Core Processing? Find the Aces Up Your Sleeve

Outsourced core processing usually represents regional and community banks’ most significant — and most maligned — contractual relationship. Core technology is a heavy financial line item, an essential component of bank operations and, too often, a contractual minefield.

But contrary to popular belief, it is possible for banks to negotiate critical contractual issues with core processing providers. No matter their size, banks can negotiate both the business and legal terms of these agreements. Technology consultants and outside legal counsel can play impactful, complementary roles to help level the playing field. Be certain that your bank is well advised and allocating adequate resources to these matters.

Critical Contractual Issues
From a legal angle, we at BFKN routinely look at and comment on dozens of separate points in a typical agreement — some of which are of critical importance as the arrangement matures. We have favorably revised termination penalties, service levels and remedies, the definition and ownership of data, caps on annual fee increases, limitations of liability, information security and business continuity provisions, ongoing diligence and audit rights, deconversion fees and the co-termination of all services and products, among many other items.

Exclusivity provisions which prevent banks from securing competing products without incurring penalties are also a focus for many organizations seeking to futureproof their core processing; a vendor reserving exclusivity, whether outright or through volume minimums, can hinder the bank’s ability to innovate.

Engaging External Resources
Banks are generally at a disadvantage in vendor contract negotiations, given that vendors negotiate their forms frequently against many parties and banks do not. Fortunately, there is a robust industry of technology consultants, of varying degrees of competence and quality, that work specifically in the core processing and technology vendor space. Most banks should engage both technology consultants, which can tackle the practical and business angles of the vendor relationship, and outside legal counsel, to focus on legal and regulatory concerns.

When considering whether to bring in outside advisors, executives at institutions considering a change in their vendor or approaching a renewal or significant change in their core processing services should ask the following questions:

  • Has the bank thoroughly evaluated its existing relationship and potential alternatives?
  • Would it be helpful to have an outside consultant with a perspective on the current market review the key business terms and pricing considerations?
  • Is the bank confident that the existing agreement sufficiently details the parties’ legal rights and responsibilities? Could it benefit from an informed legal review?
  • If considering an extension of an existing relationship, can any proposed changes be addressed sufficiently in an amendment to the existing contract, or is it time for a full restatement (and a full review) of the documentation?
  • Are there strategic considerations, such as a potential combination with another entity or the exploration of a fintech venture, that may raise complex issues down the line?

Leveraging Internal Resources
Dedicating the right internal resources also helps banks ensure that they maximize their leverage when negotiating a core processing agreement. As a general matter, directors and senior management should have an ongoing familiarity with the bank’s vendor relationship. For many, this can seem a Herculean task. Core processing contracts often span hundreds of pages and terms are gradually added, dropped and altered through overriding amendments. Nevertheless, by understanding, outlining, and tracking key contractual terms and ongoing performance, directors and senior management can proactively assess the processor and apprise its limitations.

This engagement can result in better outcomes. Are there any performance issues or problems with the bank’s current vendor? If a provider is falling short, there may be alternatives. Diverse technology offerings are introduced to the market continually. Of course, establishing a new relationship can be a painstaking process, and there are risks to breaking with the “devil you know.” Yet we are having more conversations with banks that are exploring less-traditional core technology vendors and products.

Short of a wholesale switch of vendors and products, it is possible for banks to negotiate for contractual protections against a vendor’s limitations. And even if senior management takes the lead in negotiating against the vendor, directors can play a valuable role in the negotiation process. We’ve seen positive and concrete results when the board or a key director is engaged at a high level.

If it’s time to start negotiating with a core processing provider, don’t leave your chips on the table. Fully utilizing both internal and external resources can ensure that the bank’s core processing relationship supports the bank for years to come.

How Fifth Third Crafts Successful Bank-Fintech Partnerships

From the start, Eric White anticipated the solar lender he launched in 2013 would eventually be owned by a bank. But it wasn’t until last fall that he settled on the $207 billion Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The bank announced on Jan. 19 that it would acquire Dividend Finance for an undisclosed amount and closed the deal in May, with White, its founder and CEO, continuing to run the business.

White recalled two moments that made him feel certain his company had found its ideal buyer — the first was last fall when a group of Fifth Third’s top executives visited the fintech’s San Francisco’s headquarters for an initial meeting and the second was not much later when he met Ben Hoffman, Fifth Third’s chief strategy officer.

“It starts with people,” White says. “You have to like the people who are on the other side of the table from you before you get on the same side of the table as them.”

Hoffman echoed that, saying Fifth Third has come up with a couple of heuristics that help it determine whether it wants to pursue a partnership with a particular fintech. One is the way it assesses the entrepreneurs at the helm.

“We look at the leadership team and we ask, ‘Are these people that we could see filling other roles in the bank? Not because we intend to take them off mission — quite the opposite. When we bring these leaders in, it’s about empowering them to continue doing the thing that they’re incredibly passionate about and great at,” Hoffman says.

