Business Banking’s Digital Transformation Pain Points

Digital bank transformation often comes with some fairly common pain points. For most banks, these can be distilled down to issues of speed, transparency and unification of systems.

Successfully addressing these issues starts at the strategy level. The industry’s rapid pace of change means banks should look further than just their usual 1 to 5-year outlooks. Institutions must focus on several key steps to craft the best strategy, approach and outcome. This ties back to fundamental questions: Where do we make our money? Where do we see our future growth? Where are we headed as an organization? It allows banks to gain a better understanding of their needs and ensure they are on the best path. And it often means taking a step back before proceeding.

Phase Zero
Creating the best plan requires perspective. This “Phase Zero” is critical for ensuring any project begins, and stays, on the right trajectory. In addition to curbing spending waste, it can greatly eliminate “shiny object syndrome” that plagues organizations during these projects. During this step, organizations should run front-end surveys to shed light on the possible outcomes, including some that may not have been considered prior to embarking on the digital journey.

A pitfall for many banks is taking a tech-first approach for these projects; the tech tends to become both the problem and solution for every issue. While technology is important, people are critical. People can be resistant to change, so approaching projects with a people-first viewpoint before beginning can preemptively turn a project’s nay-sayers into its biggest advocates. Conducting workshops or focus groups ahead of any project not only allows team members to become more comfortable with the changes, it can provide valuable input on their concerns.

Banking is a compliance-driven industry; many bankers struggle with the innovation mindset, even as regulators often push for new, more efficient processes. But the current interest environment has put fee income at a premium and competition for small business accounts continues to grow. The question for many banks is how to leverage what they already have to push further, while aiming for better efficiency at the same time.

Speed and Transparency
While the consumer bank side has made good strides when it comes to digital transformation, commercial and business banking have remained somewhat neglected. For these accounts, it often comes down to two main concerns: speed and transparency.

Successful digital transformation projects can involve a lot of trial and error. It is here that banks should learn a lesson from the tech world: be agile, fail fast, move on. Moving to a more agile mindset can result in outcomes perhaps once considered impossible. Banks must maintain compliance even as they push and innovate, and this requires speed.

Banks understand the need and benefits of making things easier for their customers, but the employee experience is equally as important. Tools and technology that allow employees to do their jobs faster and more efficiently means less time needed to help customers. It also means they can spend their time focused on other tasks, like new business.

Unification of Processes and Systems
Typically, there are multiple systems across a digital transformation project that must communicate. Conveying data between these systems can consume time and resources better spent on more strategic elements. For a commercial lender, answering calls on the status of a loan or opening a new account can require numerous queries and manual processes. While commercial loans may not have the compliance issues of consumer lending, the desired outcome is the same. It is about decision speed, convenience and transparency to the customer, and also for the team member working with the customer.

With so many disparate systems in a typical commercial lending process, this is often the biggest pain point for banks seeking a true 360° view of their business clients. Not only is it inefficient and makes tracking the process a challenge, it also makes it difficult to know where the data is located. Does that view include not only the loan process, but the treasury, deposits and personal accounts of the business owner? Is the bank even collecting this information? With so many different systems involved for a single commercial loan mapping, it is vital that banks bring that information into a transparent view that is easy to read and understand.

It is crucial that banks solve these specific points to grow their margin and fend off the competition. Both traditional and non-traditional competitors are growing, becoming a looming challenge on the commercial side. While client relationships are still very important, tech-enabled relationships are the future of the industry. Technology is the enabler, rather than a driver. Those banks that can thoughtfully, effectively innovate in these areas will be much better able to help their customers and thus, better positioned for success.

Community Banks and the Adoption of Real-Time Payments

The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reshaped how community banks approach digital transformation.

This is largely in response to the shift in fundamental consumer behaviors and new technology, as Americans adapted to the realities of the pandemic. According to a report from Mojo, 44% of consumers who wait to adopt new technology have shifted to an “early adopter” stance. Additionally, 41% of “later adopters” stated they were likely to adopt new technology at a faster pace, even after the pandemic subsides.

Digital innovation is no longer an option for banks. Financial institutions must evaluate their digital products against consumer expectations. Leading the list of customer demands is access to more convenient and immediate payments. The pandemic’s remoteness made receiving and making immediate payments a necessity, accelerating the movement to real-time payments (RTP).

