What Does Today’s Community Banker Look Like?

After more than a year of great uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest driver of change for community banks now will likely come from customer behavior.

The shift towards digital banking that took off during the pandemic is expected to become permanent to some degree. Customers are most likely to use online or mobile channels to transact and they are becoming more involved in fraud prevention, with measures such as two-step verification. They are also performing an increasing number of routine administrative tasks remotely, like activating cards or managing limits. Branches are likely to endure but will need to rethink how to humanize digital delivery: The Financial Brand reports that 81% of bankers believe that banks will seek to differentiate on customer experience rather than products and location.

Digitalization is good news for community banks. It reduces pressure on the branch network and increases opportunities to develop the brand digitally to reach new customers. But it also creates an obligation to deliver a good digital experience that reduces customer effort and friction. In the digital age, customers face less costs of switching banks.

Banks that assume they will be the sole supplier of a customer’s financial services or that a relationship will endure for a lifetime do so at their own risk. President Joseph Biden’s administration is promoting greater competition in the bank space through an executive order asking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to issue rules that give consumers full control of their financial data, making it easier for customers to switch banks. Several countries have already implemented account switching services that guarantee a safe transfer. How should community banks respond so they are winners, not losers, with these changes?

With their familiar brands, community banks are well positioned for success, but there are things they must do to increase customer engagement and build loyalty. Continuing to invest in digital remains crucial to delivering a digital brand experience that’s aligns with the branch. Such investment will be well rewarded — not only in retaining customers but also attracting new ones, particularly the younger generation of “digital natives” who expect a digital-first approach to banking. The challenge will be migrating the trust that customers have in the branch to the app, offering customers choice while maintaining a similar look and feel.

The branch will continue being a mainstay of community banking. Customers are returning to their branches, but its use is changing and transactions are declining. Customers tend to visit a branch to receive financial advice or to discuss specific financial products, such as loans, mortgages or retirement products. Some banks already acknowledge this shift and are repurposing branches as advice centers, with coffee shops where customers can meet bankers in a relaxed atmosphere. In turn, bankers can go paperless and use tablets to guide the conversation and demonstrate financial tools, using technology augmented by a personal touch.

Community banks can play a crucial role in promoting financial literacy and wellness among the unbanked. As many as 6% of Americans are unbanked and rely on alternative financial services, such as payday loans, pawnshops or check cashing services to take care of their finances. According to a 2019 report by the Federal Reserve, being unbanked costs an individual an average of $3,000 annually. By increasing financial inclusion, community banks can cultivate the customers of tomorrow and benefit the wider community.

Cryptocurrencies are the next stage of the digital revolution and are becoming more mainstream. Although community banks are unlikely to lose many customers in the short term over cryptocurrency functionality, these digital assets appeal to younger customers and may become more widely accepted as a payment type in a decade. Every bank needs a strategy for digital assets.

The shift to digital banking means bank customers expect the same experience they get from non-financial services. Application program interfaces (APIs) have ushered in a new era of collaboration and integration for banks, their partners and customers. APIs empower banks to do more with data to help customers reduce effort, from automating onboarding to access to funds and loans immediately. At a time when community banks and their customers are getting more involved with technology, every bank needs an API strategy that is clearly communicated to all stakeholders, including partners and customers. Although APIs cannot mitigate uncertainty, they do empower a bank to embrace change and harness the power of data. Banks without an APIs strategy should speak to their technology partners and discover how to find out how APIs can boost innovation and increase customer engagement.

Leveraging Rationalization to Tackle Digital Transformation

The coronavirus pandemic has had a notable impact on financial institutions, creating a more-urgent need to embrace digital-first banking. However, shifting to digital doesn’t just mean adopting new digital banking tools — a common misconception. Rather, it requires that banks rethink their holistic digital strategy to evolve alongside customer expectations, digitize all aspects of the financial journey and connect their customers’ digital and physical experiences.

Such a transformation boils down to determining which processes are digital-ready and which will need to be overhauled completely. Enter rationalization.

