How to Attract Consumers in the Face of a Recession

Fears of a recession in the United States have been growing.

For the first time since 2020, gross domestic product shrank in the first quarter according to the advance estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Ongoing supply chain issues have caused shortages of retail goods and basic necessities. According to a recent CNBC survey, 81% of Americans believe a recession is coming this year, with 76% worrying that continuous price hikes will force them to “rethink their financial choices.”

With a potential recession looming over the country’s shoulders, a shift in consumer psychology may be in play. U.S. consumer confidence edged lower in April, which could signal a dip in purchasing intention.

Bank leaders should proactively work with their marketing teams now to address and minimize the effect a recession could have on customers. Even in times of economic uncertainty, it’s possible to retain and build consumer confidence. Below are three questions that bank leaders should be asking themselves.

1. Do our current customers rate us highly?
Customers may be less optimistic about their financial situations during a recession. Whether and how much a bank can help them during this time may parlay into the institution’s Net Promoter Score (NPS).

NPS surveys help banks understand the sentiment behind their most meaningful customer experiences, such as opening new accounts or resolving problems with customer service. Marketing teams can use NPS to inform future customer retention strategies.

NPS surveys can also help banks identify potential brand advocates. Customers that rate banks highly may be more likely to refer family and friends, acting as a potential acquisition channel.

To get ahead of an economic slowdown, banks should act in response to results of NPS surveys. They can minimize attrition by having customer service teams reach out to those that rated 0 to 6. Respondents that scored higher (9 to 10) may be more suited for a customer referral program that rewards them when family and friends sign up.

2. Are we building brand equity from our customer satisfaction?
Banks must protect the brand equity they’ve built over the years. A two-pronged brand advocacy strategy can build customer confidence by rewarding customers with high-rated NPS response when they refer individual family and friends, as well as influencers who refer followers at a massive scale.

Satisfied customers and influencer partners can be mobilized through:

Customer reviews: Because nearly 50% of people trust reviews as much as recommendations from family, these can serve as a tipping point that turns window-shoppers into customers.

Trackable customer referrals: Banks can leverage unique affiliate tracking codes to track new applications by source, which helps identify their most effective brand advocates.

3. What problems could our customers face in a recession?
Banks vying to attract new customers during a recession must ensure their offerings address unique customer needs. Economic downturn affects customers in a variety of ways; banks that anticipate those problems can proactively address them before they turn into financial difficulties.

Insights from brand advocates can be especially helpful. For instance, a mommy blogger’s high referral rate may suggest that marketing should focus on millennials with kids. If affiliate links from the short video platform TikTok are a leading source of new customers, marketing teams should ramp up campaigns to reach Gen Z. Below are examples of how banks can act on insights about their unique customer cohorts.

Address Gen Z’s fear of making incorrect financial decisions: According to a Deloitte study, Gen Z fears committing to purchases and losing out on more competitive options. Bank marketers can encourage their influencer partners to create objective product comparison video content about their products.

Offer realistic home-buying advice to millennials: Millennials that were previously held back by student debt may be at the point in their lives where their greatest barrier to home ownership is easing. Banks can address their prospects for being approved for a mortgage, and how the federal interest rate hikes intersect with loan eligibility as well.

Engage Gen X and baby boomer customers about nest eggs:
Talks of recession may reignite fears from the financial crisis of 2007, where many saw their primary nest eggs – their homes — collapse in value. Banks can run campaigns to address these concerns and provide financial advice that protects these customers.

Banks executives watching for signs of a recession must not forget how the economic downturn impacts customer confidence. To minimize attrition, they should proactively focus on building up their brand integrity and leveraging advocacy from satisfied customers to grow customer confidence in their offerings.

Is Crypto the Future of Money?

Regardless of their involvement in the financial services industry, anyone paying attention to the news lately will know that cryptocurrencies are making headlines.

As the worldwide economy becomes less predictable, regulatory agencies are wondering whether cryptocurrencies could be used to transfer money if other assets become subject to international sanctions, likening crypto to gold. According to an early March article from CNN Business, the price of gold has spiked and could surpass its all-time high before long, while bitcoin is trading 4% higher.

