A Look Ahead to 2022: The Year of Digital Lending

2021 has been a year of challenge and change for community bankers, especially when it comes to lending.

Banks modernized and digitized significant portion of loan activity during the pandemic; as a byproduct, customers have begun to realize the inefficiencies in traditional lending processes. Community financial institutions that hope to stay ahead in 2022 should prioritize the incorporation of digital and automated loan processes.

Although the need to digitize commercial lending has long been a point of discussion, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) sparked a fire that turned talk into action for many institutions. Bankers quickly jumped in to help small businesses receive the funding they needed, whether that meant long hours, adopting new technologies or creating new processes. The amount of PPP loans processed in that small window of time would not have been possible without many bankers leveraging trusted technology partners.

One result of this approach was enhancing transparency and boosting efficiencies while helping small businesses at the same time. Many in the banking industry saw firsthand that, despite the commonly held belief, it is possible to digitize lending while maintaining personal, meaningful relationships. Bankers do not have to make a choice between convenience and personal connection, and we expect to see more institutions blend the two going forward.

Bankers also have a newfound familiarity with Small Business Administration programs following the wind down of the PPP. The program marked many institutions’ first time participating in SBA lending. Many now have a greater understanding of government guaranteed lending and are more comfortable with the programs, opening the door for continued involvement.

Embracing digitization in lending enhances efficiencies and creates a more seamless experience not only for the borrower, but for employees institution-wide. This will be especially important as the “Great Retirement” continues and bank executives across the country end their careers with no one in place to succeed them. To make the issue even worse, recruiting and maintaining technology talent has become increasingly difficult — even more so in rural markets. Such issues are leading some banks to sell, disrupting the businesses and communities that rely on them.

Partnering with technology providers can give institutions the bandwidth to effectively serve more small businesses and provide them with the customer experiences they have come to expect without increasing staff. Adopting more digital and automatic aspects in small business lending allows banks to reduce tedious manual processes and optimize efficiencies, freeing up employee time and resources so they can focus on strategy and growth efforts. Not to mention, such a work environment is more likely to attract and retain top talent.

Using technology partners to centralize lending also has benefits from a regulatory compliance standpoint, especially as potential changes loom on the horizon. Incorporating greater digitization across the loan process provides increased transparency into relevant data, which can streamline and strengthen a bank’s documentation and reporting. The most successful institutions deeply integrate lending systems into their cores to enable a holistic, real-time view of borrower relationships and their portfolio.

Community institutions have been a lifeline for their communities and customers over the last two years. If they want to build off that momentum and further grow their customer base, they must continue to lean into technology and innovation for lending practices. Developing a comprehensive small business strategy and digitizing many aspects of commercial, small business and SBA lending will position community banks to optimize their margins, better retain their talent and help their communities thrive.

A Seller’s Perspective on the Return of Bank M&A

Any thoughts of a lingering impact on mergers and acquisitions as a result of the 2020 economic downturn caused by Covid-19 should be long gone: 2021 bank transaction value exceeded $50 billion for the first time since 2007.

Continued low interest rates on loans and related compression of net interest margin, coupled with limited avenues to park excess liquidity have made many banks consider whether they can provide sustainable returns in the future. Sustainability will become increasingly difficult in the face of continued waves of change: declining branch transactions, increasing cryptocurrency activity and competition from fintechs. Additionally, the fintech role in M&A activity in 2021 cannot be ignored, as its impact is only expected to increase.

Reviewing 2021 M&A transactions, one could argue that the market for bank-to-bank transactions parallels the current residential home market: a finite amount of supply for a large amount of demand. While more houses are being built as quickly as possible, the ability for banks to organically grow loans and deposits is a much slower process; sluggish economic growth has only compounded the problem. Everyone is chasing the same dollars.

As a result, much like the housing market, there are multiple buyers vying for the same institutions and paying multiples that, just a few years ago, would have seemed outlandish. For sellers, while the multiples are high, there is a limit to the amount a buyer is willing to pay. They must consider known short-term gains in exchange for potential long-term returns.

