What Banks Can Learn About Customers from 50,000 Chatbot Searches

Covid-19 has increased usage of digital banking services and tools, including live chat, video chat and chatbots.

While live chat and video chat offer a one-to-one conversation directly with your customers, chatbots provide 24-hour service, instant answers and the ability to scale without the need for human intervention. Relatively new channel to the banking world, the promise of chatbots seems endless: answering every question and automating related tasks, quickly and efficiently. How can banks best leverage the promise of this opportunities to better and more efficiently serve customers?

To truly answer that question, we need to understand how customers interact with chatbots, how that varies from known digital behavior, like search and navigation, and how can those insights be turned into reality.

So we decided to analyze more than 50,000 banking chatbot interactions. What we uncovered revealed some very interesting insights about customer behavior and what it will take to make that promise a reality.

It turns out that customers interactions with chatbots are very similar to human interactions:

  • They typically typed 11.24 words, on average, compared to with 1.4 words typed into a banking website search bar. Chatbot interactions are conversational. Customers ask questions like “Can I Have My Stimulus Debit Card Balance Deposited to My Account” or making statements like “I need to change my address.”
  • Almost 94% of questions asked were completely unique. While customers may ask the same type of question — “What is my routing number?” versus “What is your routing number?” versus “What is the routing number” —how they phrase the question is almost always unique.
  • A fifth of all interactions started with “I need,” “I want” or “I am” — another indication of the conversational approach that bank customers take with chatbots. Unlike a search function, where typically they would use shorter phrases like “refinance” or “refinance car,” they make statements or ask questions: “I am looking to refinance my auto loan” or “I want to refinance my auto loan.”
  • Fifteen percent of interactions included the word “how.” This is another indication that customers ask chatbots questions or looking for help completing tasks like “How do you use Zelle?” or “How does a home equity loan work?”
  • Fourteen percent of all interactions began with “Hi,” “Hey” or “Hello.” And who said that bots don’t have feelings?

Chatbot adoption and usage will only continue to grow. Like all newer channels, it will require fine-tuning along the way, using insights and analysis to effectively interpret what customers are looking for, and deliver back relevant responses that point them in the right direction.

This starts with analytics and data. As data sets grow with more usage, they will reveal insights on how customers interact with chatbots, what they are looking to do and how that changes over time. This will feed the data set used to power the chatbot’s AI — both natural language processing (the ability to interpret what the customer is asking or looking for) as well as the sentiment analysis (whether the customer is happy or frustrated). Analysis will be required to learn and understand the nuances of what customers are asking when presented with phrases like this actual query from our dataset: “Hi. What is the safest way to prove documents of account balance when applying to living in an apartment complex?” Banks and/or the chatbot vendors will need to monitor the training the chatbot, including recognizing customer frustration and offering up logical next steps — like “It looks like you’re frustrated, can we transfer you to an agent?” as needed.

The analytics and data will also provide the map of the information that needs to be developed and updated to deliver answers that customers need. Given that 93.8% of questions that customers ask are unique, having the right knowledge will be critical. Sometimes this might be a simple answer (“What is my routing number?”) and sometimes it might require decision trees that offer options (understanding if an auto loan is for a new or used vehicle to get the customer one step closer to conversion).

Banks have a great opportunity to make chatbots the 24/7 tool that improves customer experience, reduces support costs and drives digital adoption. But it will take a commitment to the analysis and ongoing optimization of knowledge to truly become a reality. 

Next time you start you interact with a chatbot, start with hello — I’ve heard they appreciate it!

Five Considerations for Stronger Digital Communications Adoption

Digital banking services and capabilities are increasingly one of the most important areas of investment for community banks.

Community bank customers appreciate the personal service they receive from their local bank but desire the technology capabilities offered at national banks. Community banks are challenged to deliver seamless, robust digital banking services in a cost-effective manner. These challenges create some compromised digital banking experiences, particularly around digital communications.

Community banks consistently have much lower adoption rates of digital statement compared to large national banks. Bank leaders often cite demographics as the leading factor in the lack of migration to digital communication, with many banks assuming that only younger, wealthier customers adopt digital banking solutions. In reality, adoption rates are fairly consistent across age, income and location. 