Crypto has also been in the news because of an executive order recently issued by President Joe Biden. The order requires the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce and other agencies to look into and report on the “future of money,” specifically relating to cryptocurrencies.

As part of that order, those agencies need to outline the benefits and risks of creating a central bank digital currency (CBDC), informally known as the digital dollar. The digital dollar can be thought of as the Federal Reserve’s answer to crypto. It would act like cryptocurrency, with one big difference: It would be issued and regulated by the Fed.

How would this work? One idea involves government-issued digital wallets to store digital dollars. While the U.S. is not likely to take imminent action on creating a CBDC — Congress would need to approve it — it would not be a big leap to sell this concept to the American public. The Federal Reserve reports that cash use accounted for just 19% of transactions in 2021. Digital payments, meanwhile, are up. According to McKinsey’s 2021 Digital Payments Consumer Survey, 82% of Americans used digital payments last year, which includes paying for purchases from a digital wallet like Apple Pay. Using digital dollars, in a similar kind of digital wallet, wouldn’t be all that different. The future state of digital currency and the current state of online payments, credit cards, buy now, pay later purchases and more are, in effect, exchanging bills and notes for 1s and 0s.

What this means for financial institutions is a need to focus on education and information, and an ear toward new regulations.

Educating account holders will be vital. Pew Research reports that 86% of Americans are familiar with cryptocurrencies, while 16% say they have invested. The reason more people haven’t invested? They don’t fully understand it. This is a huge growth opportunity for banks to partner with account holders as a trusted voice of information, within the confines of current regulations.

  • Use account holder transaction data to spot trends in cryptocurrency purchases within their ecosystem and inform them on how to communicate and educate account holders.
  • Task an employee to become the in-house cryptocurrency expert, in the ins and outs of crypto’s current and future state.
  • Develop a section on the website with information for account holders.
  • Create an email campaign that shows account holders a history of investment product adoption with links back to the bank’s website for resources about the latest news on cryptocurrencies. Even if the institution doesn’t facilitate sales, it is important to set the institution up as a trusted resource for industry data.

Crypto fraud is rampant because the majority of people still aren’t quite sure how crypto works. That’s why it’s so important for financial institutions to be the source of truth for their account holders.

Further, fintech is already in the crypto arena. Ally Bank, Revolut, Chime and others are working with their account holders to help facilitate crypto transactions. And even established institutions like U.S. Bank are offering cryptocurrency custody services.

Data will be an important key. Pew Research reveals that 43% of men ages 18 to 29 have invested in, traded or used a cryptocurrency. But what does that mean for your specific account holders? Look closely at spending data with a focus on crypto transactions; it’s an extremely useful metric to use for planning for future service offerings.

The role that traditional financial institutions will play in the cryptocurrency market is, admittedly, ill-defined right now. Many personal bankers and financial advisors feel hamstrung by fiduciary responsibilities and won’t even discuss it. But U.S. banking regulators are working to clarify matters, and exploring CBDC, in 2022.

Is cryptocurrency the future of money? Will a digital dollar overtake it? It’s too early to tell. But all signs point to the wisdom of banks developing a crypto and CBDC strategy now.

Banking’s Netflix Problem

On April 19, Netflix reported its first loss in subscribers — 200,000 in the first quarter, with 2 million projected for the second — resulting in a steep decline in its stock price, as well as layoffs and budget cuts. Why the drop? Although the company blames consumers sharing passwords with each other, the legacy streamer also faces increased competition such as HBO Max and Disney Plus. That also creates more choice for the 85% of U.S. households that use a streaming service, according to the U.K. brand consulting firm Kantar. The average household subscribes to 4.7 of them.

Our financial lives are just as complicated — and there’s a lot more at stake when it comes to managing our money. A 2021 survey conducted by Plaid found that 88% of Americans use digital services to help manage their money, representing a 30-point increase from 2020. Americans use a lot of financial apps, and the majority want their bank to connect to these providers. Baby boomers use an average of 2.6 of these apps, which include digital banking and lending, payments, investments, budgeting and financial management. Gen Z consumers average 4.6 financial apps.