For banks that are not considering an outright sale, this year has also seen a significant uptick in divestures of certain lines of business that were long considered part of the community bank approach to be a “one-stop shop” for customer needs. Banks are piecemeal selling wealth management, trust and insurance services in an attempt to right-size themselves and focus on the growth of core products. However, this approach does not come without its own trade-offs: fee income from these lines of business has been one of the largest components of valuable non-interest income supporting bank profitability recently.

Faced with limited ability to grow their core business, banks must decide if they are willing to stay the course to overcome the waves of change, or accept the favorable multiples they’re offered. Staying the course does not mean putting down an anchor and hoping for calmer waters. Rather, banks must focus on what plans to implement and confront the waves as they come. These plans may include cost cutting measures with a direct financial impact, such as branch closures and workforce reductions, but should entail investments in technology, cybersecurity and other areas where returns may not be quantifiable.

So with the looming changes and significant multiples being offered, one might wonder why haven’t every bank that has been approached by a buyer decides to sell? For one, as much as technology continues to increasingly affect our everyday lives, there is a significant portion of the population that still finds value in areas where technology cannot supplant personal contact. They may no longer go to a branch, but appreciate knowing they have a single point of contact who will pick up the phone when they call with questions. Additionally, many banks have spent years as the backbone of economic development and sustainability in their communities, and feel a sense of pride and responsibility to provide ongoing support.

In the current record-setting pace of M&A activity, you will be hard pressed to not find willing buyers and sellers. The landscape for banks will continue to change. Some banks will attack the change head-on and succeed; some will decide their definition of success is capitalizing on the current returns offered for the brand they have built and exit the market. Both are success stories.

The Risk of Jaded Consumer Attitudes Toward Cybersecurity

The financial industry has increasingly been a target for cyberattacks as banks accelerated their digital transformation initiatives to maintain operations during the pandemic. While protecting against cybercrime has always been a top priority, the complexity and volume of attacks indicate that cybersecurity will remain one of the most important tasks banks face.

Consumers are feeling the impact, too. A recent CSI survey found that 85% of Americans reported cybersecurity concerns when it came to their personal confidential data. But that figure is down from 92% of Americans expressing cybersecurity concerns in a 2019 survey from CSI. The number of respondents not concerned about cybersecurity increased 7 percentage points compared to 2019, which could indicate that many consumers are becoming desensitized to cybersecurity risks.

It’s possible the size, scope and frequency of cybersecurity attacks makes these breaches appear abstract and distant to the average American. The constant media coverage could also contribute to a broader jaded attitude toward the seriousness of cybercrime risk that some consumers now hold.

When taking these factors into consideration, it is likely that a growing percentage of bank customers have fatalistic acceptance of cybersecurity breaches. As evidenced in CSI’s survey, this acceptance has resulted in lower security standards and more lenient practices in customers’ personal lives, which could ultimately increase the likelihood of their becoming victims of cyberattacks. And broader adoption of this mindset among consumers could have further adverse effects for financial institutions, making cybersecurity education a top priority for banks.

While cyberattacks may seem inevitable, there are consequences for financial institutions and consumers alike. There’s no doubt cyberattacks can cost banks money to resolve, but there are also reputational implications that can be harder to overcome. Banks that experience a cyberattack may face lower customer retention and adoption rates due to their tarnished reputation post-breach. According to CSI’s survey, nearly half of respondents (48%) strongly or somewhat agree they would leave their institution if it suffered a breach.

Additionally, consumers who are lax with cybersecurity awareness increase the risk they’ll fall victim to cyberattacks, including, but not limited to, identity theft and stolen card information. Due to the vast amount of time and resources often needed to resolve these threats, banking customers should take precautions to protect themselves. And to mitigate this risk and prevent attacks, institutions should, in turn, provide education and promote good cyber hygiene to their customers.

According to CSI’s survey, 69% of respondents claim they know what to do if their personal information is compromised. However, additional research suggests that consumers may be overconfident in this assessment. The Norton Cyber Safety Insights Report revealed that 46% of Americans don’t know what to do if their identity gets stolen, and 40% admit they don’t know how to protect themselves from cybercrime.

