, because you will hit a lot of roadblocks and you’ve got to be able to bust through those roadblocks,” he says. “And if you don’t believe, if you don’t have the passion, there’s a lot of reasons to stop and go a different way.”

Butler might not seem the most likely person to be a digital change agent. He spent 13 years at Radius and pursued a branch banking strategy in the early years. Prior to joining Radius, Butler was president of KeyCorp’s national consumer finance business. He did not come from the fintech sector. He has a traditional banking background. And yet as Butler is quick to point out, Radius didn’t reinvent banking, it reinvented the customer experience.

The fact that Butler lacked a technology background didn’t deter him from pursuing a transformational strategy at Radius. He was smart enough to see the changes taking place throughout the industry, so he understood the business case, and he was also smart enough to surround himself with highly committed people who did understand the technology.

In building out its digital consumer banking platform, Radius worked with a number of third-party fintech vendors. “I wasn’t making technology decisions about whose technology was better, but I surely was making decisions about the companies that we were partnering with and what type of people we were willing to work with,” Butler says. “I met every single CEO of every company that we did business with, and that was a big part of our decision as to why we would partner with them.”

At Grasshopper, Butler says he prefers the challenge of building a new digital bank from scratch rather than converting a traditional bank like Radius to a digital environment. Sure, there are all the pain points of a startup, including raising capital. But the advantages go beyond starting with a clean piece of paper from a design perspective. “It’s really hard to transform a culture into something new inside of an organization,” Butler says. “So, I’d say the upside is that you get to start from scratch and hire the right people who have the right mindset.”

Five Fintech Solutions Every Bank Should Have

If Money 20/20 was any indication, it seems like banks are finally ready to really embrace fintech. Small and medium-sized banks have realized that their technology budgets can be used for things other than building and managing technology in-house to keep up with large financial institutions with big budgets and neobanks with brand new tech stacks. A tech stack is the combination of technologies a company uses to build and run an application or project, and typically consists of programming languages, frameworks, a database, front-end tools, back-end tools and applications connected via APIs.

For banks starting to explore fintech partnerships, we’ve compiled a list of the top five fintech solutions every bank should have in its tech stack today.

1. Account Opening Platform
New customer acquisition is one of the most important components of a successful financial institution. An online account opening platform powers an omnichannel interface to onboard new customers quickly and seamlessly. A good account opening platform should also provide a customizable user interface, increased account conversion rates and detailed reporting.

2. Identity Decisioning Platform
An identity decisioning platform, or IDP, automates identity and risk decisions across the lifecycle of your customer. IDPs power smart decisions that can reduce risk for your business while providing a frictionless customer experience for identity verification and onboarding, ongoing transaction monitoring and credit underwriting.

IDPs are the decision engine behind the account opening platform that helps banks determine whether to accept or reject an applicant. It continues to monitor that client’s account activity and powers underwriting decisions. Your IDP should connect to multiple data sources through application programming interfaces, or APIs, allowing you to add and change data sources as needed. By bringing all of your identity and risk decisions into one platform, you’ll see a holistic view of your customers and automate more decisions.

3. Open Banking Platform
Your customers expect to be able to access their financial data across various apps. Open banking platforms make it easy for banks to securely share data with third-party businesses through an API that allows customers to connect their banking data. Open banking platforms are the key component connecting your bank to popular apps like peer-to-peer payments, financial management and cryptocurrency investments.

4. BaaS Platform
You’ve probably noticed the trend of non-bank businesses beginning to offer financial products. This trend is powered through BaaS, or banking as a service, platforms. BaaS platforms enable a third-party business to integrate digital banking or payment services directly into their products by connecting them with a bank. This model allows non-financial institutions the ability to offer a financial product without getting a banking license. Unlike open banking platforms, which share the financial data within a bank account to a third-party business, BaaS platforms transfer the complete banking services into a third-party business’s product.

5. Know Your Transaction Solution
If your bank is starting to think about how to approach cryptocurrency and digital assets, one of the first things you’ll need is a Know Your Transaction, or KYT, provider to complement your Know Your Customer (KYC) procedures. KYT solutions help you remain compliant with anti-money laundering laws when monitoring crypto transactions. A KYT solution allows banks to track crypto funds and ensure they are not coming from mixers (a service that mixes streams of cryptocurrency to improve anonymity and make it more difficult to trace), foreign exchanges or blacklisted addresses.

Fintech companies can provide a lot of value to banks. Many of them are built to plug into your existing infrastructure and be up and running in weeks. They can help banks be more agile and adapt to new customer needs faster, save banks money on engineering resources and bring focused expertise to their category. Alloy also has resources available to help banks select fintech partners and build out their tech stacks.

Commercial Lending Automation in 2022


To compete today, banks need to proactively meet the needs of their commercial clients. That not only requires building strong relationships but also improving the digital experience by automating the commercial lending process. Joe Ehrhardt, CEO and founder of Teslar Software, shares how bank leaders should think through enhancing lending processes and how they should consider selecting the best tools to meet their strategic goals.

  • Shifting Client Expectations
  • Processes Banks Should Automate Next
  • Specific Technologies to Adopt
  • Selecting Providers