Relying on rationalization
Three billion people will access banking through digital devices this year, according to one estimate from Deloitte. Most banks have 3, 5 or even 10-year plans, but struggle to determine where to start. Think of rationalization as triage for banks: It allows them to identify which processes are ready to be digitized right now, and which need to be reimagined entirely before embarking on digitization.

Consider the process to open a checking account. It’s a simple process, requiring proof of identity and address, and a form to complete. Customers are generally good to go. This is a prime example of a digital-ready banking service that should be moved online immediately — and that can be accomplished rather easily.

Compare that to applying for a loan: a process that involves careful evaluation of the applicant and a mountain of paperwork filled with lengthy, confusing terms and requirements. If the process is intimidating to consumers with the help of a professional, imagine how it feels left to their own devices.

For processes that contain inherent points of friction, like the loan application example above, digitizing may simply make the cumbersome process quicker. Outdated, clunky processes must be revamped before they can be digitally transformed.

Putting customers at the center
Customers are the most important part of rationalization. As customer expectations have rapidly evolved, it’s time for institutions to modernize the digital experience to strengthen relationships and solidify loyalty. Some areas that banks should consider when evaluating the customer experience include:

  • Automating previously manual processes can reduce costs, improve efficiency and deliver an “always on” experience.
  • Ease-of-use. Along with being more accessible to people who might resist digitization, intuitive use and educational resources are integral to customer adoption and success.
  • Constant support. According to Accenture, 49% of customers say real-time support from real people is key to fostering loyalty.
  • Enhanced security. Strong security efforts are fundamental to giving customers peace of mind, which is critical when it comes to their money.
  • Make simple possible. Remove friction from the process to enhance the customer experience.

As banking catapults into a digitally dominant era, institutions should establish a presence across all digital touchpoints — desktop and web browser, mobile apps, even social media — to enable customers to access financial services and information at their convenience. A mobile-first mentality will help ensure that products and services work seamlessly across all devices and platforms. Consistency here is key.

Customers are ultimately looking to their institutions to solve their individual financial problems. Banks have a wealth of data available to them; those that seek to create the strongest relationships with customers can leverage these insights to tailor the experience and deliver relevant, timely products and support to meet their unique needs.

All sectors faced the same challenge over the course of the pandemic: How does a business survive physical separation from their customers? Industries like retail were better prepared for expedited digital transformation because they’ve been establishing a digital presence for years; they were largely able to rationalize quicker. Hospitality sectors, on the other hand, more closely mirrored banking in that many processes were far behind the digital times. Some restaurants lacked an online presence before the pandemic, and now must undergo their own version of rationalization to remain in business.

While rationalization looks different to each vertical, the central mission remains the same: determining the best, most sensible order of digital transformation to provide the best customer experience possible. Those companies that leverage the principles of rationalization to manage the massive migration to digital will be better positioned to solidify and capitalize on customer loyalty, and keep their institutions thriving.

Three Things Bankers Learned During the Pandemic

It’s been well documented how the pandemic lead to the digitization of banking on a grand scale.

But what bankers discovered about themselves and the capabilities of their staff was the real eye-opener. Firms such as RSM, an audit, tax and consulting company that works with banks nationwide, saw how teams came together in a crisis and did their jobs effectively in difficult circumstances. Banks pivoted toward remote working, lobby shut-downs, video conferencing and new security challenges while funneling billions in Paycheck Protection Program loans to customers. The C-suites and boards of financial institutions saw that the pandemic tested their processes but also created an opportunity to learn more about their customers.

Overall, the pandemic changed all of us. From our discussions with the leaders of financial institutions, here are three major things bankers learned about themselves and their customers during the pandemic.

1. Customers Want to Use Technology
Banks learned that customers, no matter their generation, were able to use technology effectively. Banks were able to successfully fulfill the needs of their customers, as more devices and technologies are available to banks at all price points and varying degrees of complexity. Post-pandemic, this practice will continue to help increase not only internal efficiencies but convenience for customers. As banks compete with many of the new digital providers, this helps even the playing field, says Christina Churchill, a principal and national lead for financial institutions at RSM US LLP.

