Scaling Customer Acquisition Through Digital Account Openings

A strong digital account opening strategy, when done correctly, can generate returns on investment that are both obvious and large.

Critical to this strategy, however, is to have a granular and holistic understanding of customer acquisition cost, or CAC. Customer acquisition cost is a broad topic and is usually composed of multiple channels. Digital account opening is a tool used to acquire customers, and therefore should be included in your financial institution’s CAC. ‍It may even be able to reduce your current CAC.

Financial institutions define CAC differently, and there is no limit to its granularity. We advise financial institutions to separate user acquisition cost into two buckets: digital CAC and physical CAC. This piece will focus on digital CAC.

With respect to digital CAC, there are a number of inputs that can include:

  • The digital account opening platform;
  • social media advertising spend;
  • print ad spend (mailers, billboards);
  • general ad spend (commercials, radio);
  • retargeting ad spend (i.e. Adroll); and
  • creative costs.

Optionally, a financial institution can also include the salaries and bonuses of employees directly responsible for growth, any overhead related to employees directly responsible for growth and even physical CAC, if this is less than 20% of overall CAC spend.

How Does Digital Account Opening Reduce CAC?
Digital account opening platforms are actually intended to lower your customer acquisition costs. Initially, this might sound counterintuitive: how would installing a digital account platform, which is an additional cost, reduce CAC over the long run?

The answer is scale.

For example, let’s say your financial institution spends $1 million on marketing and gains 10,000 new customers. This results in a CAC of $100 per customer. Compare that to spending $1.2 million on marketing that includes digital account opening. Providing the ability for customers to easily open accounts through online, mobile and tablet channels results in 15,000 customers, dropping your CAC to $80. In this example, implementing a fast and easy way for customers to open accounts reduced CAC by 20% and increased the return on existing marketing spend.‍

Once you have a successful marketing machine that includes strong digital account opening, you will want to scale quickly. Marketing spend decisions should be driven by quantitative metrics. You should be able to confidently expect that if it increases marketing spend by $X, you will see a Y increase in new accounts and a Z increase in new deposits.

The only additional costs your financial institution incurs for account opening are per application costs — which tend to be nominal inputs to the overall CAC calculation. ‍

What is a Good CAC for a Financial Institution?‍
CAC has so many variables and broad-definitions that it is nearly impossible to tell financial institutions what is “good” and what is “bad.” Across CAC industry benchmarks, financial services has one of the highest costs to acquire new customers:

Technology (Software): $395

Telecom: $315‍

Banking/Insurance: $303

‍Real Estate: $213

Technology (Hardware): $182

Financial: $175

Marketing Agency: $141

Transportation: $98

Manufacturing: $83

Consumer Goods: $22

Retail: $10

Travel: $7‍ ‍‍

Customer acquisition cost and digital account opening go hand-in-hand. Financial institutions should focus on the output of any marketing spend, as opposed to the input cost. Different marketing strategies will have varied levels of scalability. It’s important to invest in strategies that can scale exponentially and cost-effectively. By focusing on these principles, your financial institution will quickly realize a path towards industry-leading growth and profit metrics, putting your financial institution ahead of the competition.

A Pandemic-Proof Process Transformation Game Plan

Initiatives without execution are dreams that never become plans.

At MX, we’re helping banks use financial data to improve the financial lives of more than 30 million people. Banks need a secure foundation to build on at a time when profits have stalled, laying the groundwork for ways to increase revenue, offset losses and impact to your bottom line.

To get a better understanding of what financial institutions are focusing on, we recently surveyed more than 400 financial institution clients for their top initiatives this year and beyond. We believe these priorities will gain even more importance across the industry. The top five initiatives are:

  1. Enabling Emerging Technologies, Continued Innovation
  2. Improving Analytics, Insights
  3. Increasing Customer Engagement
  4. Leveraging Open Banking, API Partnerships
  5. Strategically Growing Customer Acquisition, Accounts

But identifying the initiatives to prioritize is merely the first step. Banks need to align their top initiatives throughout their organization to lay down the project’s foundation. Sustainable transformation is not accomplished by simply plugging in a new technology or process. True transformation requires a shift in the way the organization operates day to day. Without a commitment to changing the way you do business your efforts will be stunted and you will not achieve the outcomes promised in the initial business case.