RTP are not a new concept; many countries have transitioned from paper-based payments and directly to real time. The U.S. has successfully worked with electronic payments, but is now behind in the global shift to real time. The Clearing House launched RTP in 2017; it experienced slow but steady growth initially but has been propelled by the pandemic more recently.

Addressing the growing need for immediate payments, the Federal Reserve announced plans for FedNow to streamline the clearing and settlement process. FedNow will enable customers to move funds instantly between accounts, pay bills and transfer between family and friends. Though FedNow garnered strong support from banks, it is not expected to launch until 2023 at the earliest.

No Time to Wait
Financial institutions are finding it difficult to wait for FedNow. Although vaccinations have blunted most of the impacts from the pandemic, the changes in consumer habits engendered by the pandemic persist — including demand for innovation in real-time payments. Consumers looked to technology for shopping, entertainment, paying bills and banking in general. A recent PYMNTS survey found that 24% of consumers would switch to financial institutions that offered RTP capabilities. It’s critical that banks recognize and react to this paradigm shift in payment by prioritizing RTP solutions.

Popular P2P payments apps like Venmo, PayPal Holdings, and other solutions from big tech companies underline that consumers are willing to adopt new technologies to meet a need. Now, these firms are offering credit cards, loans and even demand deposit accounts. (I even received an invitation to open a checking account from my cell phone company!) This should be a wake-up call to banks. In the same PYMNTS survey, researchers found 35% of consumers consider access to real-time payments as “extremely” important. These survey results reflect a growing trend and reality that financial institutions must recognize and address.

The race is now on to compete with non-traditional providers and megabanks to attract and retain tech-interested customers. Real-time payments are where consumers and businesses are headed. Financial institutions need to be fully engaged to connect to RTP or FedNow.

This is not an easy path for financial institutions that are used to making project decisions based on calculating the return on investment of the project alone. Strategic technology initiatives should be evaluated broadly, including the cost of doing business in banking. Large financial institutions have already moved forward to deliver top-notch digital services and experiences. To level the playing field, smaller institutions should look to technology savvy leaders and fintech partners to help deliver innovative solutions. Unheralded sources for fintech solutions are the bankers’ banks, which play a vital role for technology and as funding agents in RTP/FedNow and are offering innovative solutions to help community banks connect to real-time payments.

Changes in customer behavior and heightened demand for immediate payments driven by Covid-19 are here to stay; adoption of RTP will only continue to grow. In just the last year, real-time payments in the United States grew 69% year-over-year, according to Deloitte.

To act now, financial institutions should consider fintech partnerships to remain relevant in a dynamic financial and regulatory landscape. Financial institutions that tap into technology companies’ speed to market and access to a broader audience can approach RTP as a competitive advantage that distinguishes them in their local markets and attract new customers. Those taking a “wait and see approach” are already behind.

How to Modernize Your Payments Strategy

2020 induced widespread digital transformation in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In payments, we saw the rise of options for contactless payments, digital wallets, P2P transfers and more. The challenge for banks was that consumers often did not have to go through their bank to use any of these solutions.

The developments in the payment space over the past year make one thing clear: Banks should keep up with the newest available consumer technology to retain and attract customers, and modernize their digital payments strategy for future success as well.

Consumer demand remains strong, and the experience companies provide matters more than ever. After leaning so heavily on digital solutions for the past year and a half, they expect everything to be easy and instant. It is now relatively easy to find payment apps that provide real-time payments, P2P, bill pay and more. Banks that don’t offer similar solutions runs the risk of losing market share to non-banks that do.

Customers are weighing their banking experience against their experience with fintech apps as well as  any other experience they have when shopping online, ordering food or taking a rideshare. Any good customer experience — no matter the industry — is one that the bank must now measure up to.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, for example. While not every financial institution is using AI and machine learning today, retailers like Amazon.com use AI and machine learning to predict consumer behavior, knowing what they need and when they will need it. They estimate when consumers will repurchase a product or try something new. A bank that is not doing the same is falling behind in providing the experiences that many consumers are growing accustomed to.

Where to Start?
By leveraging technologies like AI and machine learning, banks can use the tremendous wealth of customer data at their disposal to provide a more personalized experience. This is a tremendous advantage over non-bank competitors that do not have access to the same consumer information. It can seem like a challenge to effectively put customer data to use, but there are a few steps banks should take to make the change a successful one.

