Methods to Create Effective Customer Journeys for Your Bank

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of job positions for chief customer experience officers across financial institutions (FI) of all sizes. Those roles were created to help an FI focus outwardly and represent the customers’ points of view. Stated differently, people filling those roles ask the “why” question while most FIs tend to focus only on the “how.”

Marrying the How and the Why
A recent example of an unrealized opportunity to rewrite the customer journey involved branch-initiated loan applications. The process required a customer to come into a branch, sign a piece of paper which was then scanned and sent to the back office for processing. After processing, it was stamped “complete” and sent along for further scanning and indexing.

The staff was asked to improve the process, and they recommended switching the ink used to stamp “complete” from oil-based ink to water-based. By doing so, the ink did not bleed through the document, which was causing it to be scanned as two images. While the process was indeed improved incrementally, the FI did not go far enough, missing an opportunity to fundamentally improve the whole customer journey and realize more benefits for both customers and employees.

Customer journey maps marry the “how” and the “why” into one document. The how is expressed as a simple workflow document, showing the touchpoints of any process. Once the current process is documented, the why questions begin. Why do FIs need a wet signature on this document? Why do the customers need to scan their drivers’ licenses? Why should a customer have to stop into a branch to complete the application?

While having a CCEO is a great start, the most successful FIs focus on creating multiple customer experience advocates, all of whom use customer journey maps to document the hows and ask the whys. FIs that position multiple customer experience advocates across the institution have more desirable outcomes than those that have one person. The trick is getting started.

While there are many tools available to assist in generating customer journey maps, PRI suggests that FIs can be quite effective with a simple white board and some post-it notes.

Don’t become burdened with unfamiliar tools until you’ve built a few maps. Involve staff from all areas, especially those areas that are customer-facing. Create a dashboard or a scorecard and keep track of the improvements. And celebrate successes as you go.

Creating a journey map places the customer at the beginning of the process and requires the FI to think like a customer. For example, customers often find it unacceptable to wait 10 days for their debit card to arrive in the mail after opening a new account. Rather than justifying the process by explaining it, the FI can create a journey map with a goal in mind that helps them reach the next level of service. Asking why at every step along the journey is far more critical than asking how.

How to get started:

  • Choose a process known to create customer frustration.
  • Establish a goal for the customer journey map exercise.
  • Put on the “customer hat” or even experience the journey as a customer yourself.
  • Document all touchpoints.
  • Review each touchpoint and ask why it works the way it does.
  • Research best practice models.
  • Attack the touchpoints, seeking to remove friction and working toward the goal of better customer service.

Customer journey mapping has been proven to be highly beneficial to financial institutions and their bottom line. FIs should teach customer experience advocates to create effective customer journey maps for all significant touchpoints.

The process does not have to be formal. It can be simple. Marrying the how and the why will allow the FI to take advantage of the many benefits and opportunities inherent in customer journey mapping.

Time to Automate All Bank Processes

The uncertain economic environment, with a recession likely on the horizon and inflation driving up costs, has given banks a unique opportunity: revisiting their existing compliance and operational systems, and exploring long-term, scalable solutions in response to looming and increasing regulatory pressure.

Leveraging machine learning and automation to power digital transformation can address the concerns that keep bank directors up at night — especially since financial institutions may be expected to begin providing more data over the coming months. This comes at a time when banks are dealing with a number of external challenges; however, bank directors know they cannot skimp on adherence to strict compliance requirements. Missing a revenue goal is unfortunate, but from what we’ve heard from our customers, missing a compliance requirement can be a devastating blow to the business.

Increasing Regulatory Risk
Banks and other lenders may encounter financial strain in adding more compliance staff to their teams to address new regulations. Among them, Section 1071 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires financial institutions to report demographic information on small business loans. Regulators are reworking the Community Reinvestment Act. In response, banks are considering how they can leverage automated compliance systems for fair lending, loan servicing and collections.