“Banks can be material to simplifying the complexity that’s causing everybody to struggle and not have clarity on their financial picture,” said Lee Wetherington, senior director of corporate strategy at the core provider Jack Henry & Associates. He described this fractured competitive landscape as “financial fragmentation,” which formed the focus of his presentation at Experience FinXTech, a tech-focused event that took place May 5 and 6 in Austin, Texas. Successful banks will figure out how to make their app the central hub for their customers, he said in an interview conducted in advance of the conference. “This is where I see the opportunity for community financial institutions to lever open banking rails to bring [those relationships] back home.”

During the event, Wetherington revealed results from a new Jack Henry survey finding that more than 90% of community financial institutions plan to embed fintech — integrating innovative, third-party products and services into banks’ own product offerings and processes — over the next two years.

Put simply, open banking acknowledges today’s fractured banking ecosystem and leverages application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow different applications or systems to exchange data.

Chad Davison, director of client solutions consulting at Fiserv, creates “balance sheet leakage” reports to inform his strategic discussions with bank executives. “We’ve been trying to understand from an organization perspective where the dollars are leaving the bank,” said Davison in a pre-conference interview. Some of these dollars are going to other financial providers outside the bank, including cryptocurrency exchanges like Coinbase Global and investment platforms like Robinhood Markets. This awareness of where customer dollars are going could provide insights on the products and services the bank could offer to keep those deposits in the organization. “[Banks] have to partner and integrate with someone to keep those dollars in house,” said Davison, in advance of a panel discussion focused on technology investment at the Experience FinXTech event.

Increasingly, core providers — which banks rely on to fuel their technological capabilities — are working to provide more choice for their bank clients. Fiserv launched a developer studio in late 2021 to let developers from fintechs and financial institutions access multiple APIs from a single location, said Davison, and recently launched an app market where financial institutions can access solutions. “We want to allow the simple, easy connectivity that our clients are looking for,” he said. “We’re excited about the next evolution of open banking.”

Jack Henry has also responded to its clients’ demand for an open banking ecosystem. Around 850 fintechs and third parties use APIs to integrate with Jack Henry, said Wetherington, who doesn’t view these providers as competitive threats. “It’s a flywheel,” he said. “Competitors actually add value to our ecosystem, and they add value for all the other players in the ecosystem.” That gives banks the choice to partner and integrate with the fintechs that will deliver value to the bank and its customers.

As fractured as the financial landscape may be today for consumers, bank leaders may feel similarly overwhelmed by the number of technologies available for their bank to adopt. In response, bank leaders should rethink their strategy and business opportunities, and then identify “the different fintech partners to help them drive strategy around that,” said Benjamin Wallace, CEO at Summit Technology Group. Wallace joined Davison on the panel at Experience FinXTech and was interviewed before the conference.

The Federal Reserve published a resource guide for partnering with fintech providers in September 2021, and found three broad areas of technology adoption: operational technology to improve back-end processes and infrastructure; customer-oriented partnerships to enhance interactions and experiences with the bank; and front-end fintech partnerships where the provider interacts directly with the customer — otherwise known as banking as a service (BaaS) relationships.

Banks will need to rely on their competitive strengths, honing niches in key areas, Wallace believes. That could be anything from building a BaaS franchise or a niche lending vertical like equipment finance. “Community-oriented banks that do everything for everyone, it’s really difficult to do” because of the competition coming from a handful of large institutions. “Picking a couple of verticals that you can be uniquely good at, and orient[ing] a strategy and then a tech plan and then a team around it — I think that’s always going to be a winning recipe.”

7 Ways Banks Can Benefit From Data Analytics

A version of this article originally appeared on the KlariVis blog.

There is a pervasive data conundrum throughout the financial services industry: Banks have an inordinate amount of data, but antiquated and siloed solutions are suppressing incredible, untapped opportunities to use it.

Data analytics offer banks seven distinct and tangible benefits; it’s essential that they invest adequate time and resources into finding the right solution.