The first thing banks need to do is ensure that their organizational goals translate top down, from executive leadership through department levels, all the way to individual contributors. If certain priorities don’t align from top to bottom, it’s important to address these outliers right away to ensure everyone is moving ahead in the same direction.

Banks will also want to make sure they’re effectively tracking their performance against the company strategy and organizational vision through Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and department metrics. Look at the top initiatives in the industry and see how they align within your bank’s own organizational goals.

This practice might reveal that that not all initiatives work together. Three critical questions to ask during this process are: Are we focused on understanding and solving the needs of our customers? How do we shift priorities to align with where we should be going as an organization? Where is overlap or conflict of priorities between all stakeholders?

Here’s a brief overview of how banks can create a game plan to guide their process transformation:

1. Align OKRs With Vision
Break down your bank’s vision into objectives. This can be anything from helping employees develop the right skills to acquiring the right technologies and so on. From there, break those objectives down into quarterly Objectives and Key Results and translate them across each department and individual employee.

2. Specify Metrics
Ensure your bank has the right metrics in place for measuring your OKRs. The more clarity your bank can get around what you’re measuring and why, the easier it will be to understand if your efforts’ progress and success.

3. Find Champions
Identifying champions within your organization is a great way to move things forward. These critical stakeholders will be just as motivated as you to get certain things done. If you’re considering new technologies or new programs, work with them to translate the need and opportunity to the executive suite.

4. Identify Trusted Partners 
Now’s the time to lean on trusted partners for support. Your customers are actively looking to you for alternative digital solutions to manage their money. Instead of going at it alone and trying to build everything in-house, it may be faster to partner with financial technology firms and other third parties that can get your products to market more efficiently.  

At MX, we’re working closely with our partners and clients to ensure they have the tools they need to optimize their digital experiences and complete their top initiatives, even in these challenging times. Banks must create comprehensive strategies around their digital channels and offerings, so they can continue to lead during uncertainty and change. This is a valuable opportunity for all of us to be better to one another and to the communities we serve.

Five Digital Banking Initiatives for Second Half of 2020

As the calendar nears the midpoint of 2020 and banks continue adjusting to a new normal, it’s more important than ever to keep pace with planned initiatives.

To get a better understanding of what financial institutions are focusing on, MX surveyed more than 400 financial institution clients for their top initiatives this year and beyond. We believe these priorities will gain even more importance across the industry.

1. Enabling Emerging Technologies, Continued Innovation
Nearly 20% of clients see digital and mobile as their top initiatives for the coming years. Digital and mobile initiatives can help banks limit the traffic into physical locations, as well as reduce volume to your call centers. Your employees can focus on more complex cases or on better alternatives for customers.

Data-led digital experiences allow you to promote attractive interest rates, keep customers informed about upcoming payments and empower them to budget and track expenses in simple and intuitive ways. 

2. Improving Analytics, Insights
Knowing how to leverage data to make smarter business decisions is a key focus for financial institutions; 22% of our clients say this is the top initiative for them this year. There are endless ways to leverage data to serve customers better and become a more strategic organization.

Data insights can indicate customers in industries that are at risk of job loss or layoffs or the concentration of customers who are already in financial crisis or will be if their income stops, using key income, spending and savings ratios. Foreseeing who might be at risk financially can help you be proactive in offering solutions to minimize the long-term impact for both your customers and your institution.

3. Increasing Customer Engagement
Improving and increasing customer engagement is a top priority for 14% of our clients. Financial institutions are well positioned to become advocates for their customers by helping them with the right tools and technologies.

Transaction analytics is one foundational tool for understanding customer behavior and patterns. The insights derived from transactions and customer data can show customers how they can reduce unnecessary spending through personal financial management and expert guidance.

But it’s crucial to offer a great user experience in all your customer-facing tools and technologies. Consumers have become savvier in the way they use and interact with digital channels and apps and expect that experience from your organization. Intuitive, simple, and functional applications could be the difference between your customers choosing your financial institution or switching to a different provider.