First, a bank must set clear goals for what it wants to achieve when updating its payment platform or adding a technology like AI and machine learning. For most, the goal will be to provide a better experience, but it is helpful to dig even deeper than that. Ask: Do we want better customer satisfaction? More engagement with the platform? More bill pay users? More account-to-account (A2A) transactions? More P2P transactions? Be as specific as possible with goals, as these form the roadmap for the remainder of the process.

Once goals are set, find the partner that can help achieve those goals. Look for a partner that shares the bank’s vision for payments and has the right skill sets and capabilities to achieve those goals. Finding the right vendor partner will ensure the bank is successful in the end.

Clear goals and a like-minded vendor ensure that the tech a bank uses can help meet its goals. Just as Amazon uses AI and machine learning to predict a consumers’ purchases or recommend a product, banks can predict customers’ payment habits or make proactive payment recommendations to manage their financial health. The use cases of AI and machine learning are versatile, and can serve many different purposes to help banks reach their unique goals.

Finally, do not lose sight of the future. It is easy for banks to get concerned with what will make them successful now, but keep looking ahead. Work with your vendor to think about where both the industry and your bank are going. Be sure to choose solutions that can grow and change with the bank and its customers for years to come, rather than focusing too heavily on the here and now.

Change can be intimidating, but following the right steps to implement a tool like AI will ensure success by creating a better customer experience. Revitalizing your bank’s digital payment strategy is a process, but done right, the stronger digital relationships you build with your customers will be worth it.

Principles to Drive Digital Banking Transformation

In the earliest moments just after midnight on January 1 each year, millions of people worldwide establish resolutions. While I won’t bore you with my resolution for 2020, I will admit that it was not to spend 11 months of the succeeding year working from a makeshift office in my bedroom or making sure my 6-year-old son was always adorned with a mask for any non-familial human interaction. Suffice to say, last year provided us all with unsuspected challenges and learning opportunities — banks squarely included.

The most impactful learning for banks wasn’t a novel way of connecting borrowers with capital or a new method of taking deposits. In fact, it wasn’t a lesson learned by banks at all, but instead by their customers. While banks have seen foot traffic into the branches decrease at a predictably steady rate, watched ATM transactions hold strong and cheered the increasing usage of online banking, every new medium they introduced to serve clients inevitably became an “and” versus an “or.” Allow me to explain: When ATMs made their way onto the scene in the 1970s, bank customers didn’t stop walking into branches. They leveraged both channels. Same for interactive voice response (IVR), digital banking and mobile banking.

The pandemic changed that. For the first time, it forced banks to close their doors; customers had to stop straddling the line between the branch and digital realms. The choice had finally been made for them. In 2020, customers learned that they can truly have a digital-only relationship with their bank.

Now, more than ever, the crunch is on for banks. Digital banking trends are consistently increasing and the competition is coming in from all sides. Between the moneycenter national banks, a seemingly endless wave of fintechs like Chime and Revolut, and the ever-looming threat of technology firms like Alphabet’s Google and Amazon.com jumping into the mix, how can banks compete? It’s time for a digital transformation.

Where to begin?
There are a number of paths to success in a digital transformation — and an untold figure that lead to failure. Whether your bank starts with the core and works its way out to the digital banking service, or vice versa,– there are a few driving principles to keep in mind.

  1. The cloud provides unparalleled economies of scale. If your bank isn’t taking advantage of a cloud-based solution to realize both the economic benefits and the cutting-edge innovation made available by the hyperscalers (architecture built to scale appropriately as demand fluctuates throughout the day), your institution risks falling further behind.
  2. Data is a bank’s most valuable asset. Unfortunately, it is also the most underutilized. A digitally transformed bank will replace the personal connection of the branch visits by being contextually relevant at the exact right moment, with the proper actionable message to each individual client. Even if they never quite get there, this is the oasis in the desert of commoditized banking relationships and should be every digital transformation journey’s North Star.
  3. Determine how much of the digital banking experience you want to own, really. Many banks strive to create a unique digital experience for their clients, but that uniqueness comes at a mighty expense in both time and money for the duration of its existence. The importance of choosing the technology partner that aligns most closely with your bank’s desired balance of technical prowess and partnered innovation can’t be overstated.
  4. Look for opportunities to leverage your institution’s banking APIs to extend its reach beyond traditional domains. Through initiatives like embedded banking, banks are able to establish mutually beneficial partnerships to empower non-banking services and leverage the functionality of their bank partner. Embedded banking is a growing way for banking services to be integrated into traditionally non-bank websites and mobile applications, like Shopify’s business account offering as part of their seller services. Embedded banking opens the door to perform simple tasks like view account balances, make payments or even originate new deposits and loans.