Bankers are quick to acknowledge that the manual processes involved in data verification should be eliminated if their institutions have any hope of staying ahead of the curve. Furthermore, labor shortages and increased competition for talent has increased costs associated with these tasks — yet their necessity is imperative, given regulatory scrutiny.

As loan originations decrease during an economic slowdown or recession, it may look like delinquency rates are increasing as the ratio of delinquent loans to originations increases — even with no notable changes in delinquency cases. The increasing ratio could trigger scrutiny from the regulators, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If that happens, regulators look into whether the borrower should have received the loan in the first place, along with any fair lending bias concerns, and whether the bank followed appropriate procedures. Regulators will scrutinize the bank’s loan servicing and collections compliance procedures. Given that traditional manual reviews can be more inconsistent and vulnerable to human error, this becomes an incredibly risky regulation environment, especially where data integrity is concerned.

To mitigate risk and increase operational efficiency, banks can use end-to-end document processors to collect, verify and report data in a way that adheres to existing and pending regulation. Implementing these processes can eliminate a large portion of time and labor costs, saving banks from needing to recruit and hire additional compliance professionals every time fair lending and servicing requirements become more demanding.

Automated Processing
Lenders like Oportun, a digital banking platform powered by artificial intelligence, have found that leveraging intelligent document processing has reduced the cost of handling physical documents and traditional mail by 80%, increased margins, lowered instances of human error and improved data integrity. Enhancing customer experiences and providing quality data are crucial for Oportun; this makes their operational goals more cost-effective and scalable, and increases the capacity for Oportun’s team.

“[Automation] has helped us establish some strong controls around processing mail and servicing our customers,” Veronica Semler, vice president of operations at Oportun, says. “It’s reduced the risk of mail getting lost … it has increased our efficiency and made things easier for our team members in our stores.”

Institutions that leverage automated systems and machine learning for compliance can reduce labor costs, provide customers with high quality, efficient service and deliver accurate data to regulators. This provides companies like Oportun, which was an early adopter of machine learning, with an advantage over competitors that use traditional manual review methods.

Implementing document automation into existing systems allows banks to address compliance concerns while laying the groundwork for growth. Automation systems provide the tools for banks to reduce friction in lending and operations, enhance their controls and reduce human error — giving boards confidence that the bank can provide accurate, quality data ahead of any new fair lending and servicing regulations. Now is the time for boards and executives to recession-proof their banks and facilitate long-term success by investing in automation for document processing.

How Bank Compliance Teams Can Champion Micro-Innovation

Despite the compliance group’s reputation as a dream-crushing, idea-stomping wielder of power, they actually do want to help the rest of the bank succeed in delighting customers and clients.

It’s time to approach digital transformation as the new normal for banks. The best way to do that is to get compliance teams on board early — and the best way to accomplish that is by practicing micro-innovation. Micro-innovations are incremental changes that run parallel to proven processes, allowing nimble, modern organizations to try new approaches or strategies without sapping time and attention from what’s known to work.

Jeffery Kendall, the CEO of Nymbus and my colleague, says it best: “Modern organizations know that incremental innovation at a quick pace usually wins, compared to spending years developing a single product.”

The key for banks is to start talking with compliance when the bright idea is forming — not when the work is done. When teams are on the same page from the start, compliance can be an invaluable partner that can help balance risk throughout your micro-innovation strategy.

Align Teams From the Start
Start by including front-line staff and, yes, even compliance, when it’s time to set micro-innovations in motion. Long-tenured employees can be change generators. A recent study showed that the average American customer stays with the institution connected to their primary checking account for 14 years. Chances are, some of them have a relationship with tellers and lobby staff who understand their frustrations better than anyone and can bring these insights to the planning table.