This data suggests an opportunity for banks to educate their customers about how to react when they notice suspicious activity and ensure that customers can easily obtain assistance if they suspect a breach. Banks that prioritize customer education have the potential to become experts in cybersecurity advice and resolution, which could expand their market reach.

As the frequency of cyberattacks continues to increase, it is vital that bank customers recognize the signs of cyber threats and react appropriately to suspicious activity. Their awareness is an important first step in the fight against cybercrime; as evidenced in the survey, awareness among consumers on the importance of cybersecurity needs to be higher than its current level. Banks should create tailored campaigns to educate their customers and provide actionable tips and insight on how to best protect themselves from attacks.

Looking ahead, banks should also embrace a layered approach to cybersecurity to strengthen their defenses, including continued customer education that reinforces the importance of cybersecurity awareness and best practices for staying secure. Banks that provide valuable education and promote cybersecurity awareness have the opportunity to increase new business through knowledge sharing while retaining current customers by building trust and maintaining strong brand reputation.

Data is the Secret Weapon for Successful M&A

The topic of data and analytics at financial institutions typically focuses on how data can be used to enhance the consumer experience. As the volume of M&A in the banking industry intensifies to 180 deals this year, first-party data is a critical asset that can be leveraged to model and optimize M&A decisions.

There are more than 10,000 financial institutions in the U.S., split in half between banks and credit unions. That’s a lot of targets for potential acquirers to sift through, and it can be difficult to determine the right potential targets. That’s where a bank’s own first-party data can come in handy. Sean Ryan, principal content manager for banking and specialty finance at FactSet, notes that “calculating overlap among branch networks is simple, but calculating overlap among customer bases is more valuable — though it requires much more data and analysis.” Here are two examples of how that data can be used to model and select the right targets:

  • Geographic footprint. There are two primary camps for considering footprint from an M&A perspective: grabbing new territory or doubling down on existing serving areas. Banks can use customer data to help determine the optimal targets for both of these objectives, like using spend data to understand where consumers work and shop to indicate where they should locate new branches and ATMs.
  • Customer segmentation. Banks often look to capturing market share from consumer segments they are not currently serving, or acquire more consumers similar to their existing base. They should use data to help drive decision-making, whether their focus is on finding competitive or synergistic customer bases. Analyzing first-party transaction data from a core processor can indicate the volume of consumers making payments or transfers to a competitor bank, providing insights into which might be the best targets for acquisition. If the strategy is to gain market share by going after direct competitors, a competitive insight report can provide the details on exactly how many payments are being made to a competitor and who is making them.

The work isn’t done when a bank identifies the right M&A target and signs a deal. “When companies merge, they embark on seemingly minor changes that can make a big difference to customers, causing even the most loyal to reevaluate their relationship with the company,” writes Laura Miles and Ted Rouse of Bain & Co. With the right data, it is possible that the newly merged institution minimizes those challenges and creates a path to success. Some examples include:

  • Product rationalization. After a bank completes a merger, executives should analyze specific product utilization at an individual consumer or household level, but understanding consumer behavior at a more granular level will provide even greater insights. For example, knowing that a certain threshold of consumers are making competitive mortgage payments could determine which mortgage products the bank should offer and which it should sunset. Understanding which business customers are using Square for merchant processing can identify how the bank can make merchant solutions more competitive and which to retain post-merger. Additionally, modeling the take rate, product profitability and potential adoption of the examples above can provide executives with the final details to help them make the right product decisions.
  • Customer retention. Merger analysis often indicates that customer communication and retention was either not enough of a focus or was not properly managed, resulting in significant attrition for the proforma bank. FactSet’s Ryan points out that “too frequently, banks have been so focused on hitting their cost save targets that they took actions that drove up customer attrition, so that in the end, while the buyer hit the mark on cost reductions, they missed on actual earnings.” Executives must understand the demographic profiles of their consumers, like the home improver or an outdoor enthusiast, along with the life events they are experiencing, like a new baby, kids headed off to college or in the market for a loan, to drive communications. The focus must be on retaining accountholders. Banks can use predictive attrition models to identify customers at greatest risk of leaving and deploy cross-sell models for relationships that could benefit from additional products and services.