Even just 10 years ago, these options weren’t available to most institutions. That’s no longer the case. Banks no longer have to resign themselves to providing a mediocre, commoditized digital experience — in fact, it’s the last thing they can afford to do. While the pandemic taught us many things, the most pressing lesson for banks is that the time for a digital transformation is now.

How Banks Can Beat Big Tech at Its Own Game

For the last decade, headline after headline has predicted the demise of banks at the hands of the tech giants. Why? One word: data.

Finance is — and always has been — a data-dependent business. Providing a commercial loan relies on knowing how likely the would-be borrower is to default, a rudimentary data-processing task that is exactly the expertise that Big Tech has. These companies, which include Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, can generate and leverage large-scale, granular and real-time data on their users, and have used this to build the largest and most valuable businesses in the world.

By comparison, many banks still don’t fully appreciate the value of their data, and have yet to generate meaningful financial returns from it. This is because most of their data is siloed and sprawled throughout the organization across customer onboarding, marketing, financial crime and fraud and credit risk. Instead of being regarded as a valuable commodity, data is seen as a potential temptation for hackers and a cost that needs to be managed.

If banks can learn to leverage their data like these technology giants — embracing digital transformation to lend faster, smarter and more to businesses — they can beat Big Tech at its own game. Unlike Big Tech, banks have long-worked in regulated environments that require all participants to follow the same rules. As a result, they figured out how to work collaboratively with regulators at speed and at scale, and established robust processes and governance around areas such as data ethics and privacy. This has helped build consumer trust and burnished relationships.

This proved to be a powerful combination over the last 15 months as Covid-19 forced states and businesses to temporarily shut down. The government turned to banks, not Big Tech, to help support businesses, via initiatives such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the Main Street Lending Program.

West Reading, Pennsylvania-based Customers Bancorp rose to this challenge and leveraged OakNorth’s ON Credit Intelligence Suite to identify which industries in its portfolio were more stressed and which metrics it should use to determine risk profiles. Data helps banks such as Customers identify overlooked market sectors and business types that are good credits, but could be difficult for lenders to take on without the data or analytics to make an informed decision. Embracing technology to leverage data effectively allowed Customers Bancorp to provide over 100,000 loans and become the sixth-most active PPP lender in the US – a substantial feat for a bank with $18.8 billion in assets.

Regulatory know-how, proprietary data sources and specialized services offer ways for banks to compete with — or indeed, collaborate — with Big Tech. This has been demonstrated through partnerships such as Goldman Sachs Group and Apple, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Amazon. Leveraging data and digital transformation will empower banks to discover gaps in the market and even attract borrowers which Big Tech is unable to. After all, not every business will be keen on the idea of borrowing from the same company that helps them share goofy photos with their friends.

Tailor Innovation With Fintech, Bank Collaborations

The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way that community banks think about their digital products and the expectations that consumers have for them. Digital transformation is no longer an option – it is a necessity.

In fact, 52% of consumers have used their financial institution’s digital banking services more since the start of the pandemic, according to BAI Banking Outlook. However, the research also found that only 61% of consumers feel their community bank understands their digital needs, compared to that 89% of direct bank consumers and 77% of large bank consumers.

As customers’ ever-growing expectations are not being met, banking teams are also concerned that their digital tools may be missing the mark. For many, the investments into digital solutions and tools are not having as wide as an impact as expected; on occasion, they do not hold any true benefit to their current and prospective account holders.

In addition, many community banks find themselves innovating for the sake of innovating, rather than solving real problems that exist within their target market. The communities that these banks serve are distinctive and can present unique challenges and opportunities, unlike those as little as a state away. Community banks must consider practical, powerful digital tools that benefit their one-of-a-kind customer base.

