How Technology Blends Banking’s Future

After rapidly adjusting operations at the start of the pandemic and accelerating their digital transformation roadmaps, banks are left wondering: What happens next? And what did the acceleration mean for banks’ digital strategy?

Banks need to shift their mindsets from emergency response toward using digital technologies to boost their relevance to their customer’s lives. Blended banking will become the norm. Although Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, people have returned to shops, restaurants and theatres. Similarly, customers are returning to bank branches, but in lower volumes and for different reasons. The proliferation of digital banking means customers no longer need to visit a branch for a transaction. But many retail and business customers will still visit a branch to receive advice or to buy a financial product. And although most banking journeys start online, many are still completed in branch.

Banks must recognize this and provide a consistent customer experience across channels, with human support for digital interaction and digital tools that augment human interaction. In practice, this means empowering customers with an engaging digital experience that can continue in branch. Many banks already acknowledge this evolution: They are repurposing branches as advice centers, with less emphasis on over-the-counter transactions. In addition, banks can harness modern tech devices, like tablets, to support the in-person experience. But to truly elevate the customer experience and increase engagement, banks must also harness the power of data.

Advanced Analytics
For many banks, data and analytics have great untapped potential to drive the next wave of innovation to increase customer engagement. With a wealth of customer data at their disposal, banks can gain a deep understanding of customers behavior, goals and financial aspirations, and deliver personalized experiences in a way that was never before possible.

In practice, big life events have financial consequences — buying a car, getting married or having children — but the reality is that small transactions and spending habits can also provide valuable clues to a customer’s behavior. Careful use of data and analytics allows banks to help customers align their financial services closely with real-life events. They can also use data to help their customers gain a deeper understanding of their own financial standing, providing recommendations to optimize the use of cash. For example, a customer with surplus funds may be advised to pay down a mortgage or increase pension contributions rather the leave money on deposit.

Banks can also do more for commercial customers to evolve beyond transactional banking to helping them run their business more effectively. Once again, data and integration are key. Providing commercial customers with up-to-the-minute aggregated cash positions and forecasts gives them a deeper understanding of their cash use, liabilities and commitments. As banking becomes more open and connected, commercial banks can become the heart of an ecosystem with many participants. Banks must embrace modern technologies, boost automation and integration and ultimately adopt a fintech approach to finance.

A Fintech-First Approach to Finance
The pandemic has accelerated banking’s shift to a technology business. Banks that ignore this will be left behind. To attract and retain consumers and business customers, banks need to eliminate guesswork by harnessing technology and data and offering customers what they want, when they need it.

Banks have much to learn from big technology: Amazon.com generates around 35% of sales from recommendations, while 75% of what’s streamed on Netflix is because of its suggestion algorithm. In the digital age, consumers welcome recommendations, nudges and insights — and are usually happy for trusted suppliers to use their data to personalize their digital experience. Banks must adopt a more entrepreneurial approach to customer engagement.

Retail banking: For a long time, bankers have designed banking experiences based on customer journeys. Now is the time to support customer life journeys by proactively supporting customers throughout their entire lifecycle — from large, life-changing decisions as well as everyday spending and budgeting.

Commercial banking: Banks must acknowledge that millennials are more digital savvy and entrepreneurial than any previous generation. Many current retail customers will start businesses and become the commercial customers of tomorrow. Many will need financial advice, and all will need banking.

With fintechs and challenger banks growing in scope and number, now is the time for incumbent banks to act. The digital age is here to stay.

An Inside Look At One Bank’s Digital Growth Planning

By now, most bank leadership teams understand the importance of offering well-designed digital experiences. What we’ve found is often more elusive is knowing where to start when making a significant investment in digital.

One bank that recently grappled with this was Boston-based Berkshire Hill Bancorp, the $11.6 billion parent company of Berkshire Bank.

Executives wanted to digitally transform the bank and that success would only be achievable if they unified around a core set of goals and built a robust strategic plan for reaching them. This vision allowed teams to work toward individual milestones along the way.

We recently spoke with Lucia Bellomia, EVP and head of retail banking and CIO Jason White. They gave us an inside look at what went into developing the Berkshire BEST plan for transformation, and the factors they believe will lead to their successful digital growth.