M&A can be risky business in the best of circumstances — too often, a transaction results in the loss of customers, damaged reputations and a failure to deliver shareholder value. Using first-party data effectively to help drive better outcomes can ensure a win-win for all parties and customers being served.

Notching Customer, Employee Wins Through Process Automation

Financial institutions are committed to improving digital banking services and enabled more digital capabilities over the past year out of necessity — but there is more transformation to be done.

In their haste to meet customers’ and employees’ needs, many banks overlooked opportunities in back-office processes that are critical to providing excellent customer service, such as operating an efficient Regulation E (Reg E) dispute tracking process along with other processes that can ease employee challenges with regulatory compliance issues.

To enable bank staff to better serve customers, financial institutions must automate their back-office dispute tracking processes. One way to do is through implementing process automation solutions that offer workflows to direct the disputes appropriately, a single storage location for all supporting documentation and automating mundane tasks, such as generating letters and updating general ledger accounts. Implementing this kind of automation enables banks to simplify and streamline their input of disputes, ensuring that all critical information is captured accurately and dispute intake is handled consistently. This allows banks to provide consistent engagement and faster response to their customers.

Back-office automation strengthens a bank’s regulatory compliance and customer engagement. Awaiting outcomes from back-office processes can be extremely frustrating to customers — these moments are often tied to high-stress situations, such as having their cards used fraudulently. Banks should consider how manual, error-prone dispute tracking processes negatively affect the customer experience. Institutions also gain the crucial visibility that supports their decision-making and improves compliance with regulations, mitigating the risk and cost of non-compliance.

Process automation can also eliminate the stress that impacts account holders during this process. Having back-office automation with enhanced workflows and centralized documentation allows banks to return provisional credit more quickly and minimizes errors and delays. Instead of missing deadlines and making mistakes that erode customer confidence and cause audit exceptions, back-office employees meet deadlines and process disputes consistently and accurately, avoiding fines and additional work to remedy errors.

Automation can also improve back-office productivity by enhancing visibility. Clear visibility is created when a back-office employee can immediately track documentation and data when it is needed, at any stage in the process. During an audit, an employee may need to retrieve the date that a customer filed a Reg E dispute or to prove proper credit was applied. Without the appropriate tools, such as a single dashboard for dispute tracking and one platform for all supporting documentation, employees waste time searching paper files, spreadsheets and emails to piece together the required information. A workflow automation platform means a full audit trail with supporting documentation is readily available, optimizing everyone’s time.

For example, automation at Watkinsville, Georgia-based Oconee State Bank enables employees to efficiently complete tasks and focus their attention on serving their customers without being slowed down by complicated processes. The bank reduced the amount of time it took to file consumer disputes by more than 80% through process automation.

With 12 branches across Illinois and Indiana, First Bank, based in Carmi, Illinois, reduced claim processing time by more than 50% and experienced positive impacts from its digital dispute process. Dispute processes that can be easily tracked enable bank executives to clear audits and gain greater visibility into risk and compliance across their institution.

The visibility banks gain through automation improves their decision-making. Hard-to-access information and lack of visibility can be especially defeating when managing risk and compliance. Not only does incorrect or unavailable information open the door for human error, but it can also lead to financial loss. In areas like Reg E dispute tracking, this financial loss can be a result of not identifying a fraudulent dispute or trends of fraudulent charges. Process automation helps by supporting a methodical approach to reducing fraud and increasing visibility of high-risk merchants and customers.

This kind of attentive review during the Reg E process can help banks reduce the amount of undetected fraud and lower their write-off threshold, which is the pre-established amount set by an individual financial institution, under which any dispute is automatically written off as a financial loss. These thresholds are traditionally set with the back office staff’s bandwidth in mind; with more free time, banks can lower this threshold and avoid automatic losses. For instance, after implementing an automated, Reg E dispute tracking solution, Happy State Bank, the bank unit of Canyon, Texas-based Happy Bancshares, was able to lower its write-off threshold from $100 to $50 per dispute.