1. Save Valuable Time
Time is money. Investing in data analytics can streamline operations and saves employees time. The right solution organizes data, eliminates spreadsheets, freeing up the gray space in any organization. Employees can quickly locate what they’re looking for, allowing them to focus on the tasks that are most meaningful to the institution. Instead of organizing and sifting through data, they can spend more time analyzing the information, making strategic decisions and communicating with customers.

2. Secure Compliance, Risk Management Features
Data analytics improves overall bank security. The regulatory environment for financial institutions is complex, and regulatory non-compliance can lead to major fines or enforcement actions for banks. Data analytics incorporates technology into the compliance and risk management processes, improving bank security by reducing the likelihood of human error and quickly detecting potential cases of fraud.

3. Increase Visibility
Data silos in banks are often a result of outdated data solutions. Additionally, granting only a few people or departments access to the full set of data can lead to miscommunication or misinformation. Data analytics solutions, such as enterprise dashboards, give financial institutions the ability to see their full institution clearly. Everyone having access to the same information — whether it be individual branch performance or loan reports —improves customer service, internal communication and overall efficiency.

4. Cut Down on Costs
There is a high cost of bad data. Bad data can be inaccurate, duplicative, incomplete, inaccessible or unusable. Banks that aren’t storing or managing collected data appropriately could be wasting valuable company resources. They could also incur bad data costs through inconclusive, expensive marketing campaigns, increased operational costs that distract employees from important initiatives or customer attrition. By comparison, an updated enterprise data solution keeps employees up-to-date and can reveal new growth opportunities.

5. Create Detailed Customer Profiles
All financial institutions want to know their customers better. Data analytics help generate detailed profiles that reveal valuable information, such as spending habits and channel preferences. Banks can create highly specific segments with these profiles and pinpoint timely cross-selling opportunities. The right data solution makes it easier to gather actionable insights that improve customer experience and increase profitability.

6. Empower Employees and Customer Experience
Empowered employees improve the customer experience; happier customers contribute to empowering employees. A powerful part of this cycle is data analytics. Data analytics produce actionable insights that save employees’ time so they can focus on what’s important. Banks can send timely, data-based relevant messaging, based on customer-expressed preferences and interests.

7. Improve Performance
More time spent connecting with customers allows employees to build a deeper understanding of their financial needs and ultimately improve the bank’s performance. The right data analytics solution leads to a more productive and profitable financial institution. In this increasingly competitive financial landscape, employee and customer experience are vital to every financial institution. Customers expect seamless communication and digital experiences that are secure and intuitive; employees appreciate work environments where their work contributes to its overall success. Using data to its fullest potential allows banks to make better strategic decisions, identify and act upon growth opportunities, and focus on their customers.

How to Keep Existing Customers Happy

Many consumers already have an established relationship with a trusted bank that provides familiarity and a sense of reliability. If they find value in the bank’s financial support, they tend to stick around.

That makes existing customers essential to a bank’s future growth. However, in today’s landscape, many financial institutions focus on acquiring new customers, rather than satisfying the needs of their existing customer base. Data shows that although existing customers make up 65% of a company’s business, 44% of companies focus on customer acquisition, while only 16% focus on retention.

While acquiring new customers is vital to the growth of a financial institution, it is crucial that the existing customers are not left behind. Nurturing these relationships can produce significant benefits for an organization; but those who struggle to manage what is in house already will only compound the issues when adding new customers.

While acquiring customers is important to growing portfolios, loyal customers generate more revenue every year they stay at a bank. New customers might be more cautious about purchasing new products until they are comfortable with the financial institution. Existing clients who are already familiar with the bank, and trust and value their products, tend to buy more over time. This plays out in other sectors as well: Existing customers are 50% more likely to try new products and spend 31% more, on average, compared to new customers, according to research cited by Forbes.

Existing customers are also less costly as they require less marketing efforts, which frees up resources, time, and costs. New customer acquisition costs have increased by almost 50% in the past five years, which means the cost of acquiring a new customer is about seven times that of maintaining an existing relationship.