Involving compliance from the outset can uncover what’s possible, rather than just reinforcing what can’t be done. By including compliance early, you can enliven achievable possibilities through micro-innovations. Start with monthly level-setting conversations and a deep dive into what projects and initiatives are on the horizon. Include teams in product development, sales, marketing and compliance so the bank is aligned on opportunities and goals from the start.

Find the Compliance Sweet Spot
Banks face a challenging operating environment; for compliance and risk, it’s also an opportunity to innovate. To support innovation in this landscape, compliance officers can ask themselves “How can we get where we want to go?” and “Where are the boundaries?”

In reality, most of a bank’s biggest processes, procedures and inefficiencies route through the risk compliance organizations at some point. This makes compliance staff natural advocates for change. Because they own the processes, empowered compliance officers are well positioned to understand nuance and identify opportunities for improvement and change.

Siya Vansia, chief brand and innovation officer at ConnectOne Bancorp in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, notes that when she stepped into her role, she “stopped hiring for innovation” and “started building internal advocates.” By working with compliance and others throughout the organization, Vansia creates a culture of innovation that looks for opportunities instead of tallying roadblocks.

With 70% of banks saying the Great Resignation has challenged their ability to carry out compliance requirements, some are considering unconventional hiring to fill jobs. As your institution prepares for 2023, prioritize retention and employee satisfaction to retain the talent you have on hand.

Digitize Progress, Not Inefficiencies
It can be tempting for banks to build an app and migrate longstanding inefficiencies onto a new digital platform. That’s a missed opportunity for positive change and customer loyalty.

“The future is about making banking better and connected, not simply having a cool app with a lot of features,” says Corey LeBlanc, cofounder and chief operating and chief technology officer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Locality Bank.

As your institution identifies targets for micro-innovations, examine existing processes to ensure they still fit what your customers need and want. Look for opportunities to remove inefficient and cumbersome practices and simplify the customer experience. Even one or two steps in a process can add up over a customer journey; incremental improvements can have a significant impact on satisfaction. Compliance here can be a tool to identify inefficient processes. Leverage these same techniques to assess your people, resources and strategies. Start now with small changes that can have an innovative impact right away.

Your bank’s compliance office doesn’t have to be a “no” factory. Compliance teams can help banks build delightful experiences that matter to their customers — especially when they’re aligned on solving the problem from the start.

It can be daunting to assemble a 2023 strategic plan that hits the key performance indicators, solves the issues and makes digital a reality — all at once. So don’t. Instead, divide and conquer with micro-innovations that allow your institution to take small and mighty steps toward growth and change without delay.

How Banks Can Win the Small Business Customer Experience

In the first stages of the pandemic, it became apparent that many banks were unable to effectively meet the needs of their small business customers in terms of convenience, response time, fast access to capital and overall customer experience. Innovative financial technology companies, on the other hand, recognized this market opportunity and capitalized on it.

Bankers recognize the importance of providing their business banking customers with the same fast and frictionless digital experience that their consumer retail banking customers enjoy. So, how can banks ensure that they are competitive and continue to be relevant partners for their small business customers?

The reality of applying for most business loans below $250,000 is a difficult experience for the applicant and a marginally profitable credit for the bank. Yet, the demand for such lending exists: the majority of Small Business Administration pandemic relief loans were less than $50,000.

The key to making a smooth, fast and convenient application for the borrower and a profitable credit for the lender lies in addressing the issues that hinder the process: a lack of automation in data gathering and validation, a lack of automated implementation of underwriting rules and lack of standardized workflows tailored to the size and risk of the loan. Improving this means small business applicants experience a faster and smoother process — even if their application is declined. But a quick answer is preferable to days or weeks of document gathering and waiting, especially if the ultimate response is that the applicant doesn’t qualify.

But many banks have hesitated to originate business loans below $100,000, despite the market need for such products. Small business loans, as a category, are often viewed as high risk, due to business owners’ credit scores, low revenues or lack of collateral, which keeps potential borrowers from meeting banks’ qualifications for funding.