The Berkshire leadership team started by recognizing that if the plan was going to truly transform the entire bank, they needed to gather input and feedback from every department. “Executives spoke to stakeholders in every department to what milestones the bank would need to hit and what it would take to achieve those goals”, says Bellomia. They also formed groups specifically to achieve some of the components of that milestone.

Involving this many additional stakeholders extended the strategic planning phase — In Berkshire’s case, it took three months of meetings. But White felt the time spent laying a foundation of transparency and open communication will help the bank execute and fulfill the objective of the transformation.

Without some clearly defined pillars outlining your main goals, the whole process of starting the institution’s digital plan can feel chaotic and messy. White suggests that banks first investigate what it means for their institution to digitally transform, and then define the core strategic pillars from there.

Berkshire’s three core pillars were: optimize, digitize and enhance. These pillars support efforts to improve the customer experience, deliver profitable growth, enhance stakeholder value, and strengthen their community impact. Taking the time to first define core pillars that support a larger strategic plan helped Berkshire Bank recognize even greater opportunities. Rather than simply adding new digital services to their banking stack, they realized they could facilitate the evolution of their entire bank.

With the plan announced and in place, Berkshire launched into the execution phase of its transformation. Here, they were met with new challenges that required thoughtful commitments from leadership and investments in project infrastructure. One impactful early investment was developing a transformation office that was responsible for measuring, monitoring and communicating the success of the plan. Executives and sponsors worked with the office to define both date and monetary milestones.

A dedicated internal resource focused on project management helped Berkshire communicate the progress made toward each milestone through regular meetings, tracked and updated key performance indicators, and other updates.

Equally important to the success of Berkshire’s transformation plan was its commitment to scrutinizing each investment and vendor to ensure the right fit and an acceptable return on investment for the bank. The bank is a “low-code” development team with limited resources and used achievable digital goals to identify and select vendors to digitize, according to the bank’s plan.

As part of its transformation plan, the bank extended its existing fintech relationship to include digital banking platforms for consumer and small business customers. This allows the bank to innovate and digitize at an accelerated pace, without having to grow internal developer resources.

Ultimately, institutions like Berkshire Bank are realizing that developing a successful plan for digital transformation that works for both internal stakeholders and customers requires a rethinking of the way executive teams gather feedback, address challenges across departments, and monitor the success of a project.

Preventing the 3 ROI Killers in Digital Transformation From the Start

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

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

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

The three most common ROI killers in digital transformation are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FinXTech’s Need to Know: Direct Deposits

For many banks, direct deposit information is the key that turns a new account into a long-term successful primary relationship.

Direct deposit is a conduit to a customer’s life — and their information. Customers tend to use the account that receives their income; accounts without these recurring deposits risk sitting idly.

However, most customers don’t actively think about their direct deposit account. It’s not table stakes after they open the account; it doesn’t make or break their banking experience. But for banks, it’s crucial they get customers to switch. Research from Harland Clarke and Javelin Strategy & Research in 2017 found that 81% of bank customers who received a paycheck used direct deposit; of those customers, 91% used only one financial institution for it.

Banks with technology that makes it easier for customers to switch their direct deposit over when opening a new account have an edge in the fight for primacy.

Some of the financial technology companies that offer this type of solution — Atomic FI, Argyle, Pinwheel and ClickSWITCH, among others — can embed it directly into a bank’s digital banking interface. Customers have a self-servicing option, and bankers can use the tool on the back end. And, when opening a new bank account, it can automatically prompt customers to switch over their direct deposit as part of the account setup.

There is room for banks to improve in this area. Harland Clarke and Javelin also noted that out of those that opened a checking account between 2016 and 2017, only 70% recalled being asked to switch over their direct deposit enrollment.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) facilitate the actual switching of accounts. The APIs, which function as passageways between software systems that enable data exchanges, can also be used to verify income and employment data, which can help the bank identify other products the customer might qualify for.

In addition, some fintechs also offer a service called “paycheck linked lending,” which allows bank customers to pay their loans directly from their paycheck before it’s deposited into their account.

Newer digital startup banks — or neobanks — may have these types of tools built into their infrastructure. But for many smaller or community banks, the act of switching direct deposits is still a highly manual task that falls primarily on the customers, which could deter them from making the switch.