Instead, many regional and community bank customers do not adopt digital solutions because they do not trust their bank’s offerings. The network of third-party vendors a bank uses creates a patchwork of solutions that may not communicate effectively, resulting in a negative user experience. This friction results in abandonment, as customers decide to just continue accepting the traditional printed communications.

The good news is that this area can be fixed — but it requires community bankers to fully understand what is needed to create a well-designed digital communications experience.

Crafting A User Interface, Appearance
A customer’s experiences must be consistent across the bank. Banks thrive at managing a customer’s in-person interactions; its digital presence, online and mobile offerings should offer the same experience. When electronic statements on the digital platform look unsophisticated and lack consistency in design, it leaves a bad impression with the customer. The online site must be responsive and mobile-friendly, enabling the customer to bank on-the-go.

Fully Functional Entitlement Management
Passwords, authorizations and verifications can easily become one of the frustrating components of digital adoption for customers. Most often, customers are unaware that numerous third-party vendors are involved in making their digital experience a reality. When they change or update their settings, they expect these changes to occur across their account in real-time. Any delay or latency results in an inconsistent experience for the customer.

Centralizing Preferences, Settings
Bank customers encounter digital experiences that consist of digital banking preference settings in one place on the website or mobile app and settings for digital communications in another area. This can create confusion among customers. Since they may not be aware that the digital communications may be held by one vendor, and other account functions are held by others, it seems to make little sense why all settings are not centralized in one place. It is worth exploring the options to unite these components in one place, further eliminating potential friction.

Longer Retention Period
Communications archival is one of the most beneficial — yet overlooked advantages — for digital adoption. Customers may or may not refer to previous communications such as notices and statements regularly, but when they need them, they will appreciate the capability. Community banks do not often like to pay for the server space needed to store these past communications, but it is an area executive should consider when trying to increase digital adoption. Customers cite short retention periods as a reason for electing to continue to receive paper statements.

Innovative Notification Options
Most legacy digital communication integrations use email as the primary method of notifying customers. Today’s bank customer is inundated with emails from work, personal matters and retailers. They are also cautious about opening emails due to hackers often masking themselves as financial institutions in phishing and other fraud-related schemes. The best way to get around this is through real-time integrations between digital banking and digital communication systems, offering the use of SMS or push notifications when possible.

Achieving greater digital adoption is possible. The status quo not only leaves most banks spending more per customer to deliver documents than their large, national bank competitors, but it gives customers the impression that they cannot manage their digital experience effectively.

The good news for regional and community banks is that it is possible to improve on the efforts already in place to build a strong digital presence by choose vendors that are truly committed to the open banking concept. Once the ecosystem of vendors works together, community banks will be in a much better position to market and grow their digital adoption efforts.

Five Questions to Ask When Weighing Banking Software

A contract for banking software should be the start of a working relationship.

When your bank purchases a new banking system, you should get more than a piece of software. From training to ongoing support, there’s a tremendous difference between a vendor who sells a system and a true partner who will work to enhance your banking operations.

But how do you know which is which? Here are some questions that could help you determine if a vendor is just a vendor — or if they could become a more-meaningful resource for your bank.

Do they have real banking expertise?
A software vendor that lacks real-world banking experience will never have the institutional knowledge necessary to serve as a true partner. The company may have been founded by a banker and their salespeople may have some cursory knowledge of how their solution works in a banking environment. However, that is not enough. You need a vendor that can offer expert insights based on experience. Ask salespeople or other contacts about their banking background and what they can do to help improve your bank.

Do they want to understand your issues?
A vendor won’t be able to help solve your problems if they aren’t interested in learning what they are. You should be able to get a sense of this early in the process, especially if you go through a software demonstration. Does the salesperson spend more time talking about features and system capabilities, or do they ask you about your needs first and foremost? A vendor looking to make a sale will focus on their program, while a true partner will take time to find out what your challenges are and what you really want to know. Look for a vendor who puts your needs above their own and you’ll likely find one who is truly invested in your success.