Innovative fintechs gained the inside track on small business lending by finding ways to cost-effectively evaluate applicants on the front-end by leveraging automated access to real-time credit and firmographic and alternative data to understand the business’ financial health and its ability to support the repayment requirements of the loan. Here, much of the value comes from the operational savings derived from screening out unqualified applicants, rerouting resources to process those loan applications and reducing underwriting costs by automating tasks that can be performed by systems rather than people.

To make the economics of scale for small dollar business lending work, fintechs have automated data and document gathering tasks, as well as the application of underwriting rules, so their loan officers only need to do a limited number of validation checks. Adopting a similar approach allows banks to better position themselves to more cost effectively and profitably serve the borrowing needs of small business customers.

Although some fintechs have the technology in place to provide a faster, more seamless borrowing experience, many lack the meaningful, personal relationship with business owners that banks possess. They typically must start from scratch when onboarding a new loan customer, as opposed to banks that already own the valuable customer relationship and the existing customer data. This gives banks an edge in customizing offers based on their existing knowledge of the business client.

While consumer spending remains strong, persisting inflationary pressures and the specter of a recession continue to impact small businesses’ bottom lines. Small business owners need financial partners that understand their business and are nimble enough to help them react to changing market dynamics in real time; many would prefer to manage these challenges with the assistance of their personal banker.

The challenge for bankers is crafting and executing their small business lending strategy: whether to develop better business banking technology and capabilities in-house, buy and interface with a third-party platform or partner with an existing fintech.

Better serving business customers by integrating a digital, seamless experience to compliment the personal touch of traditional banking positions financial institutions to compete with anyone in the small business lending marketplace. With the right strategy in place, banks can begin to win the small business customer experience battle and more profitably grow their small business lending portfolios.

Nailing the Customer Experience in a Digital Upgrade

To get your bank’s people ready for a technology upgrade, you need to do two things: educate front line staff so they become ambassadors for the new tech and help customers learn how to use it. Sounds easy, but in many cases, financial institutions don’t have the right tools to nail their digital customer experience through a technology upgrade.

Start with developing your training and development assets for staff training into the bank’s technology project plan and each rollout. Your staff needs to time to become familiar with the new technology; launching training two weeks prior to go-live won’t set them up to successfully help customers access the new services. Project managers and executive sponsors should develop and test a digital banking curriculum in advance of rollout and begin training front line staff on how to use the tech before launching it to the public.

The seemingly logical approach is to ask the bank’s learning and development group to create some new tech training in the learning management system (LMS). But that often doesn’t work. Traditional LMSes often aren’t tooled for digital experiences; static learning content struggles to drive digital fluency among employees. And tedious training approaches or topics can foster an aversion to LMS training among staff. Banks investing in their digital products and services may want to consider a modern solution that’s tooled for teaching tech.

Game-based learning that uses built-in incentives and an employee’s inherent motivation, as well as interactive role-plays and visually appealing learning modules, are often the most effective way to help today’s employees retain essential information. These innovative elements can make the difference in a bank’s training system and subsequent customer interactions.

And as your staff tries out the tech, either in-house or after launch, be sure to explicitly ask and encourage for their feedback on the digital experience. What can be improved? Which features are hard to understand or non-intuitive? What additional features and functions are desired? Where do they stumble when using the tech?

Endicott, New York-based Visions Federal Credit Union created a digital advisory board made up of a dozen rank-and-file employees who meet monthly to discuss consumer behavior trends, review prospective vendor partnerships and provide feedback on the institution’s use of consumer technology.

“They’re not necessarily managers, VPs or SVPs,” says Tom Novak, vice president and chief digital officer at Visions Federal Credit Union. “They’re day-to-day employees that are in the know about what’s happening in technology, social media and typical consumer lifestyles. They understand why people are on TikTok more than Facebook, or why they use Venmo instead of traditional PayPal mechanisms.”