4. Leveraging Open Banking, API Partnerships
Open banking and application programming interfaces, or APIs, are fast becoming a new norm in financial services. The future of banking may very well depend on it. Our findings show that 15% of clients are considering these types of solutions as their main initiative this year. Third-party relationships can help financial institutions go to market faster with innovative technologies, can strengthen the customer experience and compete more effectively with big banks and challengers.

Financial institutions can leverage third parties for their agile approach and rapid innovation, allowing them to allocate resources more strategically, expand lines of business, and reduce errors in production. These new innovations will help your financial institution compete more effectively and gives customers better, smarter and more advanced tools to manage their financial lives.

But not all partnerships are created equally. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently released changes surrounding third-party relationships, security and use of customers’ data, requiring financial institutions to provide third-party traffic reports of companies that scrape data. Right now, the vast majority of institutions only have scrape-based connections as the means for customers to give access to their data — another reason why financial institutions should be selective and strategic with third-party providers.

5. Strategically Growing Customer Acquisition, Accounts
As banking continues to transform, so will the need to adapt including the way we grow. Nearly 30% of our clients see this as a primary goal for 2020 and beyond. Growth is a foundational part of success for every organization. And financial institutions generally have relied on the same model for growth: customer acquisitions, increasing accounts and deposits and loan origination. However, the methods to accomplish these growth strategies are changing, and they’re changing fast.

Right now, we’re being faced with one of the hardest times in recent history. The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we do business, halting our day-to-day lives. As we continue to navigate this new environment, financial institutions should lean on strategic partnerships to help fill gaps to facilitate greater focus on their customers.

Helping Customers When They Need It Most

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting Bank Supervision to the Covid-19 Reality

Can a bank socially distance itself from its primary federal regulator?

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the answer is apparently yes.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees nationally chartered banks and thrifts, has been impacted by the virus’ shutdown in much the same way as the institutions it oversees.

In an interview with Bank Director, Acting Comptroller of the Currency Brian Brooks — who replaced former Comptroller Joseph Otting after his resignation on May 29 — says the pandemic has forced the agency to adapt its preferred method of operation to the restrictions of social distancing.

“One thing that I worry about from a supervision perspective is, historically, bank examiners go on-site,” Brooks says. “Not because it’s convenient, but because being able to be in a room with bankers and sit face to face with people … is a critical tool in identifying fraud and identifying trends that might not make it onto a management report, or might not be raised in a formal presentation. And the longer banks are in a work-from-home environment, the harder it is for us to do that human aspect of bank supervision.”

Brooks says while there are legitimate health reasons why much of the banking industry has operated with a distributed workforce for the last several months, he’s anxious to reintroduce the element of personal contact into bank supervision. “I know that may not happen next month or even this quarter, but we need to start charting that course back, because this method of supervision can’t go on forever,” he says.

The OCC is reopening its facilities on June 21 and is encouraging people who do not have underlying health conditions and would feel comfortable doing so to return to their offices. “That’s our way of showing leadership to the industry of how one can start charting this course back to normalcy,” Brooks explains. “But having said that, we’ve moved to significantly enhanced cleaning schedules. We’re obviously providing face masks and gloves to people who are in mail-handling or public facing positions. We’re changing seating arrangements to maximize the availability of social distancing. And of course, we’re continuing to allow anyone who wants to, to work remotely while making the office … more normalized for everybody else.”

Brooks believes that recent data on the virus suggests that the health risk for most people is manageable. “What the data seem to be showing is that hospitalization rates and fatality rates for people of working age, who don’t have particular risk conditions, seem to be within historic norms,” he says. “Which is not to say that this is not a dangerous disease, but it does appear to be that … people who are under a certain age and who don’t have certain conditions are not at special risk relative to other types of viruses that we’ve seen before.”

And when OCC examiners do return to on-site visits to their banks, they will follow whatever safety protocols the bank has in place.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to the U.S. economy — which entered a recession in February — and the OCC wants national banks to take a hard look at their asset quality. It’s not an easy assessment to make. Banks have granted repayment deferrals of 90 days or greater to many of their borrowers at the same time as the federal government suspended troubled debt restructuring guidance and pumped money into the economy through the Paycheck Protection Program. A clear asset risk profile has yet to emerge for many institutions.