Not all bank-fintech partnerships turn into acquisitions, nor does Hoffman intend them to. And not all acquisitions start out as partnerships. Fifth Third and Dividend Finance had not worked together prior to striking their deal.

But Fifth Third’s introspective question serves as “a real test for cultural fit,” Hoffman says. “If there isn’t another real job on the org chart that you think these individuals could do, how can you expect them to understand us, and how can you expect us to really understand them, and to appreciate each other?” 

Ensuring a Cultural Fit
In anticipation of rising interest rates, White began seeking prospective bank buyers for Dividend Finance late last year. His prerequisite was that the banks had to be experienced with indirect lending, as his company is a point-of-sale lender that partners with contractors nationwide to provide their customers with financing for solar and other home improvement projects.

White says Fifth Third’s long partnership with GreenSky – a point-of-sale lender that offers home improvement loans through merchants – gave him comfort. Fifth Third invested in and began collaborating with GreenSky starting in 2016. (Goldman Sachs acquired the fintech in March.)

“Indirect lending is a very different model than direct lending. Some banks just don’t get it, and Fifth Third did,” White says.

But it was in that first meeting with Fifth Third, as then-President Tim Spence talked about how he had previously worked at technology startups and as a strategy consultant, when White first felt a sense that this bank stood out from the other contenders. Spence had been lured away from Oliver Wyman, where he focused on helping banks — Fifth Third among them — with their digital roadmaps. (He succeeded Greg Carmichael as Fifth Third’s chief executive officer in July.)

“Hearing Tim introduce himself and give his background was an eyeopener in and itself. He doesn’t come from a traditional bank executive background,” White says. “So, it was a different and a very refreshing perspective. It was very exciting for us.”

Hoffman made just as strong an impression on White when they met later on, further reassuring him that Dividend Finance had found “a perfect cultural fit” in terms of management philosophy and the long-term goals of both sides.

Hoffman previously worked with Spence as part of the Oliver Wyman team that advised Fifth Third and other banks; he followed Spence to the bank side in 2016. Hoffman’s mandate has evolved over the years, but one facet of his duties is overseeing Fifth Third’s fintech activities. White gives Hoffman rave reviews, calling him “one of the most creative thinkers that I’ve come across in my entire career.”

With the people test passed, the most salient selling point for White was “how the bank thinks about technology and product.”

In his perspective, too many banks are stuck in “archaic approaches” to managing growth and innovation. But Spence’s answer when asked why he decided to work at a bank in Cincinnati “really stuck with me,” White says. “He viewed Fifth Third as a platform to combine the best elements of traditional banking along with the opportunity to infuse innovation and a technology-driven approach to product development and organizational management.”

It gave White confidence that Fifth Third would not make the mistake that he believes other banks sometimes do, which is “trying to make the fintechs conform to the way that the bank has operated historically and in doing so, stripping out the qualities that make that fintech successful.”

White says his confidence has only grown since the acquisition. At Fifth Third, his title is Dividend Finance president, and he operates the business with a comfortable level of autonomy, reporting to Howard Hammond, executive vice president and head of consumer banking.

Ensuring a Strategic Fit
Fifth Third has partnerships with about a dozen fintechs at any given time and, over the past year and a half, has acquired two niche digital lenders outright, Dividend Finance, in the ESG space, and Provide, in the healthcare space. (ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, and is often used to refer to the components of a sustainability-minded business approach.)

ESG and healthcare are two categories that align with Fifth Third’s own areas of focus, in accordance with a rule Hoffman follows when choosing fintechs of interest, whether for partnerships or acquisitions. He considers this rule — the fintech must help the bank improve on its existing strategy — key to helping ensure a partnership will eventually produce enough of a return to make Fifth Third’s investment of time, effort and money worthwhile.

As a result of the Dividend Finance acquisition, Fifth Third is actively assessing whether to increase its sustainable finance target. The bank had set a goal two years ago that called for achieving $8 billion of lending for alternative energy like solar, wind and geothermal by 2025.

“The things that we do with fintech are things that we were going to do one way or another. We’re not taking on incremental missions. We’re just pursuing those missions in different form. So, that framing completely changes the analysis that we’re doing,” Hoffman says.

Other banks might have to look broadly at competing priorities to decide between partnering with a specific fintech or tackling some other important initiative. But Fifth Third engages in a different thought process.

“It’s not, if we decide to partner with Provide, or should we acquire Dividend Finance, what will we not do?” Hoffman says.

Instead, Fifth Third asks, does this accelerate the timeframe for achieving a goal the bank has already set for itself?

“These partnerships are successful when they are aligned to our strategy and they accelerate, or de-risk, the execution of that strategy, as opposed to being separate and apart from the core ambitions of the franchise,” Hoffman says.

Assessing the Priority Level of Partnering — for Both Sides
Beyond that, any proposed partnership also needs to be “a top five priority” for both the fintech’s leadership and the relevant Fifth Third business line.