Did you have a telemedicine appointment during the pandemic? Do you want to go back to driving to a doctor and sitting in a waiting room for a short appointment, given a choice? Probably not. Nor will bank customers want to come to a branch for a simple transaction, says Churchill.

The pandemic made that all too clear. Banks had to figure out a way to serve customers remotely and they did. Digital account opening soared. Banks stood up secure video conferencing appointments with their customers. They were successful on many counts.

2. Employees Can Work Remotely
The myth that bankers were all working effectively while in the office was exposed. Instead, some found employees were more effective while not in the office.

Technology helped bridge the gap in the existing skill set: Bankers learned how to use technology to work remotely and used it well, says Brandon Koeser, senior manager at RSM. Senior leaders are finding that getting employees back to the office on a strict 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule may be difficult. “Some bankers have asked me, ‘do we return to the office? Do we not go back?’” says Koeser. “And I think the answer is not full time, because that is the underlying desire of employees.”

After surveying 27,500 Americans for a March 2021 study, university researchers predicted that Covid-19’s mass social experiment in working from home will stick around. They estimate about 20% of full workdays will be supplied from home going forward, leading to a 6% boost in productivity based on optimized working arrangements such as less time commuting.

Still, many senior bank leaders feel the lack of in-person contact. It’s more difficult and time-consuming to coach staff, brainstorm or get to know new employees and customers. It’s likely that a hybrid of remote and in-person meetings will resume.

3. Banks Can Stand Up Digital Quickly
Banks used to spend months or years building systems from scratch. That’s no longer the case, says Churchill. Many banks discovered they can stand up technological improvements within days or weeks. Ancillary tools from third-party providers are available quickly and cost less than they did in the past. “You don’t have to build from scratch,” Koeser says. “The time required is not exponential.”

Recently, RSM helped a bank’s loan review process by building a bot to eliminate an hour of work per loan by simply pulling the documentation to a single location. That was low-value work but needed to be done; the bot increased efficiency and work-life quality for the bank team. A robotic process automation bot can cost less than $10,000 as a one-time expense, Churchill says.

Throughout this year, senior bankers discovered more about their staff and their capabilities than they had imagined. “It really helped people look at the way banks can process things,” Churchill says. “It helped gain efficiencies. The pandemic increased the reach of financial institutions, whom to connect with and how.”

The pandemic, it turned out, had lessons for all of us.

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.

How Settlement Service Providers Help Banks with Surging Refinance Demand

Real estate lenders are racing against the clock to process the deluge of refinancing demand, driven by record-low interest rates and intense online competition.

Susan Falsetti, managing director of origination title and close at ServiceLink, discusses the challenges that real estate lenders are facing — and how they can address them.

What particular stressors are real estate lenders facing?
We’ve seen volume surge this year, but heavy volume is only part of the equation. Market volatility, job loss and forbearance are adding even more pressure. Meanwhile, the origination process is increasingly complicated, with the regulatory environment remaining an important factor. Amid all of this, many lenders have shifted to a remote work business model, forcing team members to grapple with additional caregiving and family complications.

How have market conditions affected lenders’ abilities to meet consumer expectations for closing timelines?
Some of our clients working with other providers have reported processes as simple as obtaining payoff demands and subordinations are causing delays. They’re telling us that, in some cases, these requests have gone from 24-hour turn times to 10-day turn times. Working with an efficient settlement service provider is essential, given that 75% of recent homebuyers in a Fannie Mae survey expect that it should take a month or less to get a mortgage.

What can lenders do to immediately reduce their timelines?
One way is by selecting the right settlement service partner, which can help them get to the closing table faster without making major changes to their process or tech investment. Settlement service providers should provide a runway to close, not contribute to a bottleneck. Examining or revisiting settlement service providers is low-hanging fruit for lenders looking to immediately deduct days from closing timelines.