“Some of the traditional metrics that we’ve used to determine asset quality … could be masked by a lot of the relief efforts,” says Maryann Kennedy, senior deputy comptroller for large-bank supervision at the OCC. “Many of our institutions are going back and retooling many of their stress testing models in response to the breadth, depth and velocity of the number of programs that they’re instituting there.” 

Just because OCC examiners don’t have personal contact with their banks doesn’t mean they haven’t been talking to them through the pandemic. Some of those conversations are an effort to triage which banks may need the greatest attention from regulators.

“There is a real time risk-based assessment of what’s happening with our national banks and federal savings associations, so we can try to understand how we move forward and where we focus our attention. [It’s] is very challenging, similar to the challenge [banks have] trying to understand their asset quality and the situation with their loan portfolios,” says Kennedy.

The OCC is essentially trying to assess the pandemic’s economic impact on national banks and thrifts while those institutions make their own credit risk assessments.

“A real-time conversation that’s going on right now, particularly in that in our larger banks, is ‘What is your stress forecasting looking like for provision expense in the second quarter, as well as what could be those potential impacts to earnings, particularly as it relates to any earnings expectations that might be out there?’” Kennedy says. “Those are challenging conversations going on right now … as our bank managements sort of work through the struggle [with] some of those specifics. It’s not a real predictive economy right now.”

Seven Costs of Saying “No” to Cannabis Banking

Ask the typical bank executive why their institution isn’t providing banking services to state-legal cannabis-related businesses (CRBs), and you will likely hear a speedy retort along these lines:

“We’re not allowed to — it’s still federally illegal.”

“We would love to, but we don’t know enough about that industry to manage the risk.”

“We don’t think our customers would want our name and reputation associated with that.”

On the surface, these prudent practices make perfect sense. A complex legal landscape, inability to assess regulatory risk and desire to protect the institution’s reputation are compelling reasons to stay far away from cannabis-related proceeds. But there are hidden costs to saying “no” to cannabis banking. These hidden costs accrue to CRBs, the communities in which they are located, the financial institutions that avoid them and potentially society at large.

Community Risks

Community risks stem from direct and indirect sources. The obvious risks, such as the increased potential for crime and the resulting challenges to law enforcement, are frequently cited. The indirect risks are less obvious, such as a community’s inability to identify or collect appropriate taxes on CRB proceeds.

Cash on hand invites crimes of opportunity. A retail location that is known to have large volumes of cash on hand produces a seductive temptation for the criminal element.

Cash is easy to conceal from revenue officials. Fewer dollars in the public coffers are the inevitable outcome when revenue goes uncollected. In its “Taxing Cannabis” report, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy indicates that tax evasion and ongoing competition from illicit marijuana operations remain an ongoing concern in legal use states.

Opportunity Costs

Early adopters have demonstrated that the cannabis industry is willing and able to accept higher price points from financial institutions in exchange for the safety and convenience of obtaining traditional banking services. Your bank’s avoidance means forfeiting both short-term and long-term opportunities to generate fee income while giving others a head start on future business opportunities.

Cost of lost fee income. It is not uncommon to hear of small financial institutions generating multimillion-dollar annual fee income from CRB accounts. In less-established markets, accounts yield monthly fees based on their average deposit balances.

Cost of missing out. Just like its social media counterpart — FOMO or fear of missing out — COMO is real. If 5% to 10% of your peers are already banking CRBs, imagine what will happen as the next 10% step in. And then the next 10% after that. Before the real race has even begun, you’ve ceded some portion of the addressable market simply by not being present in the market today.

Economic Costs

The suppression of legal cannabis businesses weakens their potential to inform decisions and progress. Anecdotal and scientific evidence supports that mental and physical health benefits can be derived from responsibly sourced and properly administered cannabis-based products. Data from countries that are moving quickly to align public policy with sentiment and science on these issues indicates that sustainable economic benefits are possible.

Cost of falling behind in medical and other scientific research and advances. In 2018, 420Intel identified six countries for their cannabis research: Spain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Uruguay, the Netherlands and Israel. This type of research cannot be conducted in the United States because of federal prohibitions that require clearing multiple regulatory hurdles, at great cost.