Your team will also need the right tools to support your customers after their training. Consider providing them with access to technology walk-throughs and simulators, so they can easily find quick tips and features to help customers calling in or visiting a branch. Ensure your learning solution provides staff with support in the flow of work, so they can help customers on demand.

Finally, allow your customers to “test drive” the tech before they commit. Change is hard on your customers too. Your institution needs to be prepared to coach them along the journey — whether that’s a new digitally based product or service or an upgrade from a prior solution that they have grown comfortable with over time. Give them a chance to try it out, and provide them with a safety net through easy-to-use, shareable technology walkthroughs and simulators to make learning easy.

While financial institutions of all sizes are making significant investments to transform their technology to meet the ever-changing needs of their customers, the biggest hurdle often comes in right at the end. To achieve success in your technology upgrade, your bank will need to leverage the power of your people through a well-considered deployment strategy that places intuitive learning and technology support squarely at its center. New, innovative learning and development tools make these processes — and ultimately, the digital transformation — less intimidating, engaging, fun and flexible.

4 Keys Banks Need to Unlock Value From Artificial Intelligence

Banks of all sizes are tuning up their technology to better compete for customer loyalty by focusing on areas involving consumer interactions. But bank leaders need to understand that artificial intelligence, or AI, alone can’t revolutionize the customer experience.

In order for AI investments to elicit instant, human-like understanding and communication, banks must combine AI technology with:

  • Access to quality data.
  • Customer experience solutions that support responsiveness, natural interaction and context retention.
  • Security for enrollment, authentication and fraud detection — indispensable in the context of retail banking.

Data
Quality and Access
Data is the fuel driving AI-based experiences. That means the quality of the available data about the user for a specific use case and the ability to access this data in a real-time, secure fashion are mission-critical aspects of an AI investment.

Unsurprisingly, increasing the quality of data and providing seamless, secure access to this data has been a challenge that banks have grappled with for years.

But institutions must overcome these data utilization hurdles in order to offer an AI-based experience that is better than mediocre. The best outcome? Users will no longer suffer through disjointed experiences or delayed satisfaction caused by siloed data, multiple data connection hops and antiquated back ends that haven’t been modernized to today’s standard.

Collection and Understanding
Big data — the collection of very large data sets that can be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends and associations — goes hand-in-hand with AI. When it comes to consumer banking, an AI solution for banks should store all customer interaction information, from words used to communicate with the bot to actions taken by the user, so it can be analyzed and applied in future interactions. To do this, banks need to adopt AI technology that integrates a learning loop that’s always running in the background.

As data accumulates, AI-powered bots should get smarter over time. Behavioral, transaction and preference information enables banks to create personalized experiences that elevates customer experience to the next level. J.D. Power’s 2022 U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction Study found that 78% of respondents would continue using their bank if they received personalized support, but just 44% of banks are actually delivering it.

Without the right data, there’s no intelligence to inform interactions.

Customer Experience
If someone asked, “What’s your name?” and it took you 8 seconds to respond, the conversation would seem unnatural and disjointed. Similarly, AI technology requires real-time responsiveness to live up to its human-like image. Additionally, bank customers expect to be able to seamlessly transition between interaction channels without having to rehash their issue each time they get transferred, change interaction channels or follow up. Banks can only achieve this omnichannel customer experience that incorporates customer interaction information across channels with customer experience technology that integrates AI.

Consumers now rank omnichannel consistency as the most important dimension of customer experience, according to a 2021 Harris poll, up from No. 2 in 2019. In a Redpoint Global research study, 88% of respondents said that a bank should have seamless, relevant and timely communications across all channels; less than half (45%) reported that their bank effectively achieved this objective. An omnichannel customer experience is foundational for AI.

Security
As powerful as artificial intelligence can be as a competitive advantage in banking, lack of strong security measures is a nonstarter. In the latest The Economist Intelligence Unit Survey, bankers identified privacy and security concerns as the most prominent barrier to adopting and incorporating AI technologies in their organization. Thankfully, ironclad AI is within reach.