Additionally, loyal customers act as mini marketers, referring others to their trusted institution and increasing profit margins without the bank having to advertise. According to data, 77% of customers would recommend a brand to a friend after a single positive experience. This word-of-mouth communication supplements bank marketing efforts, freeing up resources for the customer acquisition process.

So how can banks improve their customer retention rate?

Be proactive. Banks have more than enough data they can use to anticipate the needs of existing customers. Those that see this data as an opportunity can gain a more holistic view into their existing client base and unlock opportunities that boost retention rates. For instance, lenders can use data like relative active credit lines, income, spending patterns and life stages to cultivate a premium user experience through personalized offers that are guaranteed and readily available. A proactive approach eliminates the potential of an existing customer being rejected for a loan — which happens 21% of the time — and allows them to shop with confidence.

Promote financial wellness. Having this insight into customers also allows banks to boost retention rates through financial wellness programs that help equip them with opportunities to enjoy financial competency and stability. Did they move to a new state? Did they have a baby? Do they have a child going off to college? Banks can acknowledge these milestones in their customers’ financial lives and tailor communication and relevant recommendations that show their support, create long-lasting and trusting relationships, and help the bank become top of wallet when the customer purchases a product or service.

Put the customer in the driver’s seat. Banks can present existing customers with a menu of products and services immediately after they log onto their online banking portal. Customers can weigh a range of attractive capabilities and select what they want, rather than receive a single product that was offered to tens of thousands of prospects with hopes they are in the market. This removes the fear of rejection and confusion that can occur when applying through a traditional lending solution.

Be a true lending center. If banks want to distinguish their online and mobile banking platform as more than a place to make transfers and check balances, they must provide branch and call center staff with the tools to evolve into a true lending center for customers. Existing customers should be able to find support and guidance inside their online banking accounts, apply for and receive appropriate products, make deposits, and so much more from the palm of their hand.

To remain a standard in their communities, banks must recognize the true value behind customer retention. This can help banks not only secure a prime spot in its customers’ financial lives but grow loan portfolio, boost engagement and gain or retain a strong competitive edge.

Preventing the 3 ROI Killers in Digital Transformation From the Start

Digital transformation at community banks is often a complicated, time-consuming and costly process.

With the right approach, however, community banks can increase the value and return on investment of their digital transformation initiatives. The key to maximizing ROI is to take a systematic approach and avoid common pitfalls that could become barriers to success.

Any technology investment that a bank makes needs to meet — rather than hinder — its business goals. Adopting a customer-centric point of view and proceeding incrementally are essential to ensure a successful outcome. Digital transformation is ultimately about future-proofing the business, so it’s critical to choose technologies that can grow, scale and evolve.

The three most common ROI killers in digital transformation are:

  • Doing too much, too quickly.
  • Failing to connect with the customer.
  • Not selecting a connected and experienced partner.

Doing Too Much Too Quickly
The number and variety of technology solutions for the banking industry to choose from is nothing short of mind-boggling. But successful digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Not all features are suitable for every bank’s needs or budget — or their customers.

Resist becoming blinded by the shiny objects some vendors will flash. Buying into all the bells and whistles isn’t always necessary at the outset of a transformation initiative. If the implementation fails, it will kill any ROI and team morale, and risks overloading staff and systems with immature solutions before the bank has confirmed they work.

A better strategy is implementing features and solutions incrementally using process improvement and customer satisfaction to quantify value. Taking smaller steps improves stakeholder buy-in and allows a bank to test-drive new initiatives with customers. Taking smaller steps towards digital transformation: implementing sidecar offerings and managed services instead of ripping out and replacing cores or launching products that the bank can’t fully support. New offerings must enable value without losing quality, security or customer satisfaction. Bank executives should establish clear and measurable key performance indicators to track progress, and only move on to the next step when the first is satisfied. There are few things worse than investing in technology that is too difficult to use or doesn’t achieve promised results.

Failing to Connect with the Customer
Misaligning technology choices with customer preference and digital banking needs sets up almost any initiative for failure before it’s out of the starting gate.

Banks typically cater to a broad demographic, making research and strategic planning critical at the procurement stage. Focusing implementations on tools favored by one specific group but not by others limits an organization’s capabilities and alienating others in the process. Customers groups have their own particular concerns and preferences, and it can be challenging to apply a single strategy that pleases everyone.