How quickly do they respond?
Vendors will show you how much they care by their turnaround speed when you have a question or need to troubleshoot a problem with your banking system. Any delay could prove costly, and a good partner acts on that immediate need and moves quickly because they care about your business. It can take some companies weeks to fully resolve customer issues, while others respond and actively work to solve the problem in only a few hours. Go with the software provider who is there for you when you need them most.

Do they go above and beyond?
Sometimes the only way to address an issue is to go beyond the immediate problem to the underlying causes. For example, you might think you have a process problem when onboarding treasury management customers, but it could actually be an issue that requires system automation to fully resolve.

A vendor that can identify those issues and give you insights on how to fix them, instead of bandaging the problem with a quick workaround, is one worth keeping around. This may mean your vendor proposes a solution that isn’t the easiest or the cheapest one, but this is a good thing. A vendor that is willing to tell you something you may not want to hear is one that truly wants what’s best for your organization.

Do they continue to be there for you?
Some software companies consider the engagement over once they’ve made the sale. Their helpline will be open if you have a problem, but your contact person there will have moved on to new targets as you struggle with implementation and the best way to utilize the software.

Find a vendor that plans to stick with your institution long after agreements have been signed. They should not only provide training to help facilitate a smooth transition to the new system, but they should remain accessible down the road. When a new software update becomes available or they release a new version of the system, they should proactively reach out and educate you on the new features — not try to sell you the latest development. Although you won’t know how those interactions will go until after you’ve made your purchase, it pays to evaluate the service you’re getting from your vendors at every stage of your engagement.

Finding a software vendor that you trust enough to consider a partner isn’t always easy. But by looking for some of the characteristics discussed above, you can identify the most trustworthy vendors. From there, you can start building a relationship that will pay dividends now and into the future.

Creating the Next Opportunity for Your Bank

Health, social, political and economic stressors around the world are bumping up business uncertainty for banks everywhere.

Some bankers may find a hunker-down posture fits the times. Others are taking a fresh look at opportunities to achieve their business objectives, albeit in a different-than-planned environment. What is your bank trying to accomplish right now? What are you uniquely positioned to achieve now that creates value for your institution, your shareholders and your customers?

The best opportunities on your bank’s list may be straightforward initiatives that may have been difficult to prioritize in a non-crisis environment. This can be a good time for banks to review their suppliers and vendors, their risk management, cybersecurity and compliance plans and protocols.

We’ve seen bank clients of ours with rock-solid foundations find themselves with the ability to leverage these times to pursue growth, to increase their technology offerings and explore niche markets, such as an all-digital delivery of banking services. These institutions are creating their own opportunities.

From straightforward to downright bold opportunities, BankOnIT and our client banks across the United States have observed that skillful execution requires one constant: a solid technology and systems foundation.

Here are a few examples of various objectives that we see our clients pursuing:

Embrace and Excel at Digital Banking
Digital banking, not to be confused with online banking, is more than a trend. Banks with user-friendly digital experiences are meeting the needs of millennials and Generation Z by offering activities that were once only accessible from the banking center. It removes geographical barriers and limitations of the traditional bank, such as operating hours and long lines.

Technological hurdles are grievances of both digital and traditional banks. The simple solution is unrestricted technology capabilities that improve reliability and increase security, especially when introducing features like artificial intelligence and digital banking.

A Growth Plan with The Ability To Compete
Customers’ expectations are shifting; banks need to be technologically nimble in response. With a high-growth plan in place, one BankOnIT client viewed outsourcing the network infrastructure to a partner with industry knowledge as the key to success. The result: opening four bank offices in seven months.

“We have all of the benefits of a large bank infrastructure, and all of the freedom that comes with that, without being a large bank,” said Kim Palmer, chief information officer at St. Louis Bank.

Partnering with Fintechs To Reach Niche Markets
The trick to accessing new markets will vary from bank to bank, but your strategy should start with the network infrastructure technology. This will be the foundation upon which all other technology in the institution is built upon. Cloud computing, for example, provides digital and traditional banks with resources needed to improve scalability, improve efficiency and achieve better results from all the other applications that rely upon the network foundation.   

Banks should look for partners that help them tailor their banking operations to benefit consumers who are conducting business in the virtual world. Technology at the forefront can keep business running smoothly during the global pandemic. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Mi Bank, for example, is able to accommodate customers during the pandemic, just like before.