What characteristics should lenders look for when making a settlement service provider selection?
Communication: Lenders should examine how they’re communicating with their settlement service provider. Is their provider integrated into their loan origination system or point-of-sale platform? Can they submit orders through a secure, auditable platform, or is email the only option? Regardless of how orders are submitted, lenders should also consider whether their provider has the resources to dedicate to communication and customer service, even in a high-volume environment.

Automation and digitization: Selecting a title provider with automation and digitization built into its processes can help lenders thrive, even as their volume fluctuates. The mortgage industry is cyclical; it’s essential that settlement service providers have the capacity to scale with their client banks and grow with their business. They should help banks manage their volume, without having to make dramatic process or technology changes.

Some providers can provide almost-instantaneous insight into the complexity of particular title orders through an automatic title search. This type of workflow helps both the lender and the provider. They both can quickly funnel the simplest orders through to the closing table while employing more-experienced team members to work on more-complicated loans.

Transparency: That kind of insight gives lenders extra transparency into their customers. When originators are aware of the complexity of a title early in the process, they can let their borrower know that the title is clear. If that’s the case, the consumer can stop shopping and leave the market.

Access to virtual closing solutions: Of course, the origination process doesn’t stop once a loan is clear to close. A survey recently conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research at the request of ServiceLink found that one of consumers’ chief complaints about the mortgage process was the number of physical forms that must be signed at closing. The survey also found that 79% expressed interest in using e-signatures specifically for mortgage applications. This interest in e-signings has evolved into genuine demand for virtual closings.

The right settlement service provider should help lenders to operate more efficiently and profitably. The key is identifying a partner with solutions to help banks thrive in today’s high-volume environment.

The Digitalization of Commercial Lending

Commercial lending is a balance of risk and reward.

When properly managed, this business line can be a bank’s profit leader. Part of that competitive edge is employing a digital strategy specifically tailored to match your bank’s commercial lending vision. No doubt your institution has shifted resources to more fully support digital banking in 2020 — not only to benefit your customers, but to address the challenges of staff operating remotely. Automation that was thought to be nice-to-have became critical infrastructure both to expedite loan origination and to efficiently manage the volume of loan servicing. The commercial loan life cycle is evolving, creating opportunities for digital improvement at all stages.

Simplifying applications. While the banking industry lacks a standard commercial lending application, it is possible to dramatically reduce the burdensome data collection exercise that banks have traditionally required of their business borrowers. Technology can create significant lift during this phase. Integrating credit policy data into the digital application and automating the retrieval of public data to reduce the number of fields an applicant must complete can reduce the time required to complete an application to minutes.

The democracy of automated underwriting. Automated underwriting used to be premier software intelligence harnessed by only the most enterprising of institutions. However, as the technology has become more commonplace and pricing models have moderated, institutions of all sizes can take advantage of efficiencies that can shave weeks off the process.

Dynamic documenting. One of the many risks associated with commercial lending is the accuracy, validity and enforceability of the loan documentation. Compliance solutions that are integrated with loan origination systems minimize duplicate data entry and render a complete and compliant commercial loan document package based on an institution’s criteria. This technology can significantly reduce human touchpoints, improving the speed and efficiency with which loan documentation is assembled.

E-signing and paperless transactions. If any single innovation has already transformed the lending experience, it is e-signing. Electronic signatures and electronic contracts were granted validity and legal effect through the passage of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act. It’s been 20 years since the act became law, but e-signing commercial loan documents and conducting commercial loan transactions electronically have only recently gained wider traction with institutions. It’s evolved into an expectation of some customers, expedited in no small part by the continuing coronavirus pandemic and related social distancing guidelines.

Generally, commercial loans that are unsecured or secured by personal property can be paperless and conducted electronically. Those secured by real estate, on the other hand, have traditionally required some wet ink signatures because of notarization and recording requirements. However, electronic and remote notarization in conjunction with electronic recording has increased the likelihood of completely electronic and paperless transactions.

Twenty-five states have passed laws authorizing remote notarizations, with another 23 states implementing emergency remote notarization procedures in response to the pandemic. While state requirements of remote notarization vary, this potentially allows commercial loan documentation signed electronically to be notarized online instead of requiring parties to be physically present in the same room.