Hoffman advises other banks against the common approach of setting up a “tiny” partnership for the two sides to get to know each other with the idea of taking things to the next level when the time is right. “The likelihood of the timing ever being right, is very, very low,” he says. Those relationships often end up as distracting “hobbies” rather than ever escalating to the priority level necessary to add value for both sides and pay off in a meaningful way.

His insight is informed by experience. Hoffman leads Fifth Third’s corporate venture capital arm, which makes direct minority investments in fintechs. Given recent regulatory changes, it also participates as limited partners in several fintech-oriented venture capital funds.

His team is responsible for nurturing Fifth Third’s fintech partnerships, offering strategic insight and facilitating access to resources within the bank.

“As you can imagine, with some of the early-stage companies that we invest in, it’s six partners and an idea. Meanwhile, we have 20,000 people and branches and a half-dozen regulators and all of that. So, we provide a single point of contact to help sort of incubate and nurture the partnership until it reaches a level of stability and becomes a larger business,” Hoffman says.

“We work hard, as the partnerships mature, to stabilize the operating model such that the handholding, the single point of contact, becomes less necessary.”

That transition typically happens as the fintech gets better integrated into the day-to-day operations of the core business with which it is partnering, whether consumer banking, wealth management or another area in the bank.

Delivering Above and Beyond
With Provide, a digital lending financial platform for healthcare practices, the bank was an early investor, taking a lead role in a $12 million funding round with the venture capital firm QED Investors in 2018.

Fifth Third began funding loans made on the platform about two years later, with the amount increasing over time to the point where it was taking about half of Provide’s overall loan volume, the largest share among the five participating banks.

Through the Fifth Third partnership, Provide also expanded its offerings to include core banking and payments services, which are now used by more than 70% of the doctors for whom the fintech provides acquisition financing nationwide.

In announcing the agreement to buy Provide in June 2021, Fifth Third says the fintech would maintain its brand identity and operate as an independent business line.

Daniel Titcomb oversees Provide as its president and reports to Kala Gibson, executive vice president and chief corporate responsibility officer. (Gibson had oversight of business banking when Titcomb came on board and, though he’s in a new role as of March, continues to work with Provide.) Under Fifth Third’s ownership, Titcomb, who co-founded the fintech with James Bachmeier III in 2013, envisions being able to fuel loan growth and offer expanded services that help make starting and running a healthcare practice easier for doctors.

Since its launch, Provide has originated more than $1 billion in loans, largely through “practice lending,” which enables healthcare providers to start, buy or expand their practices. Its average loan size is $750,000.

Titcomb cited “a shared belief” in bank-fintech partnerships as one reason the early relationship with Fifth Third proved to be a success. “We both had a view of the future that didn’t include one destroying the other,” he says.

Years ago, fintechs and banks were often wary of each other — even adversarial — with banks being labeled by some as “dumb pipes,” the implication being that they were unable to keep up with nimble and innovative startups and were useful merely for product distribution to a larger customer base, Titcomb says. But he always found Fifth Third to be thoughtful and strategic, defying those stereotypes.

Though selling his business was scary, he says, “it was a lot less scary than it could’ve been,” given the established relationship.

Still, “we had to get comfortable and confident that they weren’t going to encourage us to spend less on technology,” he added. “Any time you enter into an agreement like that, you hope, but you don’t know.”

Titcomb says he is thrilled that the consistent feedback from Fifth Third since he joined has been: “You run this business the way you think it should be run.”

“It’s a relief,” he says.

Given outcomes like those experienced by White and Titcomb, Fifth Third has become known in fintech circles as a strong partner that delivers on its promises. Hoffman works hard to maintain that reputation—a competitive advantage.

“These companies have options, and some of those options are very compelling,” Hoffman says, adding that his goal is to make sure Fifth Third is “the partner of choice” for the fintechs it targets. That only happens, he says, if their experience after signing a deal aligns with what he says beforehand.

Count an enthusiastic Titcomb among those who attest that it has. “They have delivered above and beyond,” Titcomb says.

Banking’s Single Pane of Glass

Imagine looking at all the elements and complexities of a given business through a clear and concise “single pane of glass: one easily manageable web interface that has the horizontal capability to do anything you might need, all in one platform.”

It may sound too good to be true, but “single pane of glass” systems could soon become a reality within the mortgage industry. Underwriters, processors, loan originators and others who work at a mortgage or banking institution in other capacities must manage and maintain a plethora of different third-party software solutions on a daily basis.

It’s complex to simultaneously balance dozens of vendor solutions to monitor services, using different management console reports and processes for each. This cumbersome reality is one of the most significant challenges bankers face.

There are proven solutions and approaches to rationalizing these operational processes and streamlining interactions with customers, clients and new accounts. In the parlance of a technologist, these are called “single panes of glass,” better understood as multiple single panes of glass.