Rather than a product-driven approach to development, community banks must look to the niche needs within the market to discover areas to innovate. Identifying obstacles in the financial lives of existing customers and prospects ensures that community banks are working to solve a problem that will alleviate pain points for accountholders. But, with limited time and resources, how can this be accomplished?

Fintech-Bank Partnerships
Community banks can attract new customers, expand existing relationships and improve customer experience within the specific communities that they serve by implementing fintech solutions that are  specialized to the individual market or demographic.

It makes sense. Fintech-bank partnerships can pair a bank’s distinct market opportunities with technology that can effectively unlock niche verticals. We collaborated with five community banks who were searching for a responsive web app for digital commercial escrow and subaccounting that would eliminate the manual processes that limited their ability to handle commercial escrow and subaccounting accounts. Engaging with a fintech and leveraging extensive resources that are dedicated to developing and improving upon innovative technology gave these institutions a solution built with their companies in mind.

These partnerships between fintechs and banks are also more financially feasible — many community banks are unable to develop similar solutions in-house due to understaffing or lack of resources. With the help of a fintech, the institution can implement solutions faster and reach profitable clients sooner.

Fintech and bank collaborations are changing the way that community banks innovate. Together, they can expand the potential of a solution, both in its specialization and its capability, to better meet customer needs. Banking teams can provide the digital tools that their clients need and attract desirable clients that they hope to serve.

How Community Banks Can Drive Revenue Growth During the Pandemic

Community banks are the beating heart of the American banking system — and they’ve received a major jolt to their system.

While community banks represent only 17% of the US banking system, they are responsible for around 53% of small business loans. Lending to small businesses calls for relationship skills: Unlike lending to large firms, there is seldom detailed credit information available. Lending decisions are often based on intangible qualities of borrowers.

While community banking is relationship lending at its very best, the pandemic is forcing change. Community bankers have been caught in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, providing lifesaving financial services to small businesses. They helped fuel the success of the Paycheck Protection Program, administering around 60% of total first wave loans, according to Forbes. This was no small feat: Community banks administered more loans in four weeks than the grup had in the previous 12 months.

However, as with many businesses, they have been forced to close their doors for extended periods and move many employees to remote arrangements. Customers have been forced to move to online channels, forming new banking habits. Community banks have risen to all these challenges.

But the pandemic has also shown how technology can augment relationship banking, increase customer engagement and drive revenue growth. Many community banks are doing things differently, acknowledging the need to do things in new ways to drive new revenues.

Even before Covid-19, disruptive forces were reshaping the global banking landscape. Customers have high expectations, and have become accustomed to engaging online and through mobile services. Technology innovators have redefined what’s possible; customers now expect recommendations based on their personal data and previous behavior. Many believe that engaging with their bank should be as easy as buying a book or travel ticket.

Turn Data into Insights, Rewards
While a nimble, human approach and personal service may offset a technical shortcoming in the short run, it cannot offset a growing technology debt and lack of innovation. Data is becoming  the universal driver of banking success. Community banks need to use data and analytics to find new opportunities.

Customer data, like spending habits, can be turned into business insights that empower banks to deliver services where and when they are most needed. Banks can also harness the power of data to anticipate customer life moments, such as a student loan, wedding or a home purchase.

Data can also drive a relevant reward program that improves the customer experience and increases the bank’s brand. Rewards reinforce desired customer behavior, boost loyalty and ultimately improve margins. For example, encouraging and rewarding additional debit transaction activity can drive fee income, while increasing core deposits improves lending margins.

The pandemic also highlights the primacy of digital transformation. With branches closed, banks need to find new ways to interact with customers. Digital services and digitalization allow customers to self-serve but also create opportunities to engage further, adding value with financial wellness products through upselling and cross-selling. In recent months, some community banks launched “video tellers” to offset closed branches. Although these features required investment, they are essential to drive new business and customers will expect these services to endure.

With the right digital infrastructure, possibilities are limited only by the imagination. But it’s useful to remember that today’s competitive advantage quickly becomes tomorrow’s banking baseline. Pre-pandemic, there was limited interest in online account opening; now it’s a crucial building block of an engaging digital experience. Banking has become a technology business — but technology works best with people. Community banks must invest in technologies to augment, deepen and expand profitable relationships.