Electronic recording is rapidly becoming the standard for real property documents, with more than 68% of U.S. counties now supporting e-recording. Documents with the recording stamp can be returned immediately after recording, speeding up delivery of the recorded documents to the title insurance company. Electronic recording also allows for the e-signing of real property documents instead of requiring wet ink signatures.

The increasing availability of e-signing and electronic and remote notary technology and resources means more institutions will be able to move entirely to or provide support for electronic and paperless commercial loan transactions.

Automation in servicing. Many traditionally manual processes associated with the review, servicing, tracking and maintenance of commercial loan transactions can be automated. For example, transactions often require parties to provide financial documents to the institution. Instead of manually entering those requirements into a spreadsheet and creating calendar reminders, institutions can leverage technology to automate reports and reminders for the financial document delivery requirements. Similar automated reminders and tracking can be used for collateral, compliance, document and policy issues and exceptions.

The effect of these digitalization opportunities — available at every step in the process, aggregated over your portfolio — can significantly accelerate your institution’s transition to a more touchless loan process.

Five Ways PPP Accelerates Commercial Lending Digitization

The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program challenged over 5,000 U.S. banks to serve commercial loan clients remotely with extremely quick turnaround time: three to 10 days from application to funding. Many banks turned to the internet to accept and process the tsunami of applications received, with a number of banks standing up online loan applications in just several days. In fact, PPP banks processed 25 times more loan applications in 10 days than the SBA had processed in all of 2019. In this first phase of PPP, spanning April 3 to 16, banks approved 1.6 million applications and distributed $342 billion of loan proceeds.

At banks that stood up an online platform quickly, client needs drove innovation. As institutions continue down this innovation track, there are five key technology areas demonstrated by PPP that can provide immediate value to a commercial lending business.

Document Management: Speed, Security, Decreased Risk
PPP online applications typically provided a secure document upload feature for clients to submit the required payroll documentation. This feature provided speed and security to clients, as well as organization for lenders. Digitized documents in a centrally located repository allowed appropriate bank staff easy access with automatic archival. Ultimately, such an online document management “vault” populated by the client will continue to improve bank efficiency while decreasing risk.

Electronic Signatures: Speed, Organization, Audit Trail
Without the ability to do in-person closings or wait for “wet signature” documents to be delivered, PPP applications leveraged electronic signature services like DocuSign or AdobeSign. These services provided speed and security as well as a detailed audit trail. Fairly inexpensive relative to the value provided, the electronic signature movement has hit all industries working remotely during COVID-19 and is clearly here to stay.

Covenant Tickler Management: Organization, Efficiency, Compliance
Tracking covenants for commercial loans has always been a balance between managing an existing book of business while also generating loan growth. Once banks digitize borrower information, however, it becomes much easier to create ticklers and automate tracking management. Automation can allow banker administrative time to be turned toward more client-focused activities, especially when integrated with a document management system and electronic signatures. While many banks have already pursued covenant tickler systems, PPP’s forgiveness period is pushing banks into more technology-enabled loan monitoring overall.

Straight-Through Processing: Efficiency, Accuracy, Cost Saves
Banks can gain significant efficiencies from straight-through processing, when data is captured digitally at application. Full straight-through processing is certainly not a standard in commercial lending; however, PPP showed lenders that small components of automation can provide major efficiency gains. Banks that built APIs or used “bots” to connect to SBA’s eTran system for PPP loan approval processed at a much greater volume overall. In traditional commercial lending, it is possible for data elements to flow from an online application through underwriting to final entry in the core system. Such straight-through processing is becoming easier through open banking, spelling the future in terms of efficiency and cost savings.