To avoid this pitfall, executives need to research, strategize, plan and focus to launch products that their customers truly want and need. Open dialogue with customers is the key to success, as priorities will differ vastly  in every community. It’s not enough to emulate competitors, although that is a helpful benchmark. Ideally, banks should seek customer feedback through surveys, direct market research and speaking with them when they interact with the branch or brand to understand their priorities.

Not Selecting a Connected and Experienced Partner
Finding technology companies to support digital transformation isn’t difficult. It’s estimated that companies in the United States waste up to 40% of their technology spend on poorly-made decisions, like investing in technology based on a pitch from a sales professional that does not understand or have expertise in the institution’s particular needs.

Community banks have unique needs, concerns and customers, and should seek technology providers that speak their language, with solutions and insights to advance their goals. Select providers with experience in your niche — one that understands the particular challenges of community banking in the post-pandemic world. They should be experts that are well-versed in the banking industry, provide all technical documentation, satisfy regulatory and compliance need, and offer technology solutions that create excellent user experiences while being flexible, scalable and within budget.

Is Your Digital Banking Sign Always On?

You’ve already heard the promises: The digital revolution is here, and it’s ushering in a new era of profitability, velocity and efficiency.

Or is it?

While you’ve likely seen your bank’s technology budget grow over the last few years, it may be harder to see how that spending translated into gains in business share, customer satisfaction or the bank’s bottom line. You may be hearing from frontline employees that operations feel more fractured than ever before. What’s wrong with this picture?

Your digital experience may be suffering from a chronic case of squeaky-wheel choices as competing objectives elbow for access to finite budget dollars and project resources. Improving online and mobile offerings may come at the cost of enhancing digital lending capabilities. Operational efficiencies — a grab bag that can include any number of disparate automation tools intended to reduce cost and improve productivity — may take dollars away from compliance and risk management. You’re not building your digital business from scratch; you’re methodically replacing and upgrading components across your technology stack. But as long as you still have static data siloes and bifurcated systems in your operational mix, your digital service will collide with stopping points that interfere with a smooth user experience.

Bank transaction supply chains are likely the result of decades-old decisions and solutions so entrenched within the operation that it feels inevitable. Reimagining the end-to-end solution requires a fresh look at some previous assumptions and a fresh look at the ecosystem of fintech partners. Executives need to determine if their providers and partners are willing to collaborate to identify and address digital stopping points.

One of the most revealing questions banks can ask their providers is about their own investment strategy. How much are they putting back into the development of their own solutions? Small, ongoing investments mean that your partners are spending money on things that don’t sustainably deliver benefits to your bank. It also means they aren’t looking ahead to solve the next round of technology challenges. If their CEOs aren’t actively positioning their solutions for future viability, then you may have found the weak links in your own supply chain.

The customers your bank is trying to reach want speed, ease of use and mobile enablement in everything they do, whether it’s one-touch shopping on Zappos or depositing a check into their savings account. While these requirements have defined consumer preferences in retail segments for years, they arguably define consumer preferences in every segment following the quick adaptations the industry made in digital banking in response to Covid-19.

The dream of 24/7/365 banking requires a precise definition of digital: always on. Not “mostly on” until your bank needs a compliance update. Not “pretty much on” until you need to manually advance the loan in the loan origination software or collect physical signature cards. Interconnected services are critical to the always-on digital experience.

Your digital offer should take its inspiration from innovative disrupters outside of the financial industry, like Uber Technologies and Netflix that rewrote the delivery and service aspects of their products with interconnected, cloud-based systems. Your bank needs to be able to deliver to customers, regardless of whether someone is sitting at your service desk. Static and bifurcated systems are, by definition, unconnected, and need human intervention for updates to keep you in business.

As your bank continues to invest in technologies to deliver digital banking, make sure you focus on the end game for your customers. Digital must be as reliable as turning on a light switch. Interconnected, cloud-based systems from partners who are looking forward with you will help you get there more quickly — and with fewer headaches.