Leverage Transformative Partnership
Technology driven transformation is never easy — but it’s a lot easier with an expert partner. With their loyal customers, trusted brands and their reputation for responsiveness, community banks start from a strong position, but they need to invest in a digital future. The right partner can help community banks transform to stay relevant, agile and profitable. Modern technologies can make banking more competitive and democratic to ensure community banks continue to compete with greater customer insights, relevant rewards programs and strong digital offerings.

When combined, these build on the customer service foundation at the core of community banking.

Keeping the Digital Accelerant Going

Digital transformation and strategy are further examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired, launched today on BankDirector.com. Click here to access the content.

The coronavirus pandemic has been an accelerant for digital bank transformations. Banks must now keep that fire going.

“There’s never been a more important time for bank executives to think strategically,” says Cornerstone Advisors cofounder Steve Williams. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation plans by about two to three years, he estimates. It will soon be up to opportunistic bankers to continue that transformation in order to better position their institutions for the future and increase shareholder value during what could be a prolonged economic recovery.

The pandemic’s impact on physical spaces like branches underscored the importance of digital channels, capabilities and products. No longer was it acceptable for institutions to tack digital offerings onto existing branch initiatives and force customers to do a cross-channel dance: Open an account or loan in the branch but service it online, for instance.

Going forward, outperformers will be the banks that successfully overhaul or transform legacy tech, expenses, buildings, organizational structures and vendor contracts into next-generation capabilities. Williams says smarter banks are led by executive teams with a focused strategy, that leverage data strategically and actively manage vendor partnerships, rather than relying on their core processors. They also attract the talent and skills that the bank will need in the future, rather than just filling the vacancies that exist today.

The first place that banks direct their energies and attention to continue their digital momentum is the legacy branch network, says Tim Reimink, a managing director at Crowe. Branches are expensive to operate, have been closed for an extended period of time and were potentially underperforming prior to the pandemic. Banks also have the data to prove that customers will continue banking with them if locations are closed, and that many are now comfortable using digital channels.

“Every single location must be evaluated,” says Crowe Senior Manager Robert Reggiannini. Executives should weigh the market opportunity, penetration and existing wallet share of small businesses and consumer customers, as well as how the branch fits in with the rest of the network. Rationalizing the network frees up capital to redeploy into digital transformation or other areas of operation that need greater investment in the post-pandemic economy.

Certainly some banks have gotten that message. It wasn’t uncommon to see banks across the country announce double-digit rationalizing efforts, often announcing they would cut 20%. In December 2020 alone, banks opened 43 branches but permanently closed 240, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. For the year, they opened 982 locations and closed 3,099.

Reducing the branch network will necessitate changes in how bank staff interact with customers, Reggiannini adds. Banks should not assume tellers at a branch will find the same success in the digital chat environment, call center or at in-person meetings conducted outside of the branch.

He says banks should train staff in developing the skills needed to service a customer outside of a branch and consider how they will manage and measure staff for flexibility and productivity. “Engagement with customers is going to be critical going forward,” Reggiannini says.

The branch network, and the foot traffic and relationships they used to attract, have been under pressure from digital banks, often focused on consumer and retail relationships. But Williams warns that the pandemic underlined the vulnerability of commercial relationships. Numerous fintechs competed successfully against banks in issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration, and a number of businesses are shifting more of their relationships to payment processors like Stripe and Square.

“Disruption will come to business banking – not as fast as retail banking but it’s coming,” Williams says. “If we lose the deposit and business relationship with commercial customers, will banks be able to keep their returns? We don’t think so.”

Turning to Technology as Margins Shrink

It’s a perfect storm for bank directors and their institutions: Increasing credit risk, low interest rates and the corrosive effects of the coronavirus culminating into a squeeze on their margins.

The pressure on margins comes at the same time as directors contend with a fundamental new reality: Traditional banking, as we know it, is changing. These changes, and the speed at which they occur, mean directors are wrestling with the urgent task of helping their organizations adapt to a changing environment, or risk being left behind.

As books close on 2020 with a still-uncertain outlook, the most recent release of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s Quarterly Banking Profile underlines the substantial impact of low rates. For the second straight quarter, the average net interest margin at the nation’s banks dropped to its lowest reported level.

The data shows that larger financial institutions have felt the pain brought about by this low-rate environment first. But as those in the industry know, it is often only a matter of time until smaller institutions feel the more-profound effects of the margin contraction. The Federal Reserve, after all, has said it will likely hold rates at their current levels through 2023.