Here are five benefits a bank could experience by implementing a direct deposit switching tool:

  1. Capture more customer data. As customers switch their direct deposit, banks have an opportunity to collect more income and employment data to use in marketing campaigns and fraud detection.
  2. Automate manual tasks for both the customer and bank. APIs handle the account switch once the customer gives them permission to do so.
  3. Cater to customers in the gig economy workforce. Customers can switch one or multiple direct deposits to your bank, or split their paychecks to go to multiple accounts.
  4. Cut the time it takes to switch direct deposit accounts. APIs can conduct changes and verify data in real time — no paper forms involved. Atomic FI claims that its switches can take effect within a customer’s current or next pay cycle.
  5. Create stickier relationships with new and existing customers. Capturing direct deposits jumpstarts account activity and longevity with customers. If a customer considers your bank their primary financial institution, they may be more likely to turn to the bank for other services.

Q2 Software, the digital banking provider that acquired ClickSWITCH in April 2021, has an online ROI calculator to demonstrate the potential growth banks could see in adding a direct deposit switching tool.

It’s never been easier to open a new bank account. But newly opened accounts don’t promise a source of activity and recurring deposits. If your bank has never incorporated direct deposit as a key step in the customer acquisition process, now may be the time to reconsider.

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

Connecting With Today’s Digital Customer

Consumer preferences have shifted to digital for several years, with younger customers — millennials and Gen Z — increasingly seeking an emotional connection with their financial provider. That makes it increasingly important to align your services and values with niche, target groups, according to Liz High, executive vice president at Nymbus Labs. In this video, she shares how to build and execute an affinity banking strategy.

  • Today’s Consumer Preferences
  • Reaching Your Target Customer
  • Being Nimble and Responsive to Change

For more information, access Bank Director’s FinXTech Intelligence Report, Digital Banking: Profit and Purpose, sponsored by Nymbus.

The Road Ahead for Digital Banking

DigitalBanking.pngThe largest bank in the United States, the $3.4 trillion global behemoth known as JPMorgan Chase & Co., hesitated to put a retail bank in the crowded and competitive United Kingdom in the past.

That changed in 2021. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon announced a digital retail bank with headquarters in London and a customer center in Edinburgh. But no branches.

International expansion was cost-prohibitive in the past, Dimon admitted, but the economics of banking have changed. Even the biggest U.S. banks, which haven’t abandoned branches, know that.

“What we always said is we’re not going to do retail overseas … I can open 100 branches in Mumbai or 100 branches in the U.K., and there’s no chance I’d gain enough share to make up for the additional overhead,” he said at a Morgan Stanley conference in June of 2021. “Digital changes that.”

This shifting landscape means digital platforms hold a lot of promise for banks seeking to grow profitably. This report, sponsored by Nymbus Labs, will focus on these business models, return on investment and elements of success of digital-first banks and banking platforms.

Of course, terms such as neobank, challenger bank and digital bank get thrown around a lot these days. Some of the newcomers are chartered and regulated banks. Others are offshoots of a bank. Most are financial technology companies that rely on banks to access payment rails, compliance programs or deposit insurance. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them digital banks. Whether they are banks or just call themselves a bank, we’ll include them in this report. The goal is to reveal how they are changing the banking marketplace.

To learn more, download our FinXTech Intelligence Report, Digital Banking: Profit and Purpose.

How Community Banks Compete on Digital Account Openings

In 2019, over half of all checking accounts were opened via digital channels. In 2020, this number rose to two-thirds.

In 2019, megabanks and digital banks were responsible for 55% all checking applications. In the first three months of 2020, this figure reached 63% — and climbed to 69% in the next three months.

Meanwhile, community banks and credit unions accounted for 15% of applications in 2019, and even fewer than that in the six months of 2020. What’s happening here?

It’s a trend: More accounts are being opened online. But digital account openings are only one piece of a steady shift in the financial services industry, one where consumers do more over online and mobile channels. Megabanks and digital banks are riding this wave, using powerful online offerings to draw consumers away from smaller institutions.

Moneycenter banks have strong digital operations that allow them to expand into communities where they may not have a single branch. Digital offerings have also opened the door for new players like online-only challenger banks, big tech companies and fintechs that are successfully luring in younger customers with payments, investing and even cryptocurrency services. Make no mistake: if community banks aren’t already in direct competition with these digital players now, it’s only a matter of time before they are.