Process Optimization: Efficiency, Cost Saves
PPP banks monitored applications and approvals on a daily and weekly basis. Having applications in a dynamic online system allowed for good internal and external reporting on the success of the high-profile program. However, such monitoring also highlighted problems and bottlenecks in a bank’s approval process — bandwidth, staffing, external vendors and even SBA systems were all potential limiters. Technology-enabled application and underwriting allows all elements of the loan approval process to be analyzed for efficiency. Going forward, a digitized process should allow a bank to examine its operations for the most client-friendly experience that is also the most cost and risk efficient.

Finally, these five technology value propositions highlight that the client experience is paramount. PPP online applications were driven by the necessity for the client to have remote and speedy access to emergency funding. That theme should carry through to commercial banking in the next decade. Anything that drives a better client experience while still providing a safe and sound operating bank should win the day. These five key value propositions do exactly that — and should continue to drive banking in the future.

Realities Beyond the Balance Sheet Facing Bank Buyers

Financial leaders face new and unique challenges as the navigate the remainder of this year and well into 2021.

The early reads on credit quality, credit access, operational and execution risk, regulatory oversight impacts and dimming growth prospects paint a bleak picture. Underlying this environment is an ongoing consideration for consolidation forcing institutions to assess their long-term viability. A closer examination of tangible book values clearly demonstrates who could be the buyers and potential sellers.

So, what is so different for M&A now? I have always believed that no two deals are the same —and that remains true. In the past, we may have looked solely at regulatory good standing, loan concentration, deposit pricing and distribution like geography and branches. While these remain fundamentally most important at the core, we now fully expect to see a heightened focus in due diligence around key layers of bank leadership, corporate culture and values, ability to deliver digital offerings to key customer segments, financial literacy programs and community investment.

A recent study by Deloitte noted that more than ever, bank M&A strategies need the right tools, teams and processes — from diligence through integrations — to pull off successful mergers. Additionally, buyers need to consider the compatibility and integration of any digital tools and how they will meet customer expectations. Can your bank deliver what these customers expect?

Most institutions looking to acquire or be acquired need to address several non-financial topics when considering how to proceed. Five in particular are consistently under-communicated by acquirers and will be even more impactful moving forward. These items speak to the fit of the merger partners — the intangible elements that cause the difference between a high customer retention rate with a platform for organic growth or a tepid retention rate with little sign of future organic growth.

1. Strategic Leadership
How an institution’s leaders navigated the recent Covid-19 pandemic says a lot about what investors, employees, customers and communities can expect if it merges with another bank. For example, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program may have given some banks lessons and plans that may make them potential partners worth exploring. No one knows what lies ahead, but strategic leaders must be able to think, clarify and execute during these new M&A conditions.

2. Bank Culture and Values
Most banks have a mission, vision and values statements. Until the current environment, how leaders must lead to make employees feel included and valued had not been challenged. But in almost every M&A engagement, there are significant segments of impacted employees and customers that experience uncertainty and fear. Demonstrated values can go a long way to secure trust and help the execution of these transactions succeed.

3. Digitization Expectations for Employees and Customers
Many institutions were not prepared for what occurred earlier this spring. Disaster recovery and business resumption plans were a solid start, but many were insufficient for this type of event, requiring operations and services to move off-site in a matter of days.

But aside from the initial challenges of the PPP, most banks appear to have done an outstanding job of helping employees work from home without too much customer disruption. This operating model will be the new way forward in banking. When banks merge, it is important to understand how each institution’s plan worked, and how much or little displacement that model could be for employees and customers going forward.

4. Financial Literacy and Inclusion
The reality of how our country has operated over decades has come into focus during the pandemic. One issue that many banks have identified is access to capital and providing banking services in a service-blind manner going forward. Financial literacy and inclusion must be a tenet in creating a more-effective banking system. Aligning how these programs can work, collaboration and inclusiveness can create a platform for capital distribution that works with any institutional strategy and grows exponentially after a merger.

5. Community Investment
Many institutions have invested significantly in community programs over the years. In a merger, these groups need to understand what the plan for that support will be going forward. The pandemic has made it even more important to discuss and support these investments in communities, given the struggle of many organizations these days. While these five items are not exhaustive, we know that they are among the top issues of executives, employees and customers at prospective selling institutions.