In normal times, banks would respond to such challenges by cutting expenses. But these are not normal times: Such strategies will simply not provide the same long-term economic benefits. The answer lies in technology. Making strategic investments throughout an organization can streamline operations, improve margins and give customers what they want.

Survey data bears this out. Throughout the pandemic, J.D. Power has asked consumers how they plan to act when the crisis subsides. When asked in April about how in-person interactions would look with a bank or financial services provider once the crisis was over, 46% of respondents said they would go back to pre-coronavirus behaviors. But only 36% of respondents indicated that they would go back to pre-Covid behaviors when asked the same question in September. Consumers are becoming much more likely to use digital channels, like online or mobile banking.

These responses should not come as a surprise. The longer consumers and businesses live and operate in this environment, the more likely their behaviors will change, and how banks will need to interact with them.

Bank directors need to assess how their organizations will balance profitability with long-term investments to ensure that the persistent low-rate environment doesn’t become a drag on revenue that creates a more-difficult operating situation in the future.

The path forward may be long and difficult, but one thing is certain: Banks that aren’t evaluating digital and innovative options will fall behind. Here are three key areas that we’ve identified as areas of focus.

  • Technology that streamlines the back office. Simply reducing headcount solves one issue in cost management, which is why strategic investments in streamlining, innovating and enhancing back-office processes and operations will become critical to any bank’s long-term success.
  • Technology that improves top-line revenues. Top-line revenue does not grow simply by making investments in back-office technologies, which is why executives must consider solutions that maximize efforts to grow revenues. These include leveraging data to make decisions and improving the customer experience in a way that allows banks to rely less on branches for growth.
  • Technology that promotes a new working environment. As banks pivoted to a remote environment, the adoption of these technologies will lead to a radically different working environment that makes remote or alternative working arrangements an option.

While we do not expect branch banking to disappear, we do expect it to change. And while all three technology investment alternatives are reasonable options for banks to adapt and survive in tomorrow’s next normal, it is important to know that failing to appropriately invest will lead to challenges that may be far greater than what are being experienced today.

Strategic Insights from Leading Bankers: WSFS Financial Corp.

RankingBanking will be further examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired, featured on BankDirector.com, which will include a discussion with WSFS CEO Rodger Levenson and Al Dominick, CEO of Bank Director, about weaving together technology and strategy. Click here to access the content.

Digital transformation in the banking industry has become an important factor driving deal activity, evidenced by recent acquisition announcements involving First Citizens BancShares, PNC Financial Services Group and Huntington Bancshares. A more tech-forward future also drove $13.8 billion WSFS Financial Corp.’s August 2018 acquisition of $5.8 billion Beneficial Bancorp, expanding its presence around Philadelphia and putting it well over the $10 billion asset threshold. Importantly, it provided the scale WSFS needed to make a $32 million, five-year investment in digital delivery initiatives.

The Wilmington, Delaware-based bank’s long-term focus on strategic growth, particularly in executing on its digital initiatives, led to a fourth-place finish in Bank Director’s 2021 RankingBanking study, comprised of the industry’s top performers based on 20-year total shareholder return. Crowe LLP sponsored the study. Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick further explores the bank’s digital transformation in this conversation with WSFS Chairman and CEO Rodger Levenson. The interview, conducted on Oct. 27, 2020, has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: How does WSFS strategically approach strong, long-term performance?

RL: It comes from the top. The board has always managed this company with the goal of sustainable long-term performance, high performance. Every discussion, every decision and every strategic plan that we put together is looked [at] through that lens. And I would point to the most recent decision around the Beneficial acquisition as an opportunity for us to invest in [the] long term while recognizing that we’d have some short-term negative impact. And by that I mean, if you look back over the last decade or so, coming out [of] ’09, 2010 — WSFS had been on a fairly consistent, nicely upward-sloping trajectory of high performance. … But what the board said as part of our strategic planning process and the conversation with Beneficial was that we could only continue down that path for so long if we didn’t address a couple of important issues.

One was, if you look at that growth, it was primarily centered on our physical presence, mostly in Delaware. It’s our home market, but it’s a pretty small market, less than a million people. A very nice economy, but certainly not as robust as we grew to the size that we had grown to support that. We needed to get into a larger market, particularly into Philadelphia, [which is] very robust demographically, very large to give us that opportunity to continue to grow at above-peer levels.