Who Are The New Players?

In the past, community banks’ primary competitors were primarily each another or a nearby regional bank. Today, technology is redefining what it means to be a financial institution, and thereby reshaping the competitive landscape.

Big tech heavyweights like Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, Apple, and Amazon.com have become increasingly involved in financial services in recent years. Their efforts are growing in scope: Google, for example, launching Google Plex, which includes a checking account. Most likely, these firms believe that over time, their expertise in the areas of data and software development will yield a natural advantage over incumbent financial institutions.

Online-only startup banks (also known as challenger banks or neobanks) like Chime and Varo Money are also proving to be a legitimate concern. While Varo’s strategy included obtaining a full-fledged banking charter, which it received in July 2020, Chime relies on partner banks to manage their deposits. And just because they’re startups, doesn’t mean they’re small; Chime boasted 12 million users as of the end of 2020 — 4.3 million of whom identified it as their primary bank.

How Community Banks Compete

As the marketplace evolves, so do consumer expectations. With Amazon and other on-demand services at their fingertips, consumers have become accustomed to digital experiences that are fast, seamless, and personalized.

To compete with megabanks, tech companies and challenger banks for digitally-savvy customers, it’s essential that community banks consider the following strategies:

Invest in speed and reliability
Digital banking solutions need to be fast and reliable to satisfy the high standards that consumers have come to expect. This means efficient processes, minimal to no downtime and speedy customer service. Technology that integrates with your core in real time is key to accelerating customer onboarding and boosting overall user experience.

Play to key strengths
Community banks should lean into the areas where they shine by catering to customers’ personalized needs. Banks should also position their products according to market demand and digital best practices, and configure them for strong customer experience and institutional outcomes.

Seek out the right technology partners
The difference between a good and bad technology partnership is significant; banks often end up disappointed with the performance of a digital solution. To avoid this, it’s important to extensively reference-check technology providers and inquire about the actual delivered (and not theoretical) return on investment of a solution.

Building a Digital Transformation Strategy

As digital banking becomes the norm, it has prompted a massive shift in the competitive landscape. Yet with the daunting task of digital transformation ahead of them, what’s the best place for community banks to start?

One impactful area to focus on is digital account opening. In fact, 42% of banks and 35% of credit unions say they are very interested in fintech partnerships that prioritize digital account opening solutions. Partnering with an account opening provider can help small and mid-size financial institutions position themselves favorably as consumers continue to adopt digital banking.

How an Online-Only Bank Powers Its Platform

If Radius Bank was going to succeed as a digital-only bank, it needed to offer customers an incredible digital experience.

By 2016, the Boston-based bank had closed most of its branches to focus solely on digital channels — a strategy that hinged on offering consumers and small business customers a superior experience without needing physical locations to resolve problems or open new accounts. Part of a suite of financial technology partners that powered this strategy was Narmi, a digital banking platform provider. Radius found success with its strategy, so much so that it became a natural acquisition for another online lender: In February 2021, LendingClub Corp., a San Francisco-based marketplace lender, closed its acquisition of Radius Bank and renamed the company LendingClub Bank.

Radius has been a long-time adopter of Narmi’s platform, and success stories like theirs helped Narmi secure the top spot in both the customer experience category and as the “Best of Connect” — the best overall among the category winners — in Bank Director’s 2021 Best of FinXTech Awards. Finalists included NCR’s open-technology-based Digital Banking Platform and Velocity Solutions’ Account Revenue Solution, which offers customers rewards to increase engagement. You can read more about Bank Director’s award methodology and judging panel here.

Radius partnered with Narmi about three years ago to refresh its online and mobile platforms, says Mike Butler, the former CEO of Radius Bancorp. Narmi offered “a drastic change” in the look, feel and functionality of the consumer banking platform. The platform also helps banks reduce both fraudulent account openings and account opening abandonment.

“Three years ago, if you visited the site, you’d see a traditional bank. Today, you’d see a more user-friendly experience,” he says. “[Narmi is] more than just technology people who say, ‘Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.’ From a fintech perspective, they give us their views of how they think the customer experience should operate. It’s like an added management team to us.”