While AI capability is great, its usability is limited if its security is not up to par. An AI bot can go far beyond answering your customers’ basic questions if bank transactions are authenticated and secure; it can perform tasks such as retrieving account balances, listing and searching transactions, making payments, transferring funds and more. Imagine the impact that a friendly and reliable virtual teller, available 24/7, could have on your institution.

Four in five senior banking executives agree that unlocking value from artificial intelligence will distinguish outperformers from underperformers. To access its value, a bank’s customer-facing system must be supported by four pillars: AI understanding, quality data, omnichannel customer experience technology and security.

When technology budgets are tight, bank leaders must invest wisely; not all AI solutions are created equal. Chasing the new shiny thing can waste dollars if bank decision makers don’t have a handle on the scope of what their institution needs. Knowing which pieces of the puzzle will complete the picture is a competitive differentiator. Now, your bank can unlock the value of AI and win.

Taking Control and Mitigating Risk With a Collateral Management System

For many banks, managing the manifold economic and internal risks has been a stressful and very manual process.

Truly gaining a comprehensive overview of all the collaterals associated with a bank’s lending business is often the top desire we hear from clients, followed by in-depth reporting and collateral management workflow capabilities. Historically, collateral management in wealth management lending has often been a siloed process with each department managing it individually. And the need for additional resources in credit and risk departments has been a growing trend. In our research, the processes in which banks are managing their collaterals vary but often involve collecting data from a variety of sources, tracking in spreadsheets manually, and pulling rudimentary reports from the core banking system that only gives basic aggregated information at best.

Banks need a way to monitor and manage collateral for all their lending products, not just securities-based lending. An enterprise collateral management solution allows credit and risk professionals to:

• Gain an accurate and up-to-date overview of collaterals across different asset and loan types in real-time for marketable securities, if desired.
• Set up multiple credit policies.
• Perform portfolio concentration analysis for more in-depth insights on potential risks.
• Pull pre-defined and custom reports quickly and efficiently.
• Automate collateral release support.
• Assess borrower’s risk across the entire relationship through data visualizations and modules.
• Conduct in-depth “what-if” stress testing for marketable securities to proactively mitigate any potential risks.

Make Decisions and Act With Efficiency
Many organizations are siloed and visibility across groups is an organization struggle. The lack of visibility across teams can cause operation and client-facing staff to struggle with making timely and informed decisions. A digital, streamlined enterprise collateral management solution can create efficiencies for cross-team collaboration. Your bank’s team should look for solutions with features like tools, reports and workflows that enable them to make informed decisions and act with efficiency, including:

• Automatic calculation of collateral release.
• Portfolio concentration analysis to provide more in-depth insights on potential risk.
• Rule-based and streamlined workflows to support collateral call management in scale with efficiency and at a reduced cost.

The standards for bank risk management and customer service today are at some of their highest levels today; management teams are looking for immediate answers to their questions in this uncertain environment. It is essential that banks have a technological solution that equips their team to have the answers at their fingertips to provide the service clients expect and deserve. Now more than ever, financial institutions need a collateral management solution that provides speed, transparency, efficiency and a streamlined digital workflow to support the new hybrid working environment.

How Legacy Systems, Tech Hold Bank Employees Back

The recent explosion in financial technology firms has allowed banks to make massive strides in improving the customer experience.

The most popular solutions have focused on making processes and services faster and easier for customers. For example, Zelle, a popular digital payments service, has improved the payments process for bank customers by making transfers immediate — eliminating the need to wait while those funds enter their checking account. There are countless examples of tools and resources that improve the bank customer experience, but the same cannot be said for the bank staffers.

Bank employees often use decades-old legacy systems that require weeks or months of training, create additional manual work required to complete tasks and do not communicate with each other. Besides creating headaches for the workers who have to use them, they waste time that could be better spent meaningfully serving customers.