Costs of pain and suffering to those in need of relief. Even if your personal belief sets don’t allow you to explore cannabis topics with an open mind, you need look no further than your media feeds or internet searches to find immeasurable examples of individuals who claim that using cannabis or cannabinoids have provided them with physical and mental health benefits.

Cost of lost economic growth potential. While exact numbers are hard to come by, there more than 110 studies taking place in Israel alone, funded at rates in the six and seven figures apiece. BNN Bloomberg reported that Canada’s legalized cannabis sector contributed $8.26 billion to its gross domestic product in its first 10 months of national legalization.

So before your bank decides the risks of saying “yes” to banking CRBs is still too high, pause to consider the risks you’re allowing to affect your institution and local community when you say “no.” Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at whether CRB banking is for you.

Three Financial Institutions, Three Ways to Improve Operations

cinchy.pngIt can be hard for banks to invest in changing their operations, especially when new systems or vendors are involved. Unlike loans or accounts, assigning a price tag to the value banks get from improving their operations is far from straightforward.

With this in mind, Bank Director looked at how three fintechs — Cinchy, Empyrean Solutions and INETCO Systems Limited — have helped three financial institutions streamline data sharing, financial modeling and real time transaction modeling.

Cinchy, a data collaboration platform that manages data as a network and enables banks to build their own business applications, won Best Solution for Improving Operations at Bank Director’s 2020 Best of FinXTech Awards in May. Modeling platform Empyrean Solutions and transactions intelligence firm INETCO Systems Limited were finalists for the category.

Cinchy: A Tool to Build Tools
National Bank of Canada wanted to custom build a tool that would integrate and easily share internal information and documentation with data scientists and business intelligence teams to support its big data efforts. Some solutions on the market were focused more on governance, rather than data pooling and aggregation — which was like “buying a plane to get a bicycle,” says Sebastien Beaulieu, senior manager of data, business intelligence and analytics strategy at the bank.

Enter Cinchy. Cinchy’s customization and flexibility gave various internal stakeholders a way to collaborate within the bank’s ecosystem to build the right tool. Beaulieu calls it “play dough.”

The Cinchy tool sits on top of the bank’s SQL (Structured Query Language) server. Implementation took six months, but Beaulieu says it could’ve taken as little as three.

While he wasn’t authorized to share specific performance metrics, he says there has been “tremendous value” from having a centralized, federated data lake. It used to take up to 200 days to integrate a new data source into the bank’s previous Oracle tool; with Cinchy, it now takes 10 days.

Empyrean Solutions: Modeling Everything
Pinnacle Financial Partners was preparing to grow over $10 billion in assets and knew its existing asset-liability management (ALM) platform wouldn’t meet the heightened regulatory expectations that come with crossing the threshold.

It learned about Empyrean Solutions from the recommendation of several larger peers. Today, the $29 billion bank uses the modeling platform for “just about everything,” says Brian Gilbert, the bank’s asset liability manager.

The Nashville, Tennessee-based bank uses Empyrean to model ALM, credit, funds transfer pricing, non-maturity deposits, contingency liquidity and net interest margin forecast. The bank is also using it to calculate its allowance under the current expected credit loss model, or CECL. Running 17 scenarios on the platform now only takes 17 minutes, he says. Such pulls can take hours to run at other banks; the time saved allows him to focus on the inputs in each situation and create multiple scenarios.

Gilbert couldn’t devote continuous full days to the implementation but estimated that a dedicated team could do it in a week. The platform doesn’t connect to a bank’s core; instead, users load data and financial information directly into it. These data sets can then be made available for any modeling, reducing the amount of raw extracts that Gilbert needs to perform.

“It’s hard for me to say how many more people we would need to have on my team if we didn’t have Empyrean. We would need more than four people to run interest rate forecasting,” he says.

INETCO Systems Limited: ATM Oversight
Boeing Employees’ Credit Union, or BECU, relies on its fleet of ATMs to deliver a large percentage of its financial services to members. It’s not unusual for one of its ATMs to have 14,000 transactions a month. So it’s a big deal when one goes offline and needs to be repaired or serviced, says Shirley Taylor, digital channel manager at the Tukwila, Washington-based credit union.

The $22 billion credit union wasn’t finding out about ATM outages or errors in a reliable or timely manner, in part because machines would occasionally go offline. Its ATM vendor introduced the credit union to INETCO, an operations intelligence platform that monitors transactions.