That does exist if you’re talking about a single product. Herein lies the problem. Heterogenous network users are using single third-party platform solutions for each service they need, with a result that one would expect. Too many single panes of glass — so much so that each becomes its own unique glass of pain.

How can banks fix this problem? Simply put, people need a single view of their purposed reality. Every source of information and environment, although different, needs to feed into a single API (application program interface). This is more than possible if banks use artificial intelligence and machine learning programs and API frameworks that are updated to current, modern standards. They can unify everything.

Ideally, one single dashboard would need to be able to see everything; this dashboard wouldn’t be led by vendors but would be supported by a plethora of APIs. Banks could plug that into an open framework, which can be more vendor-neutral, and you now have the option to customize and send data as needed.

The next hurdle the industry will need to overcome is that the panes of glass aren’t getting any bigger. Looking at pie charts and multiple screens and applications can be a real pain; it can feel like there isn’t a big enough monitor in the world to sift through some data spreadsheets and dashboards effectively.

With a “single pane of glass” approach, banks don’t have to consolidate all data they need. Instead, they can line up opportunities and quickly access solutions for better, seamless collaboration.

Focusing on one technology provider, where open-source communication can make integration seamless, might be a good adoption route for bank executives to consider in the short term while the industry adapts to overcome these unique challenges.

Eyes Wide Open: Building Fintech Partnerships That Work

With rising cost of funds and increased operating costs exerting new pressures on banks’ mortgage, consumer and commercial lending businesses, management teams are sharpening their focus on low-cost funding and noninterest revenue streams. These include debit card interchange fees, treasury management services, banking as a service (BaaS) revenue sharing and fees for commercial depository services, such as wire transfers and automated clearinghouse (ACH) transactions. Often, however, the revenue streams of some businesses barely offset the associated costs. Most depository service fees, for example, typically are offered as a modest convenience fee rather than a source of profitability. Moreover, noninterest income can be subject to disruption.

Responding to both competitive pressures and signals of increased regulatory scrutiny, many banks are eliminating or further reducing overdraft and nonsufficient fund (NSF) fees, which in some cases make up a substantial portion of their fee income. While some banks offset the loss of NSF fees with higher monthly service charges or other account maintenance fees, others opt for more customer-friendly alternatives, such as optional overdraft protection using automatic transfers from a linked account.

In rethinking overdraft strategies, a more innovative response might be to replace punitive NSF fees with a more positive buy now, pay later (BNPL) program that allows qualified customers to make purchases that exceed their account balances, using a short-term extended payment option for a nominal fee.

Partnering with a fintech can provide a bank quick access to the technology it needs to implement such a strategy. It also can open up other potential revenue streams. Unfortunately, a deeper dive into the terms of a fintech relationship sometimes reveals that the bank’s reward is not always commensurate with the associated risks.

Risky Business
As the banking industry adapts to new economic and competitive pressures, a growing number of organizations are turning to bank-fintech partnerships and various BaaS offerings to help improve financial performance, access new markets, and offset diminishing returns from traditional deposit and lending activities. In many instances, however, these new relationships are not producing the financial results banks had hoped to achieve.

And as bank leaders develop a better understanding of the opportunities, risks, and nuances of fintech relationships, some discover they are not as well-prepared for the relationship as they thought. This is particularly true for BaaS platforms and targeted online service offerings, in which banks either install fintech-developed software and customer interfaces or allow fintech partners to interact directly with the bank’s customers.

Often, the fintech partner commands a large share of the income stream — or the bank might receive no share in the income at all — despite, as a chartered institution, bearing an inordinate share of the risks in terms of regulatory compliance, security, privacy, and transaction costs. Traditionally, banks have sought to offset this imbalance through earnings on the fintech-related account balances, overlooking the fact that deposits obtained through fintechs are not yet fully equivalent to a bank’s core deposits.

Moreover, when funds from fintech depository accounts appear on the balance sheet, the bank’s growing assets can put stress on its capital ratio. Unless the bank receives adequate income from the relationship, it could find it must raise additional capital, which is often an expensive undertaking.

Such risks do not mean fintech partnerships should be avoided. On the contrary, they can offer many benefits. But as existing fintech contracts come up for renewal and as banks consider future opportunities, they should enter such relationships cautiously, with an eye toward unexpected consequences.

Among other precautions, banks should be wary of exclusivity clauses. Most fintechs understandably want the option to work with multiple banks on various products. Banks should expect comparable rights and should not lock themselves into a one-way arrangement that limits their ability to work with other fintechs or market new services of their own. It also is wise to opt for shorter contract terms that allow the bank to re-evaluate and renegotiate terms early in the relationship. The contract also should clarify the rights each party has to customer relationships and accounts upon contractual termination.

Above all, management should confirm that the bank’s share of future revenue streams will be commensurate with the associated risks and costs to adequately offset the potential capital pressures the relationship might trigger.