“We can leverage technology to allow our customers to function as normal as possible,” said Tom Dorr, chief operating officer and CFO. “BankOnIT gives us the flexibility to function remotely without any disruption to our services. Our structure allows us to compete with the bigger institutions without sacrificing our personal service.”

Is your technology reliable, scalable, and capable of sustaining your goals post-pandemic?

A Solid Foundation
Take the opportunity to review your institution’s goals. How do they line up with the opportunities to act in the midst of this unplanned business environment? This may be your opportunity to build a solid technology, systems and compliance foundation. Or, this may be your time to seize the opportunities that are created from turning technology into a source of strength for your institution.

Three Steps to Mastering Digital Connection

Before the coronavirus crisis, I heard bank leaders talk about “becoming digital,” but less than 15% considered themselves digital transformation leaders.

The pandemic has pushed banks to close the digital experience gap. Executives must take a hard look at what their customers expect and what digital tools (and products) they need to weather this crisis.

Digital transformation can’t happen without mastering the art of digital connection, which requires both technology and authentic human connection. To do this, banks must harness the power of data, technology, and their people to create customers for life. Here are three steps to help your bank master the art of digital connection.

Maximize Customers Data to Transform the Experience
If a customer walked into a branch for a typical transaction, the teller would have immediate visibility into their entire relationship and recent interactions — and would be empowered to recommend additional, relevant bank products or services. They would feel known and well-served by your teller.

Your digital infrastructure should provide the same humanized experience through email, customer service and other interactions with your bank. But unorganized, siloed data causes problems and impedes creating this experience. To maximize your customers’ data, you’ll need to:

  • Consolidate your view of each customer.
  • Ensure that teams have access to a high-level view of customer data and activity, from marketing to customer service.
  • Group them by segments in order to deliver relevant information about products and services. This step requires a solid understanding of your customer, their financial needs and their goals.

Invest in Technology That Reaches Customers Today
To inform, educate and engage your customers during this time of transition, you need sophisticated, best-in-class banking technology. Many banks have already come to this conclusion and are looking for help modernizing their banking experience.

A key component in meeting your customers where they are is quite literal. While some of your customers are well-versed in online banking, others have exclusively used their branch for their financial needs. The information these two audiences will need during this transition will look different, based on their previous interactions. Compared to customers who are already familiar with digital banking, those who have never done it before will need more specific, useful instructions to help them navigate their financial options and a clear pathway to 1-on-1 assistance. This kind of segmentation requires modern marketing technology that works in tandem with banking and lending tools.

Amplify Human Connections to Build Trust
Many banks have trouble letting go of the branch experience; customers have had the same reservations. In an Accenture survey of financial services, 59% of customers said it was important to have a real person available to give in-person advice about more complex products.

Now that going into a branch is not an option, your bank must find a way to use technology to amplify the human connections between your customers and staff. Especially now, sending meaningful, humanized communications will position your bank as a trusted financial partner. To transform your digital experience, and keep people at the center of every interaction, you must:

  • Personalize your messages — beyond just putting a customer’s name in the salutation. Data allows emails to be very specific to segments or even individuals. Don’t send out generic emails that contain irrelevant product offers.
  • Humanize your customer experience. Communicate that you know who you’re talking to each time a customer picks up the phone or contacts your help line.
  • Support a seamless omnichannel experience. Provide customers with clear avenues to get advice from your staff, whether that’s by email, phone or text.

Investment in innovation comes from the top down. Your bank must buy into this opportunity to transform your customer experience from leadership to all lines of your business. The opportunity is here now; this shift toward digital interactions is here to stay.

There’s no longer a question of whether a fully digital banking experience is necessary. Banks must leverage modern technology and the human connections their customers know them for to improve their overall customer experience. Excellent customer experience comes from delivering value at every touchpoint. This is the new bar all banks must meet.

Helping Customers When They Need It Most

Orvin Kimbrough intimately understands the struggles shared by low-to-moderate income consumers. Raised in low-income communities and the foster care system, he also worked at the United Way of Greater St. Louis for over a decade before joining $2.1 billion Midwest BankCentre as CEO in January 2019. “[Poverty costs] more for working people,” he says. “It’s not just the financial cost; it’s the psychological cost of signing over … the one family asset you have to the pawn shop.”