The credit union liked that the platform created alerts when there was an interruption in an ATM’s normal activity or when transactions failed to process — signs of a problem. Those alerts mean that fewer ATMs stay out of commission, allowing members to use its machines instead of sending them elsewhere. The fintech also generates potential fraud alerts and helps Taylor generate regular usage reports much faster. What used to take four to six weeks and involved reaching out to three other colleagues for data now takes an hour, she says.

Changing bank operations is never easy. But Cinchy, Empyrean Solutions and INETCO Systems Limited show how bankers can improve their institutions, saving employees valuable time and reducing the number needed to conduct essential operations.

Three Retail Strategies for the Post-Coronavirus Branch

Technology is key to providing a near touch-free experience in the branch and digitally, but many banks are not ready. Less than 50% of organizations believe they are prepared for competitive threats, customer expectations or technological advancements, according to the 2019 “State of Digital Banking Transformation” report.

It’s a daunting task to take on digital transformation. Financial institution didn’t need a crisis to learn that banking from anywhere is a priority for customers, but it has highlighted the slow rate of mobile adoption. Only 17% of financial institutions believe they have deployed digital transformation at scale, with larger organizations being the most advanced, according to the Digital Banking Report. Even after the coronavirus pandemic has settled down, consumers will value banks that make the investment to provide services digitally.

Onboard Customers to Digital Resources
Transacting from anywhere is important, but that’s not the entire branch experience — banks need to provide highly personal financial education and advisory services from anywhere. Focus marketing and communications on educating customers with resources like blogs, social media posts, financial healthcheck tools or webinars on relevant topics like financial planning in an emergency. Content explaining the details and next steps on payment deferrals, personal loans, and programs like the Paycheck Protection Program are especially helpful during this time. Ensure your compliance officer looks over everything before it’s posted.

Offering tools and resources now will position you as an advising partner rather than a product-focused institution. And video banking gives your customers more access to experts. These platforms put face-to-face interactions in the palm of your customers’ hands by allowing them to connect with a banker right from their phone, securely sign and share documents such as photo IDs, documents for new accounts, loans, and other urgent needs.

Give Customers Access to Experts
Banks also need to invest in technology that allows their experts to work from anywhere — including the corporate campus or headquarters too. These investments allow them to work from anywhere makes transitioning to remote easy; they can also improve productivity when they are in the office.

Adding flex spaces in your headquarters allows you to reduce the number of desks provided to full-time employees while improving productivity, the flex space allows your employees to have a space to focus when they need to, collaborate, and it can be used by others when that employee is remote or off-campus.

Your experts will need to have a well-thought-out space where they can perform their remote expert duties. A clean backdrop, technology, and quiet location are all necessary to make sure your experts can handle any question and transaction. However, the space doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. Take an Instagram-versus-reality approach to creating the perfect remote expert set-up. Meaning, focus design dollars on what is on camera instead of spending on the entire space. Offer your experts best practices for video conferencing so your exceptional customer service standards are not altered when your associates are working remotely.

Prepare Your Branch for the Post-Coronavirus Consumer
This is truly the time to prepare your branches for the future and provide an even-better experience than before. Consumers post-coronavirus will be more aware of being in confined spaces, such as private offices. A “service spot” offers a unique workspace for associates that is visibly less “confining” but still private, potentially increasing the appeal of getting advisory services in the branches. Ideally, the spots would be set at counter or bar height.

Teller towers are a retail-friendly twist on the old-school teller line. They remove queue lines and create more distance between customers, while providing a better interaction experience with staff.

Easy-to-clean surfaces for furniture, flooring and more will be the way of the future. Brian Silvester, Head of Design at DBSI, offers several examples of easy to clean and green finish options:

  • Stain-resistant surfaces and PFOA-free upholstery are easy to clean and reduce health concerns linked to PFOA.
  • Easy-to-clean laminate instead of wood veneer offers a realistic natural wood-look without having to worry about scratches and special cleaning procedures.
  • Groutless flooring like luxury vinyl tile reduces maintenance over time. There are even options that are carbon neutral.