The Great Resignation and tight labor market has made it difficult to find and retain workers with adequate and appropriate experience. On top of that, bankers spend significant amounts of time training new employees on how to use these complicated tools, which only exacerbates problems caused by high turnover. The paradox here is that banks risk ultimately disengaging their employees, who stop using most of the functionality provided by the very tools that their bank has invested in to help them work more efficiently. Instead, they revert to over-relying on doing many things manually.

If bank staff used tools that were as intuitive as those available to the bank’s customers, they would spend less time in training and more time connecting with customers and delivering valuable services. Improvements to their experience accomplishes more than simply making processes easier and faster. As it stands now, bank teams can spend more time than desired contacting customers, requesting documents and moving data around legacy systems. This manual work is time-consuming, robotic and creates very little profit for the bank.

But these manual tasks are still important to the bank’s business. Bankers still need a way to contact customers, retrieve documents and move data across internal systems. However, in the same way that customer-facing solutions automate much of what used to be done manually, banks can utilize solutions that automate internal business processes. Simple, repetitive tasks lend themselves best to automation; doing so frees up staff to spend more of their time on tasks that require mental flexibility or close attention. Automation augments the workers’ capabilities, which makes their work more productive and leads to a better customer experience overall.

There are good reasons to improve the experience of bank employees, but those are not the only reasons. Quality of life enhancements are desirable on their own and create a greater opportunity for employees to serve customers. When deciding which tools to give your staff, consider what it will be like to use them and how effectively they can engage customers with them.

How Banks Can Speed Up Month-End Close

In accounting, time is of the essence.

Faster financial reporting means executives have more immediate insight into their business, allowing them to act quicker. Unfortunately for many businesses, an understaffed or overburdened back-office accounting team means the month-end close can drag on for days or weeks. Here are four effective strategies that help banks save time on month-end activities.

1. Staying Organized is the First Step to Making Sure Your Close Stays on Track
Think of your files as a library does. While you don’t necessarily need to have a Dewey Decimal System in place, try to keep some semblance of order. Group documentation and reconciliations in a way that makes sense for your team. It’s important every person who touches the close knows where to find any information they might need and puts it back in its place when they’re done.

Having a system of organization is also helpful for auditors. Digitizing your files can help enormously with staying organized: It’s much easier to search a cloud than physical documents, with the added benefit of needing less storage space.

2. Standardization is a Surefire Way to Close Faster
Some accounting teams don’t follow a close checklist every month; these situations make it more likely to accidentally miss a step. It’s much easier to finance and accounting teams to complete a close when they have a checklist with clearly defined steps, duties and the order in which they must be done.

Balance sheet reconciliations and any additional analysis also benefits from standardization. Allowing each member of the team to compile these files using their own specific processes can yield too much variety, leading to potential confusion down the line and the need to redo work. Implementing standard forms eliminates any guesswork in how your team should approach reconciliations and places accountability where it should be.

3. Keep Communication Clear and Timely
Timely and clear communication is essential when it comes to the smooth running of any process; the month-end close is no exception. With the back-and-forth nature between the reviewer and preparer, it’s paramount that teams can keep track of the status of each task. Notes can get lost if you’re still using binders and spreadsheets. Digitizing can alleviate some of this. It’s crucial that teams understand management’s expectations, and management needs to be aware of the team’s bandwidth. Open communication about any holdups allows the team to accomplish a more seamless month-end close.

4. Automate Areas That Can be Automated
The No. 1 way banks can save time during month-end by automating the areas that can be automated. Repetitive tasks should be done by a computer so high-value work, like analysis, can be done by employees. While the cost of such automation can be an initial barrier, research shows automation software pays for itself in a matter of months. Businesses that invest in technology to increase the efficiency of the month-end close create the conditions for a happier team that enjoys more challenging and fulfilling work.