His experiences led him to challenge his team to develop a payday loan alternative that wouldn’t trap people in a never-ending debt cycle. The interest rate ranges from 18.99% to 24.99%, based on the term, amount borrowed (from $100 to $1,000) and the applicant’s credit score. Rates for a payday loan, by comparison, range in the triple digits.

The application process isn’t overly high-tech, as applicants can apply online or over the phone. The St. Louis-based bank examines the customer’s credit score and income in making the loan decision; those with a credit score below 620 must enroll in a financial education class provided by the bank.

Industry research consistently finds that many Americans don’t have money saved for an emergency — a health crisis or home repair, for example. When these small personal crises occur, cash-strapped consumers have limited options. Few banks offer small-dollar loans, dissuaded by profitability and regulatory constraints following the 2008-09 financial crisis.

If the current recession deepens, more consumers could be looking for payday loan alternatives. Regulators recently encouraged financial institutions to offer these products, issuing interagency small-dollar lending principles in May that emphasize consumers’ ability to repay. 

Everybody needs to belong to a financial institution if you’re going to be financially healthy and achieve your financial aspirations,” says Ben Morales, CEO of QCash Financial, a lending platform that helps financial institutions automate the underwriting process for small-dollar loans.

QCash connects to a bank’s core systems to automate the lending process, using data-driven models to efficiently deliver small-dollar loans. The whole process takes “six clicks and 60 seconds, and nobody has to touch it,” Morales says. QCash uses the bank’s customer data to predict ability to repay and incorporates numerous factors — including cash-flow data — into the predictive models it developed with data scientists. It doesn’t pull credit reports.

Credit bureau data doesn’t provide a full picture of the customer, says Kelly Thompson Cochran, deputy director of FinRegLab and a former regulator with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Roughly a fifth of U.S. consumers lack credit history data, she says, which focuses on certain types of credit and expenses. The data is also a lagging indicator since it’s focused on the customer’s financial history.

In contrast, cash flow data can provide tremendous value to the underwriting process. “A transaction account is giving you both a sense of inflows and outflows, and the full spectrum of the kind of recurring expenses that a consumer has,” says Cochran.

U.S. Bancorp blends cash flow data with the applicant’s credit score to underwrite its “Simple Loan” — the only small-dollar loan offered by a major U.S. bank. The entire process occurs through the bank’s online or mobile channels, and takes just seven minutes, according to Mike Shepard, U.S. Bank’s senior vice president, consumer lending product and risk strategy. Applicants need to have a checking account with the bank for at least three months, with recurring deposits, so the bank can establish a relationship and understand the customer’s spending behavior.

“We know that our customers, at any point in time, could be facing short-term, cash-flow liquidity challenges,” says Shepard. U.S. Bank wanted to create a product that was simple to understand, with a clear pricing structure and guidelines. Customers can borrow in $100 increments, from $100 to $1,000, and pay a $6 fee for every $100 borrowed. U.S. Bank lowered the fee in March to better assist customers impacted by the pandemic; prior to that the fee ranged from $12 to $15.

Since the loan is a digital product, it’s convenient for the customer and efficient for the bank.

Ultimately, the Simple Loan places U.S. Bank at the center of its customers’ financial lives, says Shepard. By offering a responsible, transparent solution, customers “have a greater perception of U.S. Bank as a result of the fact that we were able to help them out in that time of need.”

Coronavirus Ushers Banks Into New Digital Banking Era

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced dramatic changes in the U.S. economy at a breakneck speed that seemed impossible only a few short months ago.

The banking industry has risen to the challenge, managing more than a million applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, modifying countless loan terms, deferring payments and redesigning the customer experience to minimize in-branch foot traffic — all while shifting a significant portion of operations to employees’ home offices.   

We are in uncharted territory. The business decisions your bank is making now impact your institution’s ability to meet customers where they are today, but also where they expect you to be in the future. The digital bridge you build for online account opening can help take you there.