The rewards of a fintech collaboration can be substantial, provided everyone enters the relationship with eyes wide open.

Effective Oversight of Fintech Partnerships

For today’s banks, the shift to digital and embracing financial technology is no longer an option but a requirement in order to compete.

Fintechs enable banks to deploy, originate and service customers more effectively than traditional methods; now, many customers prefer these channels. But banks are often held back from jumping into fintech and digital spaces by what they view as insurmountable hurdles for their risk, compliance and operational teams. They see this shift as requiring multiple new hires and requiring extensive capital and technology resources. In reality, many smaller institutions are wading into these spaces methodically and effectively.

Bank oversight and management must be tailored to the specific products and services and related risks. These opportunities can range in sophistication from relatively simple referral programs between a bank and a fintech firm, which require far less oversight to banking as a service (often called BaaS) which requires extensive oversight.

A bank’s customized third-party oversight program, or TPO, is the cornerstone of a successful fintech partnership from a risk and compliance perspective, and should be accorded appropriate attention and commitment by leadership.

What qualifies as an existing best-in-class TPO program at a traditional community bank may not meet evolving regulatory expectations of a TPO that governs an institution offering core products and services through various fintech and digital partners. Most banks already have the hallmarks of a traditional TPO program, such as reviewing all associated compliance controls of their partner/vendor and monitoring the performance on a recurring basis. But for some banks with more exposure to fintech partners, their TPO need to address other risks prior to onboarding. Common unaccounted-for risks we see at banks embarking on more extensive fintech strategies include:

  • Reviewing and documenting partners’ money transmission processes to ensure they are not acting as unlicensed money transmitters.
  • Reviewing fintech deposit account’s set up procedures.
  • Assessing fintech partner marketing of services and/or products.
  • Ensuring that agreements provide for sufficient partner oversight to satisfy regulators.
  • Procedures to effectively perform required protocols that are required under the Bank Secrecy Act, anti-money laundering and Know Your Customer regulations, and capture information within the bank’s systems of record. If the bank relies on the fintech partner to do so, implementing the assessment and oversight process of the fintech’s program.
  • Assessing the compliance and credit risks associated with fintech partner underwriting criteria such as artificial intelligence, alternative data and machine learning.
  • Assessing the impact of the fintech strategy on the bank’s fair lending program and/or Community Reinvestment Act footprint.
  • The potential risk of unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices through the fintech partner’s activities.
  • True lender risks and documenting the institution’s understanding of the regulations surrounding the true lender doctrine.
  • Assessing customer risk profile changes resulting from the expansion of the bank’s services and or products and incorporating these changes into the compliance management system.
  • Revising your overall enterprise risk management program to account for the risks associated with any shift in products and services.

Finally, regulators expect this shift to more fintech partnerships to become the norm rather than the exception. They view it as an opportunity for banks to provide greater access to products and services to the underbanked, unbanked and credit invisible. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a number of resources deployed by bank regulators in this space, including:

  • Regulators creating various offices to address how banks can best utilize data and technology to meet consumer demands while maintaining safety, soundness, and consumer protection. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has built FDITECH, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has an Office of Innovation, as does the Federal Reserve Board. The CFPB has aggregated their efforts to deploy sandboxes and issue “No-Action Letters” through its own Innovation Office.
  • The Federal Reserve issued a guide for community banks on conducting due diligence on financial technology firms in August 2021.
  • OCC Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu gave remarks at the Fintech Policy Summit 2021 in November 2021.
  • In November 2021, the OCC issued a release clarifying bank authority to engage in certain cryptocurrency activities, as well as the regulator’s authority to charter national trust banks.

Adopting best practices like the ones we listed above, as well as early communication with regulators, will place your bank in a great position to start successfully working with fintechs to expand and improve your bank’s products and services and compete in today’s market.

What 2022 Holds for Community Banks

All banks need to prepare now for inevitably more change. As the year draws to a close, a quick look back provides some insightful clues about the road ahead. There are some trends that are well worth watching.

Changing Customer Habits
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated digitalization efforts and adoption. A recent PACE survey reveals that 46% of respondents changed how they interact with their bank in the last year. It is no surprise that consumers across generations continue to use new channels over in-branch banking.

  • The demand for drive-through banking doubled for young millennials.
  • The demand for phone banking tripled for Generation Z.
  • The percentage of young millennials communicating with their banks via email and social media rose by four times over the previous ten months.

Customers are more likely to visit a branch to receive advice, review their financial situation or to purchase a financial product. Many bank branches are being repurposed to reflect this new dynamic, with less emphasis on traditional over-the-counter services.

The way people pay has also changed, probably forever. Businesses encouraged digital and contactless payments, particularly for micropayments such as bus fares or paying for a coffee. In contrast, check use declined by about 44%. Forty-seven percent of community bank customers surveyed say they have mobile payments wallets, according to FIS’ PACE PULSE Survey for 2021.