Though month-end close with a lack of resources can be a daunting process, there are ways banks can to improve efficiency in the activities and keep everything on a shorter timeline. Think of this list of tips as a jumping off point for streamlining your institution’s close. Each business has unique needs; the best way to improve your close is by evaluating any weaknesses and creating a road map to fix them. Next time the close comes around, take note of any speed bumps. There are many different solutions out there: all it takes is a bit of research and a willingness to try something new.

Banking is Changing: Here’s What Directors Should Ask

One set of attributes for effective bank directors, especially as community banks navigate a changing and uncertain operating environment, are curiosity and inquisitiveness.

Providing meaningful board oversight sometimes comes down to directors asking executives the right questions, according to experts speaking on Sept. 12 during Bank Director’s 2022 Bank Board Training Forum at the JW Marriott Nashville. Inquisitive directors can help challenge the bank’s strategy and prepare it for the future.

“Curiosity is a great attribute of a director,” said Jim McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and newly appointed board member of DirectorCorps, Bank Director’s parent company. He encouraged directors to “ask basic questions” about the bank’s strategy and make sure they understand the answer or ask it again. He also provided a number of anecdotes from his long career in working with bank boards where directors should’ve asked more questions, including a $6 billion deal between community banks that wasn’t a success.

But beyond board oversight, incisive — and regular — questioning from directors helps institutions implement their strategy and orient for the future, according to Justin Norwood, vice president of product management at nCino, which creates a cloud-based bank operating platform. Norwood, who describes himself as a futurist, gave directors a set of questions they should ask executives as they formulate and execute their bank’s strategy.

1. What points of friction are we removing from the customer experience this quarter, this year and next year?
“It’s OK to be obsessive about this question,” he said, adding that this is maybe the most important question directors can ask. That’s because many technology companies, whether they’re focused on consumer financials or otherwise, ask this question “obsessively.” They are competing for wallet share and they often establish customer expectations for digital experiences.

Norwood commended banks for transforming the middle and back office for employees, along with improving the retail banking experience. But the work isn’t over: Norwood cited small business banking as the next frontier where community banks can anticipate customer needs and provide guidance over digital channels.

2. How do we define community for our bank if we’re not confined to geography?
Community banking has traditionally been defined by geography and physical branch locations, but digital delivery channels and technology have allowed banks to be creative about the customer segments and cohorts they target. Norwood cited two companies that serve customers with distinct needs well: Silicon Valley Bank, the bank unit of Santa Clara, California-based SVB Financial, which focuses on early stage venture-backed companies and Greenlight, a personal finance fintech for kids. Boards should ask executives about their definition of community, and how the institution meets those segments’ financial needs.

3. How are we leveraging artificial intelligence to capture new customers and optimize risk? Can we explain our efforts to regulators?
Norwood said that artificial intelligence has a potential annual value of $1 trillion for the global banking industry, citing a study from the McKinsey & Co. consulting group. Community banks should capture some of those benefits, without recreating the wheel. Instead of trying to hire Stanford University-educated technologists to innovate in-house, Norwood recommends that banks hire business leaders open to AI opportunities that can enhance customer relationships.

4. How are we participating in the regulatory process around decentralized finance?
Decentralized finance, or defi, is a financial technology that uses secure distributed ledgers, or blockchains, to record transactions outside of the regulated and incumbent financial services space. Some of the defi industry focused on cryptocurrency transactions has encountered financial instability and liquidity runs this summer, leading to a crisis that’s been called “crypto winter” by the media. Some banks have even been ensnared by crypto partners that have gone into bankruptcy, leading to confusion around customer deposit coverage.

Increasingly, banks have partnerships with companies that work in the digital assets space, or their customers have opened accounts at those companies. Norwood said bank directors should understand how, if at all, their institution interacts with this space, and the potential risks the crypto and blockchain world pose.