Even before most of us learned the term “coronavirus,” few banks would have disagreed with the need to automate digital account opening and invest in systems to support the online customer experience. Your institution may have already identified this as a strategic objective for 2020. And even if you already offer the service, shutdowns and closures stemming from Covid-19 may have highlighted friction in the account opening experience that either previously lacked visibility or was considered acceptable for the limited number of customers who took advantage of it. With customers now primarily directed toward a digital channel, you should reconsider the metrics used to define a satisfactory user experience.

The right channel. Online account opening may have been one of several customer channels your bank offered, but it may not have been marketed as the primary or best channel — especially when compared to the high-touch experience of in-person banking. It’s become clear, though, that a digital model that complements, and works cohesively with, a branch model is necessary to meet customers where they are. The steps you take to cultivate online account opening as the right channel for your bank should also establish the hallmarks of a preferred user experience.

An end-to-end strategy. Do your customers need to visit a branch or make a phone call to complete application paperwork? Does your solution provide for safe digital identity verification? Does it support electronic signing? Are your account opening documents optimized for viewing on mobile devices? An online account opening strategy that does not consider these questions will likely reduce efficiency, resulting in a poor user experience that may cause customers to abandon the account opening process before completing it.

Continuing the relationship. Online service must be full service and seamlessly dovetail with your in-person customer model. Offering an online account opening experience that then requires a phone call or a branch trip to manage name or address changes is the sort of partial digital transformation that unnecessarily complicates customer service. Online account maintenance must have the option to be fully driven by customers as an embedded component of your online account experience. Fully embracing a well-conceived online strategy will include opportunities for marketing and cross-selling as part of the digital maintenance experience. If your bank cannot fully service customer needs remotely, they may seek institutions that better address their banking usability preferences.

Continuing the investment. Investment priorities for your organization have undoubtedly been revisited two, potentially three, times in the last few months. Use these opportunities to reevaluate your digital delivery model and the technology that supports it. Technology that speeds up identity verification processes and solutions that support the digital signing of mobile-optimized documents are critical components of your digital architecture that will reduce friction for your customers as they move through the online process.

You have already made vast changes to your operating model to meet the needs of your customers during very trying times. Now is the time to maximize your return on those changes and continue developing your digital strategy.

The Best Way To Increase Digital Deposits

Consumers have come to expect the ability to do banking — and a wide range of other activities — online. These expectations are only likely to grow with the Covid-19 pandemic.

While some banks have offered online services for some time, many others may be rethinking their strategy as they consider options that might help them grow market share beyond their traditional or geographically limited service areas. After all, digital banking has the potential to draw deposits and service loans from a broader pool of potential customers. As banks of all sizes contend with margin compression and increased competition, one of the easiest and most expeditious ways to cut costs is through the use of technology.

As banks work to increase deposits in an increasingly digital world, they have the opportunity to take different, sometimes divergent, approaches to connecting with audiences and compelling them to become customers. Two key strategies are:

  • Establishing a digital branch — a digital version of an existing branch
  • Launching an entirely new digital bank, with an entirely different look and feel from the existing brand

There is no right approach as long as banks are meeting customers’ digital needs. Each bank should pursue an approach that incorporates their brand, their core strategies and their target audiences. But small community banks don’t have to be hampered by the lack of big budgets or deep pockets when providing excellent experiences to their customers and fuel consistent growth, though. By leveraging truly optimized digital capabilities, community banks can grow faster and at a low cost.

Extending the Brand Name
There’s great value in brand loyalty. Many community banks have long-standing positive relationships; strong brand awareness and loyalty are firmly established within the communities they serve. When doubling down on offering online services, leveraging its existing brand name can help the bank establish immediate awareness and preference for its services.

Leveraging the existing brand name can be a less-costly undertaking, since new logos, branding platforms, key messages and marketing collateral don’t need to be established.

The potential downside? When reaching into new markets, an existing brand name may not have enough awareness to compete against the large, national, online brands. Fortunately, the online landscape offers even very small community banks the opportunity to build a very large footprint. To do that, some are launching new brands designed to reach an entirely new target audience.