Bank as a Partner
In addition to providing traditional services, many community banks elevated their position to financial partner, offering temporary services when and where they were needed. The immediate relief including increased spending limits on credit cards, payment deferral options on mortgages, personal loans based on need and penalty fee waivers for dipping below account minimums.

Since then, community banks have continued taking steps to boost financial inclusion. The unbanked and underbanked are prime candidates for new, low-cost financial services delivered through mobile channels and apps. Providing such services is likely to be well rewarded by enduring customer loyalty, but the banks need the right technologies to deliver them.

The State of the Industry
The last year has seen a flurry of M&A deals. Many recent mergers involved banks with mature brands, loyal customers and strong balance sheets. These institutions’ interest in deals reflects a need to reduce the cost of doing business and the universal need to keep pace with technology innovation.

Digital technologies and data are increasingly the baseline of success in banks of all sizes. Merging with a peer can jump-start innovation and provide a bigger footprint for new digital services.

Robotics Process Automation and Data
Although much of the discussion around digitalization has focused on customer services, digital technologies can also boost automation and efficiency. With the right approach, robotic process automation, or RPA, can automate high-volume repeatable tasks that previously required employees to perform, allowing them to be redeployed to more valuable tasks. But to maximize value, RPA should not be considered in isolation but as part of a bank’s overall data strategy.

The Road Ahead
Although the road ahead may be paved with uncertainty, these are things FIS expects to see across the industry:

Customers have rising expectations. They want banking services that are intuitive, frictionless and real time. Big Tech, not banks, are continuing to redefined the customer experience.

Crypto will become mainstream. Many consumers already hold and support cryptocurrencies as investments. Banks must prepare for digital currencies and the distributed ledger technology that supports them.

The branch must evolve. Banks need to reinvent the branch to offer a consistent smooth experience. Human services can be augmented by technologies that automate routine retail banking tasks. For example, video tellers can conduct transactions and banking services with customers, using a centrally based teller in a highly engaging real-time video/audio interaction. Banks must persevere to draw people back into their branches.

Investing in data and technology is essential. Banks must eliminate guesswork and harness data to drive better decisions, increasing engagement and building lifetime loyalty. Smart banks can use customer data to gain unique insight and align banking with life events, such as weddings, school and retirement.

The new age of competition is also one of collaboration. At a time when community banks and their customers are getting more involved with technology, every bank needs to adopt a fintech approach to banking. Few banks can achieve this alone; the right partner can help an institution keep up the latest developments in technology and focus on its core mission to attract and retain customers.

Three Things to Do Now for Success During Tax Season

After the holiday season, many people go back to work refreshed and ready to take on a new year. However, for banks and their vendors, January is one of the busiest times of the year.

Tax season kicks off every January. Customers must receive tax documents for reporting income, loan interest payments and other financial data required by the IRS. The process of collecting the proper data, building the documents and sending them to customers can often be stressful, unorganized and prone to mistakes. Banks have the charge of getting their customers the right information, at the right time, designed in a familiar way. This process is crucial to reinforcing the trust institutions actively work to build each day with their customers.

Many banks accept this stressful process as “just the way it is.” However, there are things leaders can do now, before the federal government even releases the annual tax data fields, to prepare for the January rush.

Create a Game Plan
Banks know that the biggest frustration with tax documents is that the IRS typically does not release the current year’s data fields and form requirements until late fall. While the forms do not typically change dramatically year-to-year, there are always some changes that must be mapped from the core into any document generation processes. Banks must then match that form with their individual system.

To begin taking a more proactive approach to tax season, the first step is to treat tax preparations like any other project. Identify what your team can control and what it cannot. What worked well last year, what didn’t? It is important to think critically — remember, the goal of this exercise is to streamline the process.

Work through the process and timeline step by step with your team, including all key employees who work closely on this project. Discuss pain points, things you can control and possible action items that can be taken ahead of time.

Once you have successfully identified all dependencies, fill in your project timeline. It is important to start sooner rather than later. Luckily there are two vital steps you can take right now.

Contact Your Core
Get in contact with your core provider as early as possible to discuss any changes. Discuss timelines and deadlines that can be shared internally and added to your project timeline. If your bank can receive test data from the core to proactively work through the process, that can prove incredibly valuable.

One of the larger obstacles of the tax process is the data matching and correct application of the data on the form. Janine Specht, senior vice president of business applications and innovation officer at Kearny Bancorp in Kearny, New Jersey, makes a point of coordinating with her core as early as possible to avoid these pain points.

“We have experienced missing data and wrong boxes which leads to the files being received by our core processor getting input incorrectly,” says Specht. “Then we realized we weren’t ready to print and send.”

Specht recommends creating a calendar with alerts for when to expect certain steps, so nothing is overlooked.

Contact Your Document Vendor
Once the core data is set and properly mapped, your team should prepare document vendors for a smooth workflow. If possible, coordinate any changes with vendors ahead of time. Securing the test data from your core will help with this; however, there are still steps you can take to prepare with your vendor if you cannot get any test data.