Three Tech Questions Every Community Bank Needs to Ask

Community banks know they need to innovate, and that financial technology companies want to help. They also know that not all fintechs are the partners they claim to be.

Digitization and consolidation have reshaped the banking landscape. Smaller banks need to innovate: Over 70% of banking interactions are now digital, people of all ages are banking on their mobile devices and newer innovations like P2P payments are becoming commonplace. But not all innovations and technologies are perceived as valuable to a customer, and not all fintechs are great partners.

Community banks must be selective when investing their limited resources, distinguishing between truly transformative technologies and buzzy fads

As the executive vice president of digital and banking solutions for a company that’s been working closely with community banks for more than 50 years, I always implore bankers to start by asking three fundamental questions when it comes to investing in new innovations.

Does the innovation solve problems?
True innovation — innovation that changes people’s financial lives — happens when tech companies and banks work together to solve pain points experienced by banks and their customers every single day. It happens in places like the FIS Fintech Accelerator, where we put founders at the beginning of their startup’s journey in a room with community bank CTOs, so they can explain what they’re trying to solve and how they plan to do it.

Community banks don’t have the luxury of investing in innovations that aren’t proven and don’t address legitimate customer pain points. These institutions need partners who can road test new technologies to ensure that they’ll be easy to integrate and actually solve the problems they set out to address. These banks need partners who have made the investments to help them “fail fast” and allow them to introduce new ideas and paradigms in a safe, tested environment that negates risk.

Does the innovation help your bank differentiate itself in a crowded market?
In order to succeed, not every community or regional bank needs to be JPMorgan Chase & Co. or Bank of America Co. in order to succeed. But they need to identify and leverage ideas that bolster their value to their unique customer base. A bank with less than $1 billion in assets that primarily serves small, local businesses in a rural area doesn’t need the same technologies that one with $50 billion in assets and a consumer base in urban suburbs does. Community banks need to determine which innovations and technologies will differentiate their offerings and strengthen the value proposition to their key audiences.

For example, if a community bank has strong ties with local small to midsize business clients, it could look for differentiating innovations that make operations easier for small and medium businesses (SMBs), adding significant value for customers.

Banks shouldn’t think about innovation as a shiny new object and don’t need to invest in every new “disruption” brought to market. Instead, they should be hyper-focused on the services or products that will be meaningful for their customer base and prioritize only the tools that their customers want.

Does it complement your existing processes, people and practices?
When a bank evaluates a new type of technology, it needs to consider the larger framework that it will fit into. For example, if an institution’s main value proposition is delivering great customer service, a new highly automated process that depersonalizes the experience won’t be a fit.

That’s not to say that automation should be discarded and ignored by a large swath of banks that differentiate themselves by knowing their customers on a personal level; community banks just need to make sure the technology fits into their framework. Improving voice recognition technology so customers don’t have to repeat their account number or other personal information before connecting with a banker may be just the right solution for the bank’s culture and customers, compared to complete automation overhaul.

Choosing the right kinds of innovation investment starts with an outside-in perspective. Community banks already have the advantage of personal customer relationships — a critical element in choosing the right innovation investment. Ask customers what the bank could offer or adjust to make life easier. Take note of the questions customers frequently ask and consider the implications behind the top concerns or complaints your bank staff hear.

Can your bank apply its own brand of innovation to solve them? Community banks don’t need to reinvent the wheel to remain competitive, and can use innovation to their advantage. Think like your customers and give them what no one else will. And just as importantly, lean on a proven partner who understands the demands your bank faces and prioritizes your bank’s best interests.

Beyond Spreadsheets: Digitizing Construction Lending



Many banks rely on spreadsheets and personal contact to oversee and manage construction loans—methods that are ineffective today. How can financial institutions improve this process? In this video, Built CEO Chase Gilbert explains how upgrading technology and making the process digital creates efficiencies for both bank and borrower, and allows for better risk management capabilities.

  • Why Digitize Construction Lending
  • Efficiency Gains and Other Benefits
  • Confronting Common Obstacles