Launching a New Online Brand
Reaching a new audience is one of the biggest benefits for banks that launch a new online brand. It also creates an opportunity to shift the bank’s image if the existing brand has not been strong or does not convey the modern, nimble image that tends to appeal to younger audiences.

The drawbacks, though, include the costs of creating a new brand, both in terms of time and money with no certainty or guarantee that the new brand will gain traction in the market. In addition, launching a new brand relinquishes any opportunity to leverage any existing brand equity. Operational planning and related costs may also be higher, given the likelihood that some positions and services will be duplicated between physical and online branches.

Still, community banks should carefully consider both options in light of their unique positioning, strategies and goals. While both approaches represent some level of risk, they also provide specific benefits that can be capitalized on to grow market share and revenue. We’ve worked with banks in both camps that have seen incredible growth and gained operational efficiencies well beyond their goals.

No matter the approach, when it comes to digital banking, it’s imperative to have clear objectives, buy-in from all stakeholders, focused resources to make it happen, and partners that can provide guidance and best-practices along the way.

Customer Experience: The Freedom to Experiment

NYMBUS.pngSurety Bank faces the same geographic limits to growth that other small community banks do. The $137 million bank operates four branches in Daytona Beach, Pierson, Lake Mary and DeLand, Florida, its headquarters. These are, at most, no more than 45 miles from one another.

But CEO Ryan James believes the bank can fuel deposit growth nationwide through the launch of a digital brand, booyah!, which targets college students and young graduates with fee-free deposit accounts. The bank’s relationship with its core is enabling him to make this bet.

Surety converted from a legacy core provider to the Nymbus SmartCore in 2018. It launched booyah! a year later using Nymbus SmartLaunch, a bank-in-a-box product designed to help banks quickly and inexpensively stand up a digital branch under an existing charter.

Nymbus SmartLaunch received the award for the Best Solution for Customer Experience at Bank Director’s 2020 Best of FinXTech Awards in May. Backbase, a digital banking provider, and Pinkaloo, a white-labeled charitable giving platform, were also finalists in the category. (Read more about how Pinkaloo worked with a Massachusetts community bank here.)

Bigger banks have reported mixed results from their efforts to establish digital brands. Wyomissing, Pennsylvania-based Customers Bancorp was one of the first to do so when it established its BankMobile division in 2015, targeting millennials. The $12 billion bank partnered with T-Mobile US three years later to offer accounts to the cell phone carrier’s 86 million customers. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed its digital bank, Finn, last year.

Growth costs money. Opening a freestanding branch can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $4.5 million, according to a 2019 Bancography survey. And unlike bigger banks, small institutions face significant obstacles in opening a separate digital brand to differentiate themselves nationwide — they don’t have capital to spend on experiments.

But if a small bank can establish a new digital brand at a reasonable cost, the experiment becomes more feasible.

“Why can’t you start a digital bank cheap?” says James. Surety’s legacy customers and booyah!’s new customers share the same user experience — SmartLaunch offers online applications for deposit and loan accounts, along with remote deposit capture, payment options, bill pay and debit card management. Bank customers can also set custom alerts and take advantage of personal financial management tools. Creating booyah! was really just a matter of adding a new logo and color scheme.

“It’s the same thing [we] already have,” he says. “Why does it have to be hundreds of millions of dollars in investments?”

That was the story from his old core provider, he says. But Nymbus didn’t leverage hefty fees to make booyah! a reality. What’s more, Surety isn’t locked into its experiment.

“What I love about them is you test, you pivot, and you do what makes sense” for your bank, James says. “You don’t have to give away years of your profits to try something new.”

Whether or not booyah! is a success, Nymbus provides Surety with the flexibility to quickly and easily spin up other brands that focus on specific customer segments, or shutter anything that doesn’t work, like Chase did with Finn.

If its digital brand works, Surety has a lot to gain. With the industry squeezed for profits in a prolonged low-rate environment, cheaply expanding its footprint to draw more deposits could help the bank maintain its high level of profitability in an increasingly challenging environment. The bank maintains a high return on equity (15.11% as of Dec. 31, 2019), return on assets (1.68%) and net interest margin (4.05%), according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

In a world populated with countless First National Banks, Farmers Banks and the like, booyah! certainly doesn’t sound like a typical bank. So, why booyah? Curious, I asked James. “Why not?” he replies. 