Communicate the deadlines and timelines you received from your core to the vendor, and be sure to get any deadlines or important steps from them to add to the internal project timeline.

Discuss any design issues that need to be solved outside of data fields. It is important to send customers a form that looks like the tax form they will be filling out, since the familiarity makes it easier to figure out what they need to do with the documents and reduce calls to customer service.

Tax season is stressful, but there are steps bankers can take ahead of time to ease some of those pain points. The more bank leaders can work through and plan for, the more prepared their employees will be. As banks are working through the process and create the project timeline, remember to think critically and outside of the box. This proactive mindset will make the New Year start more efficiently and reduce the stress associated with tax season.

Data is the Secret Weapon for Successful M&A

The topic of data and analytics at financial institutions typically focuses on how data can be used to enhance the consumer experience. As the volume of M&A in the banking industry intensifies to 180 deals this year, first-party data is a critical asset that can be leveraged to model and optimize M&A decisions.

There are more than 10,000 financial institutions in the U.S., split in half between banks and credit unions. That’s a lot of targets for potential acquirers to sift through, and it can be difficult to determine the right potential targets. That’s where a bank’s own first-party data can come in handy. Sean Ryan, principal content manager for banking and specialty finance at FactSet, notes that “calculating overlap among branch networks is simple, but calculating overlap among customer bases is more valuable — though it requires much more data and analysis.” Here are two examples of how that data can be used to model and select the right targets:

  • Geographic footprint. There are two primary camps for considering footprint from an M&A perspective: grabbing new territory or doubling down on existing serving areas. Banks can use customer data to help determine the optimal targets for both of these objectives, like using spend data to understand where consumers work and shop to indicate where they should locate new branches and ATMs.
  • Customer segmentation. Banks often look to capturing market share from consumer segments they are not currently serving, or acquire more consumers similar to their existing base. They should use data to help drive decision-making, whether their focus is on finding competitive or synergistic customer bases. Analyzing first-party transaction data from a core processor can indicate the volume of consumers making payments or transfers to a competitor bank, providing insights into which might be the best targets for acquisition. If the strategy is to gain market share by going after direct competitors, a competitive insight report can provide the details on exactly how many payments are being made to a competitor and who is making them.

The work isn’t done when a bank identifies the right M&A target and signs a deal. “When companies merge, they embark on seemingly minor changes that can make a big difference to customers, causing even the most loyal to reevaluate their relationship with the company,” writes Laura Miles and Ted Rouse of Bain & Co. With the right data, it is possible that the newly merged institution minimizes those challenges and creates a path to success. Some examples include:

  • Product rationalization. After a bank completes a merger, executives should analyze specific product utilization at an individual consumer or household level, but understanding consumer behavior at a more granular level will provide even greater insights. For example, knowing that a certain threshold of consumers are making competitive mortgage payments could determine which mortgage products the bank should offer and which it should sunset. Understanding which business customers are using Square for merchant processing can identify how the bank can make merchant solutions more competitive and which to retain post-merger. Additionally, modeling the take rate, product profitability and potential adoption of the examples above can provide executives with the final details to help them make the right product decisions.
  • Customer retention. Merger analysis often indicates that customer communication and retention was either not enough of a focus or was not properly managed, resulting in significant attrition for the proforma bank. FactSet’s Ryan points out that “too frequently, banks have been so focused on hitting their cost save targets that they took actions that drove up customer attrition, so that in the end, while the buyer hit the mark on cost reductions, they missed on actual earnings.” Executives must understand the demographic profiles of their consumers, like the home improver or an outdoor enthusiast, along with the life events they are experiencing, like a new baby, kids headed off to college or in the market for a loan, to drive communications. The focus must be on retaining accountholders. Banks can use predictive attrition models to identify customers at greatest risk of leaving and deploy cross-sell models for relationships that could benefit from additional products and services.

M&A can be risky business in the best of circumstances — too often, a transaction results in the loss of customers, damaged reputations and a failure to deliver shareholder value. Using first-party data effectively to help drive better outcomes can ensure a win-win for all parties and customers being served.

What Banks Missed

It’s a classic case of a couple of upstarts upending the business of banking.

Increasingly familiar names such as Affirm Holdings, Afterpay Ltd. and Klarna Bank, as well as few household names such as PayPal Holdings, are busy taking credit card business away from banks by offering interest-free, installment loans at the point of sale.

Almost overnight, this type of lending has grown into a national phenomenon, starting with online merchants and then spreading throughout the industry, as Bank Director Managing Editor Kiah Haslett wrote about earlier this year.

C + R Research reports that of 2,005 online consumers, nearly half are making payments on some kind of buy now, pay later loan. More than half say they prefer that type of lending to credit cards, citing ease of payments, flexibility and lower interest rates as their top reasons why they prefer to buy, now pay later.