The post-coronavirus consumer may be hyperaware of germs on everything they touch, and may not be interested in communal brochure racks to gather information. Digital and interactive signage with hand sanitizer nearby in an option that is easy to clean and update. Interactive digital signage allows customers to still obtain the information they want while collecting emails and data for customer insights. Touch-free screens are a great way to showcase your products and services with virtually no risk of community spread.

To create the perfectly prepared retail strategy that can attract and retain customers in any situation, banks need to fuse design, technology and process. Branch transformation, at any level, is both an art and a science.

COVID-19: A Make-or-Break Moment for Customer Loyalty

It seems like the world is spinning faster these days. COVID-19 has caused dramatic shifts in the way people live their lives and manage their finances. Add record job loss to the mix, and you get a groundswell of people relying on their banks more than ever. It’s a make-or-break moment, as customers form new habits in response to their new reality.

Ryan Caldwell has a bird’s-eye view of how customers are relying on their financial institutions’ data and digital tools in this moment of crisis. As the CEO of MX, a Utah-based fintech, Caldwell helps financial institutions collect, analyze, present and act on data. Right now, the data is telling him this moment offers an opportunity for banks to cultivate loyalty. At the same time, it presents big risks for banks that don’t rise to the occasion.

In a recent interview, Caldwell told a story that serves as an interesting corollary for two approaches banks might take to navigate the crisis.

Driving down the streets of Lehi last week, Caldwell noticed construction in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A. He was curious so, at the stoplight, he opened their app and placed an order. When he pulled up to the window, the Chick-fil-A manager confirmed his order and handed it over with sterile gloves. The receipt was in the app. It was an optimal, socially distanced experience.

Caldwell asked the manager about the construction. In a time when most restaurants are struggling to stay afloat, Chick-fil-A, Caldwell was told, is converting half its parking spots into mobile ordering stations. They’re experiencing exponential growth in mobile usage and, without customers spending 45 minutes in the store, they’re able to operate at redline capacity. They’re busier than ever.

Shortly after his Chick-fil-A experience, Caldwell had an experience that better aligns with refrains we’re hearing in the news about how restaurants are getting slaughtered without dine-in customers.

Caldwell’s family frequents a local pancake place, but the restaurant has no mobile app and a terrible website. Still, when your four-year old daughter has been cooped up in the house for weeks, you run out of options. So Caldwell placed a phone order and ventured out.

When he pulled up, the restaurant looked deserted. He parked and went inside to pay for the order — touching door handles and PIN pads along the way. The pancake place’s manager had a completely different problem from Chick-fil-A’s: without dine-in customers, they had virtually no business. Caldwell says everyone in town loves this place’s pancakes — a lot more than they like Chick-fil-A — but it didn’t matter how much people love it if they don’t have a safe, easy way to get to it.

The restaurant analogy easily applies to banks. The ones that provide a modern mobile experience are not only processing basic transactions for their clients, they’re using data to provide helpful insights and peace of mind in this crucial time. They’re able to increase engagement and help their customers figure out just how much is safe to spend on toilet paper stockpiles. They play a key role helping customers tackle daily struggles.

Banks that aren’t leaning into technology risk losing out on these opportunities. Worse, they may not see that loss until we’re on the other side of this crisis.

Banks without data aggregation have no way of knowing how their customers’ behavior is changing in response to this crisis. They can’t see it when social distancing and closed branches cause customers to download new apps, apply for a loan from a fintech or find a new way to move money.

“Banks are completely blind to changing consumer habits regarding digital banking if they don’t have aggregation,” Caldwell says. “So I think a lot of banks may think they’re going to come out of this at the end even stronger, but they are not realizing they’ve already lost a battle. It’s just a question of time before that lingering account dwindles down to the low balance, and then it either sits as a zombie account or it goes to zero.”

In times of rapid change, banks can’t afford to fly blind by using lagging indicators based on last month’s reports. Caldwell says leading indicators — the tiny tremors in behavioral changes that only artificial intelligence can detect — will be crucial in helping customers and de-risking the bank.

And banks need to get their data and digital experiences in place fast. The healthcare industry’s response to COVID isn’t to take 18 months building a new hospital from the ground up, Caldwell says. Healthcare administrators triage; they set up tents in parking lots and do whatever they have to do to provide help where it’s needed most.