Change can be jarring to customers used to the previous layout of a site. Butler acknowledges some initial dips in the bank’s net promoter score, which it uses to measure the platform’s success via the willingness of a customer to recommend the product. But Radius Bank’s score rebounded to above 50 within three months — a level that is considered to be “very good” for a bank, he says.

The platform features a “marketplace” where Radius introduces clients and customers to other products and services outside of banking that can improve their financial health. The implementation went so well, and subsequent customer reaction was so positive, that Radius decided to use Narmi again to launch a small business digital banking platform in 2020 — a product launch that helped the bank address a segment under intense pressure because of the coronavirus pandemic, and whose needs are often left out of bank offerings. Butler says Narmi was able to meet the bank’s implementation deadlines, clearly communicating the work required to make adjustments, and laying out options and alternatives in cases where the bank risked missing its timeline.

“Having our small business launch in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic was a big boost to our small business clients,” Butler says. “We’ve had a huge uptick in our acquisitions of small business clients — you have to throw Narmi into the mix of reasons why.”

How Digital Channels Can Complement Physical Branches

With the rise of digital services and changing customer habits during Covid-19, the future of brick-and-mortar banking may seem in doubt.

Looking ahead, physical bank branches remain crucial for any community bank’s outreach and distribution strategy, but their use and purpose will continue to evolve. Digital acceleration is an opportunity for community banks to reshape the in-person banking environment. Incorporating the digital channel allows banks to offer more comprehensive, customer-focused experiences that complement their brick-and-mortar branches.

Physical Banks Remain a Valuable Asset
Digital banking is a critical way for community banks to provide excellent service. Integrating best-in-class online services allows financial institutions of all sizes to compete against larger banks that may be slower to innovate. Digital branch tools can bring greater accessibility and convenience for customers, a larger customer base and enhanced automation opportunities.

While many customers are excited by digital tools, not every demographic will adapt right away. Customers of all ages may lack confidence in their own abilities and prefer to talk to someone in person. These visits can be a prime opportunity for staff to educate customers on how to engage with their digital platforms.

In-person banking is an opportunity for banks to offer above-and-beyond customer service, especially for more complex services that are difficult to replicate digitally. An in-person conversation can make all the difference when it comes to major financial decisions, such as taking out a mortgage or other loans. Customers may start out with remote tools, then visit a branch for more in-depth planning.

How One Community Bank Is Evolving
Flushing Bank in Uniondale, New York, is using digital account opening software to accelerate growth. The $8 billion bank’s mobile and online banking capabilities went live in March 2020 — the timing of which allowed the bank to more easily serve customers remotely. Digital deposit account openings comprised 19% of Flushing’s customer growth between April and June.

Implementing digital account opening expanded Flushing Bank’s geographic footprint. The online account opening software allowed the existing branches to become more efficient and have a wider reach within the surrounding community, servicing more customers without building new branches.

At the same time, in-person branches and staff remain irreplaceable for Flushing Bank. The bank is leveraging digital tools as more than just an online solution: New technology includes appointment booking, improved phone services and enhance ATM video capabilities, creating a digital experience that is safe, convenient and delightful.

Transforming Brick-and-Mortar Banking for the Future
Digital tools allow more transactions to occur remotely, which may lessen in-person branch traffic while expanding the institution’s geographic reach. Banks can focus on the transactions that do occur in person, and ensure that digital tools improve customer service in branches.

A report from Celent and Reflexis surveying banks on their current strategies noted how more institutions could use digital tools for maximum effect. Just as digital channels offer comprehensive data analysis capabilities, banks can more effectively track each customer’s in-person journey as well. One starting point is to determine why customers visit physical locations — in one case, a bank learned many customers come in looking for a notary and will quickly leave if one is not available.

The report suggests that digital tools can automate their staff’s workflow, ultimately contributing to an improved customer experience. For instance, only a third of surveyed banks offer digital appointment booking, a service that can create a more efficient experience for both customers and staff. Or, banks could onboard customers with account opening software on tablets at physical branches. These tablets are often easier for customers to understand, lower the burden on staff, and help prevent fraud with thorough identity validation.

Community banks have an opportunity during this transitional time to develop a digital strategy that complements their physical branches. A comprehensive plan includes best-in-class digital tools for remote transactions while bringing new digital capabilities to brick-and-mortar locations to ensure the highest-quality customer service.