The name, frankly, isn’t the point.

Ultimately, Chase didn’t need Finn; it was already a nationwide bank with an established, well-recognized brand and millions of customers using its mobile app. But for Surety Bank, booyah! represents the potential to gain deposits outside its Florida footprint — without putting the bank’s bottom line at risk.

How Consolidation Changed Banking in Five Charts

Over the past 35 years, few secular trends have reshaped the U.S. banking industry more than consolidation. From over 18,000 banks in the mid-1980s, 5,300 remain today.

Consolidation has created some very large U.S. banks, including four that top $1 trillion in assets. The country’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., has $2.7 trillion in assets.

Historically, very large banks have been less profitable on performance metrics like return on average assets (ROAA) and return on average tangible common equity (ROTCE) than smaller banks. The standard theory is that banks benefit from economies of scale as they grow until they reach a certain size, at which point diseconomies of scale begin to drag down their performance.

This might be changing, according to interesting data offered Keefe, Bruyette & Woods CEO Thomas Michaud in the opening presentation at Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference. The rising profitability of large publicly traded banks and one of the underlying factors can be seen in five charts from Michaud’s presentation.

Profitability is High

Profitability
Banking has been highly profitable since the early 1990s — except, of course, for that big dip starting in 2006 when earnings nosedived during the financial crisis. The industry’s profitability reached a post-crisis high in the third quarter of 2018 when its ROAA hit 1.41%. Keep in mind, however, this chart looks at the entire industry and averages all 5,300 banks.

Banking 2016

Sweet Spot of Profitability
Banking is also highly differentiated by asset size: many very small institutions at the bottom of the stack,  four behemoths at the top. Michaud’s “sweet spot” in banking refers to a specific asset category that allows banks to maximize their profitability relative to other size categories. They have enough scale to be efficient but are still manageable enterprises. In 2016, this sweet spot was in the $5 billion to $10 billion asset category, where the banks’ pre-tax, pre-provision income was 2.32% of risk weighted assets.

Banking 2019

Sweet Spot Shifts
It’s a different story three years later. In 2019, the category of banks with $50 billion in assets and above captured the profitability sweet spot, with pre-tax, pre-provision income of 2.43% of risk weighted assets. What’s especially interesting about this shift is that, by my count, there are just 31 U.S. domiciled banks in this size category. (I excluded the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign banks, but included The Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley.) Of course, these 31 banks control an overwhelming percentage of the industry’s assets and deposits, so they wield disproportionate power to their actual numbers. But what I find most interesting is that as a group, the biggest banks are now the most profitable.

Big Banks

Big Bank Profitability
Even the behemoths have stepped up their game. You can see from the chart that KBW expects five of the six big banks — Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan, Wells Fargo & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — to post ROTCEs of 12% or better for 2019. And some, like JPMorgan and Bank of America, are expected to perform significantly better. KBW expects this trend to continue through 2021, for the most part. What’s behind this improved performance? Buying back stock is one explanation. For example, between 2017 and 2021, KBW expects Bank of America to have repurchased 27.6% of its outstanding stock at 2017 levels. But there is more to the story than that.

bank share

Taking Market Share
The 20 largest U.S. banks have aggressively grown their national deposit market share – a trend that seems to be accelerating. Beginning during the financial crisis in 2008, the top 20 began gaining market share at a faster rate than the rest of the industry. The differential continues to widen through at least the third quarter of last year. But the financial crisis ended over a decade ago, so a flight to safety can no longer explain this trend. Something else is clearly going on.

Consumers across the board are increasingly doing their banking through digital channels. Digital banking requires a significant investment in technology, and this is where the biggest banks have a clear advantage. Digital has essentially aggregated local deposit markets into a single national deposit market, and the largest banks’ ability to tap this market through technology gives them a significant competitive advantage that is beginning to drive their profitability.

Having too much scale was once a disadvantage in terms of performance — that may no longer be the case. Banking increasingly is becoming a technology-driven business and the ability to fund ambitious innovation programs is quickly becoming table stakes.