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.

Building a ‘Truly Great Place to Work and Bank’

FS Bancorp’s cultural revolution kicked off about a decade ago. It’s a journey that’s still ongoing for the holding company of 1st Security Bank of Washington, according to CEO Joseph Adams.

The predecessor of Mountlake Terrace, Washington-based FS Bancorp was a credit union from its founding in 1936 until 2004, when it converted to a mutual state savings bank. In 2012, upon converting from a mutual to stock ownership structure, Adams and his team began to reconsider the bank’s business lines and culture.

“We had to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up,” says Adams. “We had difficulty attracting top talent in our market.” The bank posted a 0.5% return on assets as of December 2011, according to S&P’s Capital IQ database.

But that has changed. “If you look at the financials of this organization, for the last 10 years, you will see a hockey stick,” says Adams. “You will just see it growing and growing.” FS Bancorp reported a return on assets of 2.1% at the end of 2020. Overall performance drove FS Bancorp to place No. 1 among the Best Community Banks in the 2022 RankingBanking study, based on a variety of metrics including profitability, growth and total shareholder return, which totaled 125% over five years (2015 to 2020). Executive leadership, board oversight, innovation and growth were also examined, with FS Bancorp topping the Best Leadership Teams subcategory.

The $2.2 billion bank focuses on five areas: deposits, home lending, indirect consumer lending, commercial & industrial (C&I) and commercial real estate. But its business lines aren’t the sole driver of the bank’s success. Adams points to a cultural shift that started around a decade ago, when Adams promoted Vickie Jarman — previously part of the consumer lending group — to lead a team focused on transforming the bank. They proposed a new set of core values, along with a mission and vision for the company. It’s pretty simple: FS Bancorp wanted to create a “truly great place to work and bank,” says Adams. “We believe if you build a great place to work, it will be a great place to bank. We intentionally put those words in that order.”

What’s developed is a culture that values collaboration and humility, according to three FS Bancorp executives I spoke with in October: Adams, Chief Financial Officer Matt Mullet and Jarman, the bank’s chief human resources officer. Self promoters often don’t feel at home there, explains Mullet.

FS Bancorp wants “smart, driven, nice” people, says Adams. “Jerks” need not apply. “We all have to work someplace. Why not work someplace where we have each other’s back, where you wake up every morning excited to go see the people you get to work with?” he says. Getting all three qualities isn’t easy, so the bank makes prospective hires go through hoops to join the organization — the more senior, the more hoops. “Our head of retail, she joined us about four years ago, and she had 16 interviews,” says Adams. “But she kept coming. And she’s here, she does a great job.”

By all appearances, the lengthy hiring process isn’t keeping FS Bancorp from adding the talent it needs to drive growth. The company had 78 employees when its transformation began, says Jarman; now it employs more than 500.

Building a strong culture requires constant work and attention. FS Bancorp has worked with a corporate coach for more than a decade; Adams is also an avid reader of books on leadership and organizational development, including Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” and Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last.” Combined, the books shine a light on leaders that put their organizations ahead of their egos. Adams wants to adapt those concepts to FS Bancorp, and he’s working with their corporate coach to do it. That will include building a training process to help FS further develop its leaders so they get the culture, too. “It’ll probably take us a year or two, as we move into the future, to get it to a point where we believe we’ve really nailed it,” says Adams.

And they’re putting practices in place that take care of employees, including raising the starting wage to $20 an hour in July — in line with rates paid by big banks such as Bank of America Corp. and First Republic Bank. It was Mullet’s idea, says Adams. “He was concerned — with how expensive things are in the Seattle area — that we have a livable wage,” says Adams.

Adams was an attorney before becoming a banker but says he’s truly passionate about organizational development — getting the right people in the right positions to excel. “We work really hard to get people in roles that play to their strengths, not their weaknesses,” he says. “If you get somebody in a role that plays to their strengths, they do wake up every morning excited to do that role.”

That passion for people comes through in how Adams leads the organization, according to Jarman. “Joe isn’t someone who comes in and says, ‘OK, what do you have on your plate today?’ … He says, ‘Hey, how can I help you? What are you working on?’ It’s from a different angle. It’s not at you. It’s with you, and it’s supportive.”