The second thing as part of that process is like everybody else — and this was obviously all pre-pandemic — we were analyzing and watching our customers shift how they interacted with us to more digital interaction and less physical interaction. And we said, for us to keep up we’re going to have to start shifting some of that long-term investment, that we’ve historically [put] into building branches, into funding our technology initiatives.

The two of those things came together for Beneficial, [which] obviously gave us the larger market; it also gave us the scale to attack that transition from physical to digital. We knew it would impact earnings for a couple of years while we put that together and prepared for the next decade or so of growth. The board had a very robust dialogue around the trade-offs that were involved, and clearly said that we need to manage the company for the long term.

This is a great opportunity to invest in the long term; we’ll take the short-term knock on performance because of where we’re ultimately headed. We saw that with the reaction of the Street to our stock price, but that didn’t change or waiver the long-term vision. … Our board principles and guidelines [have] been ingrained in us all the way down through management: If you want to provide the best long-term value for your shareholders, you have to not get tied up in quarter-to-quarter or year-to-year performance. You have to look at it over longer horizons and make decisions that support that.

BD: How are you strategically approaching technology investment?

RL: It was really a decision to follow our customers. … There’s nothing we can do to try and compete with [the] big guys. You know the stats. You know how many billions of dollars they’re spending on technology. We’re not trying to catch up to them or be like them. We want to have a digital product offering that allows us to be very flexible and have optionality so that when new products and services come along that our customers want, we can move quickly toward offering those products and services, and have an offering that is competitive with the big guys, but maybe not the bleeding edge. We’re marrying it with the traditional community bank model of access to decision-making, local market knowledge [and] a high level of associate engagement, which translates into what we think is world-class service. Our vision is to have a product offering that we can marry up with those other things that will allow us to compete effectively against the big guys.

Most of what the big guys spend their money on is R&D. They have teams and teams of technology people, data [scientists and] all those other things, because they’re building their proprietary products and services. Our view is we don’t have to do that R&D, because that R&D is getting done in the fintech space for us.

BD: WSFS has brought on board some high-level talent around digital transformation; you’ve also got expertise on the board. You’re working to recruit more in the data space, as well as building your in-house technology expertise. In addition to building relationships with fintechs, why is that internal expertise important, and how are you leveraging that?

RL: When we got started on this, we had almost nobody focused on it in the company. We realized for us to be as effective as we felt we needed to be, we needed to have some teams that were fully involved in this as a day-to-day job. In terms of funding it, obviously we closed or divested a quarter of our branches with Beneficial after the deal. When you do that, you not only have the cost savings from the savings in the lease expense, but there’s people expense as well. Fortunately, even though net/net, our positions in our retail network decreased by about 150 from those closures or divestitures, nobody lost their job. We were able to absorb that through natural attrition or in the one case, we sold six of our branches in New Jersey, and all those people were guaranteed a job as part of that deal.

This was a process that occurred over the course of a year. It was methodically laid out, leading up to the conversion of the brand and the systems in August 2019. Over that year, our teams did a fabulous job [of] managing people and the normal attrition that goes on in that business. That gave us the ability to fund not only some of the technology that we’re buying, but also some of these other positions internally. It’s exactly aligned with shifting that investment that we made in branches — which is not just the bricks and mortar; it’s the people, it’s the technology, it’s everything else — shifting a chunk of that into digital. This is a part of that whole process.

EM: How did the pandemic impact your strategy?

RL: The pandemic confirmed and accelerated everything that we’ve seen over the last few years, and reinforced our desire to [respond] as quickly as we can to the acceleration of these trends. Clearly, 2020 has been a totally different year because of remote work and all those things, but the longer-term trends have been validated and reinforced the strategic direction that we embarked upon before the pandemic. At some point, we will start moving back to a more normal environment, and we feel like we’re uniquely positioned.

It feels like there’s not a week that goes by with a bank that’s announcing some big branch reduction program and shifting that money into digital. We’re not trying to pat ourselves on the back, but I do think we happened to have that opportunity with Beneficial. It provided us the forum for attacking that issue sooner rather than later, so we’ve got somewhat of a head start down that road. This is just a confirmation of everything we saw when we did that analysis.