It is possible for banks to play catch-up quickly. Fintechs have come out in droves to support banks with accelerated launches and discounted services. For MX’s part, they can set up a data-driven mobile app that sits alongside the bank’s existing app in a matter of weeks.

“You don’t have time to retrofit your ancient hospital,” Caldwell says. “If you want to take good care of your customers and not let them down, you need to launch something in the next few weeks. The world you live in right now is a world where that is not only possible, but it’s requisite.”

Coronavirus Sparks CECL Uncertainty

Even before COVID-19, the first quarter of 2020 was shaping up to be an uncertain one for large public banks. Now, it could be a disaster.

There is broad concern that the current expected credit loss standard, which has been effective since the start of 2020 for big banks, will aggravate an already bad situation by discouraging lending and loan modification efforts just when the new coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the economy. Congress is poised to offer banks temporary relief from the standard as a part of its broader relief act.

Section 4014 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, would give insured depository institutions and bank holding companies the option of temporarily delaying CECL implementation until Dec. 31, 2020, or “the date on which the public emergency declaration related to coronavirus is terminated.”

Congress’ bill comes as the Financial Accounting Standards Board has already rebuffed the efforts of one regulator to delay the standard.

On March 19, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Jelena McWilliams sent a letter to the board seeking, among other requests, a postponement of CECL implementation for banks currently subject to the standard and a moratorium for banks with the 2023 effective date.

McWilliams wrote that a moratorium would “allow these financial institutions to focus on immediate business challenges relating to the impacts of the current pandemic and its effect on the financial system.”

FASB declined to act on both proposals. “We’re continuing to work with financial institutions to understand their specific challenges in implementing the CECL standard,” wrote spokesperson Christine Klimek in an email to me later that day.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the standard’s reporting effective date could not come at a worse time for banks — or that a potential delay necessitating a switch back to the incurred loss model may be a major undertaking for banks scheduled to report results in the next several weeks.

“Banks are being tasked with something pretty complex in a very short timeframe. And of course, this is the first period that they’re including these numbers and a lot of the processes are brand new,” says Reza Van Roosmalen, a principal at KPMG who leads the firm’s efforts for financial instruments accounting change. “They’ve practiced with parallel runs. But you’re immediately going to the finals without having had any other games. This is the hardest situation you could be in.”

CECL has been in effect since the start of the new year for large banks and its impact was finally expected to show up in first-quarter results. But the pandemic and related economic crisis creates major implications for banks’ allowances and could potentially influence their lending behavior.

The standard requires banks to reserve lifetime loan losses at origination. Banks took a one-time adjustment to increase their reserves to reflect the lifetime losses of all existing loans when they switched to the standard, deducting the amount from capital with the option to phase-in the impact over three years. Afterwards, they adjusted their reserves using earning as new loans came onto the books, or as their economic forecasts or borrowers’ financial conditions changed. The rapid spread and deep impact of COVID-19, the bulk of which has been experienced by the U.S. in March, has led to a precipitous economic decline and interest rate freefall. Regulators are now encouraging banks to work with borrowers facing financial hardship.

“For banks, [CECL is] going to be a true test for them. It’s not just going through this accounting standard in the macroeconomic scenario that we’re in,” says Will Neeriemer, a partner in DHG’s financial services group, pointing out that the change comes as many bankers adjust to working from home or in shifts to keep operations running. “That is almost as challenging for them as going through the new standard for the first time in a live environment.”

The concern is that CECL will force allowances to jump once more at the beginning of the standard as once-performing loans become troubled all at the same time. That could discourage new lending activity — leading to procyclical behavior that mirrors, rather than counters, economic peaks and troughs.

It remains to be seen if that would happen if Congress doesn’t provide temporary accounting and provisioning relief, or if some banks decline the temporary relief and report their results under CECL. Regardless, the quarter will be challenging for banks.

“It’s temporary relief and it’s only for this year. It keeps the status quo, which I think is important,” says Lawrence Kaplan, chair of the bank regulatory group in Paul Hasting’s global banking and payments systems practice. “You don’t have to have artificial, unintended consequences because we’re switching to a new accounting standard during a period where there are other extraordinary events.”