Playing to different strengths, and creating a collaborative environment where people are encouraged to think differently, builds a stronger bank,” Jarman continues. “We’ve created a space where people do feel safe saying, ‘I don’t agree with you’ or, ‘Can we try it this way?’” she says. Providing employees with the culture to foster those types of questions builds future leaders, and it comes from the top. “That’s what Joe does,” says Jarman. “He gives us the opportunity to grow.”

FS Bancorp CEO Joseph Adams will be part of a panel discussion at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired event in Phoenix, Jan. 30 – Feb. 1, 2022. Click here to access the agenda or learn more about the conference.

How Engagement, Not Experience, Unlocks Customer Loyalty

In casual conversations, “customer engagement” and “customer experience” are often used interchangeably. But from a customer relationship perspective, they are absolutely not synonymous and it’s critical to understand the differences. Here’s how we define them:

Customer experience (CX) is the perception of an individual interaction, or set of interactions, delivered across various touch points via different channels. The customer interprets the experience as a “moment in time” feeling, based on the channel and that specific, or set of specific, interactions. A visit to an ATM is a customer experience, as is the wait time in a branch lobby on a Saturday morning or the experience of signing up for online banking.

Customer engagement, on the other hand, is the sum of all interactions that a customer has throughout their financial lifecycle: direct, indirect, online and offline interactions, face-to-face meetings, online account opening and financial consulting. Engagement with a customer over time and repeatedly through dozens of interactions should ideally build trust, loyalty and confidence. It should ultimately lead to a greater investment of the customers’ money in the bank’s product and service offerings.

Why the Difference Matters
As customers demanded and used self-service and digital banking capabilities, bank executives focused on the user experience (UX); however, that is merely a subset of CX and a poor substitute for actual customer engagement. Moreover, the promise of digital-first often doesn’t meet adoption and usage goals, worsening the customer experiences while underutilizing the technology. The addition of digital-first channels can also cause confusion, frustration and dead-ends — resulting in an even worse CX than before.

Take for example the experience of using an ATM. If the ATM is not operational, this singular transaction — occurring at one specific point in time — is unsatisfactory. The customer is unable to fulfill their transaction. However, it is doubtful that after this one experience the customer will move their accounts to another institution. But if these negative experiences compound — if the customer encounters multiple instances in which they are unable to complete their desired transactions, cannot reach the appropriate representative when additional assistance and expertise is needed or is not provided with the most up-to-date information to quickly resolve the issue — they are going to be more willing to move to a competitor.

When banks focus on experience, they tend to only look at point interactions in a customer’s journey and make channel-specific investments — missing the big picture of customer engagement. This myopic focus can produce negative outcomes for the institution. Consider the addition of a new loan origination system that produces unsustainable abandonment rates. Or introducing live chat, only to turn it off because the contact center cannot support the additional chat volume and its subsequent doubling of handle times. These are prime examples of how an investment in a one channel, and not the entire engagement experience, can backfire.

While banks often look at point interactions, or a customer’s experiences, to assess operational performance, bank customers themselves judge their bank based on the entire engagement. Engagement spans all customer interactions and touch points, from self-service to the employee-assisted and hyper personalized. Now is the time for bankers to consider things from the customers’ perspectives.

Instead, banks should prioritize engagement as being critical to their long-term success with customers. Great things happen when banks engage with their customers. Engagement strengthens emotional, ongoing banking relationships and fosters better individual customer experiences over account holders’ full financial lifecycle.

Engagement enables revenue growth, as new customers open accounts and existing consumers expand their relationship. Banks can also experience increased productivity and efficiency as each interaction yields better results. Improving customer engagement will naturally increase the satisfaction of individual customer experiences as well.

The distinction between customer engagement and customer experience is central to the concept of relationship banking. Rather than providing services that aim to simply fulfill customer needs, banks must consider a more holistic customer engagement strategy that connects individual experiences into a larger partnership — one that delights account holders and inspires long-term loyalty with each interaction.