The amount of money flowing into the space is substantial. In August, Square announced that it would purchase Afterpay for $29 billion. Mastercard is trying to get into the game as well, announcing a deal in September to partner with multiple banks such as Barclays US, Fifth Third Bancorp and Huntington Bancshares to bring buy now, pay later to merchants.

Whatever your skepticism of the phenomenon may be, or your lack of interest in consumer lending, it’s clear that financial technology companies are chipping away at bank business models. This phenomenon begs the question: Why are fintech companies having such success when banks could have taken the opportunity but did not?

Banks have the data. They “know their customer” — both in the regulatory and relationship sense. Yet, they didn’t anticipate consumers’ interest or demand because they already had a product, and that product is called a credit or debit card.

Few companies cannibalize their business models by offering products that directly compete with existing products. But increasingly, I believe they should. Banks that don’t acknowledge the realities of today’s pressures are vulnerable to tomorrow’s innovation.

When we think about the business of banking today, I think about a glass half empty. It doesn’t mean we can’t put a little bit more water into it. But it does require an honest assessment of gaps in your current strategy and an assessment of the team you’d need — not necessarily the team you employ.

As I head into Bank Director’s Audit & Risk Committees Conference in Chicago this Monday through Wednesday, these are some of the themes on my mind. In some ways, having a glass half empty is sometimes the best thing for you.

It gives you the chance to do something positive to change it.

How a Data-Driven Sales Methodology Can Help Banks Grow

Two issues are challenging banks to capitalize on any sales momentum and risk sales inertia. Without data and analytics, banks will struggle to scale sales methodology and grow revenue — even if they have an effective sales methodology and highly trained team in place.

Current market dynamics are creating a new set of obstacles for financial institutions to meet commercial revenue targets in the face of economic uncertainty and deteriorating industries and sub-segments. In addition, frontline sales resources at banks have become consumed by servicing and monitoring activities as institutions refocused relationship managers to portfolio management during the coronavirus pandemic

While banks might experience short-term growth, they will struggle to find long-term success given the absence of a focused, cost-effective and scalable process aimed at the ideal, targeted customer. That’s because the traditional, historical methods for selling are largely ineffective in today’s environment. Commercial banking sales have been rooted in selling through relationships and networking with “centers of influence,” such as accountants or attorneys. This is challenging approach in today’s climate because of a lack of a methodical plan to expand, repopulate, curate and filter the network on an ongoing basis to insure ample and effective referrals. The financial results prove this out with historically low win rates, sporadic cross-sale success and — in many cases — heightened levels of sales personnel attrition.

Without a standardized methodology, banks are generally unable to unlock the magnitude of their organization. Sales efforts are not repeatable and must be reinvented with each new sale, proving both costly and ineffective in business development. Without scalability, as banks grow inorganically, these challenges compounded and complicate further growth.

Banks have historically failed to leverage their disparate data sources to drive the methodology and optimize execution of sales plans. It is nearly impossible for bankers to identify and prioritize relationships in a meaningful way, given how data is typically stored in disparate data houses across multiple non-integrated systems.

The lack of coordination around data means that banks typically fail to effectively, easily and accurately align product revenue, whether interest or fee income, to an individual borrower or relationship. Executives face a challenge in planning and segmenting holistic, high-opportunity sales calls through proper segmentation and targeted sales activities without a clear understanding of the 360-degree profitability view.

Why is this important? Now more than ever, banks require a new scalable method to effectively identify, pursue, and sell to targeted existing and new prospective clients who offer new opportunities within optimal, performing industry segments.

A data-driven sales model is the key to scalability. Scalability is a sought-after state of operations, and provides the foundation for rapid, cost-effective growth. At the core of scalability is repeatability — the ease with which results can be reproduced even as bank operations change and adapt to varying conditions. Scalability is often made possible through technology enablement while leveraging automation.

Banks have explored scalability through technology and tools such as loan origination systems, base level CRM systems, and integrated third-party tools to automate the credit underwriting and scoring processes. But this alone does not create or generate scalability. Scalability is constructed by standardized, streamlined policies and procedures, and is evidenced by its repeatability and simplicity.

Scalable organizations benefit from economies of scale, processing greater volumes with fewer resources. The direct result of top line revenue growth is increased net profits and reduced operating expenses. A bank’s DNA must be central to the intersection of sales methodology and technology to drive support and insight, leading to greater scalability and accelerated growth.

In our view, banks should operate with a delivery model that leverages data and analytics, provides scalability and identifies the following: advanced customer segmentation, early-stage opportunity identification, early detection of significant cross sell opportunities and pre-defined sales targets supported by actionable and tactical workplans. With the right tool, banks also unify the sales management process and drive user adoption and experience through customized automated dashboards and reporting, accelerating success and driving sales accountability and transparency. With this approach, banks can manage relationship managers’ sales activity in ways that create scalable, sustainable sales success and ultimately achieve higher growth rates.