Tackling process automation can help banks compete and win while improving the level of service provided to customers. This technology empowers staff to be more responsive and alert to trends, enabling better decision-making and saving both cost and time. Implementing process automation allows banks to differentiate themselves from their competitors by providing consistent engagement and faster responses to customers. Process automation is the key to optimizing efficiency within any financial institution.

The API Band-Aid

Years before the Covid-19 crisis pushed the banking industry headfirst into a digital-forward ecosystem, many financial institutions felt stuck in place. While a few front-runners were making technological headway with modernized, adaptive core technologies — such as Deland, Florida-based Surety Bank, with $183 million in assets — many banks were tied to on-premises, decades-old systems. 

Still today, replacing the core — the backend system that processes all transactions — hasn’t become mainstream as a way to upgrade a bank’s technology. Instead, much of the industry seems to be moving toward a variety of outside solutions. 

And one of the most popular solutions has become application programming interfaces (APIs). In Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, 63% of banks report using APIs.

APIs function as passageways between software systems that facilitate data exchanges; in simpler terms, they allow systems to talk to each other. Layering APIs on top of legacy core systems allow them to interact with disparate third-party technology companies almost instantly, among other capabilities.

Finzly, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based alternative core provider, advocates that banks not break their core contracts. The company’s Director of Marketing Suja Ramakrishnan says, “The core has been designed for certain functions. Let’s allow it to do what it is made to do and build a new innovation layer on top of it to let [the bank] do what it wants to do.”

Finzly integrates with a bank’s existing core via API calls. It’s hosted on Amazon Web Services, so no on-site installation is required. Once integration is complete, a bank can access Finzly’s products, as well as ancillary technologies that handle payments, account opening, foreign exchange and commercial business needs. “Alternative cores are breeding grounds for innovation,” Ramakrishnan adds.

U.S. legacy cores aren’t standing on the sidelines, watching foreign fintechs provide the technology their bank clients are asking for.

To retain their customers and poach new ones, some of the leading providers — Jack Henry & Associates, FIS and Fiserv — have all invested in API and similar functional technologies to be included in their technology stacks. Jack Henry’s jXchange, FIS’s Code Connect and Fiserv’s Communicator Advantage are the providers’ way of offering real-time communication capabilities with selected third parties not included in their core contract. 

But these API marketplaces come with a catch.

Tom Grottke, managing director at Crowe LLP, notes that banks can’t self-select the third parties they want to work with and go to market the next day. The providers are the ones to vet, certify and onboard the services they want to offer to their bank clients. “They [legacy core providers] are more open than they have been, they’ve added more functionality … but it’s not an open architectured marketplace,” he explains.

While banks are still wondering how they can add more digital features and services, Grottke says banks have realized that they won’t have to change the core to find those answers. 

There may be many advantages to replacing legacy cores, but it appears that many banks are content in using APIs as a Band-Aid to temporarily fix a longstanding problem. And with core conversion costly, replacing the core could be daunting for many banks. APIs buy a bank more time in figuring out their long-term core strategy.

How Banks Can Leverage Niche With M&A

After a year of formidable industry change, bank merger and acquisition activity is beginning to bounce back.

July’s 19 announced transactions brings this year’s total to 116 deal announcements so far, compared with 111 overall in 2020, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. Financial institutions are looking to make strategic investments; post-pandemic, that means building seamless digital experiences at a lower cost remains a top priority.

This is a prime opportunity for banks to revisit the outdated traditional playbook of converting newly acquired customers. The conventional model of post-M&A communication is packed with marketing jargon like “commitment” and “service,” followed by a barrage of letters that make it difficult for customers to know what to expect from their new financial partner.

The goal of this approach has always been to reduce churn. But it has led to stagnant or low growth in wallet share and overlooked chances to build stronger relationships. One in four customers surveyed by BankingExchange took some form of action due to an acquisition: 5% closed their account, and an additional 22% eventually opened an account with another financial entity. Customers are increasingly willing to bank elsewhere if their financial needs are not being met.

Financial institutions need a new conversion playbook to keep old customers happy and new customers engaged. Banks should look beyond generic tactics and think like brands to make the M&A process smoother. This approach means the institution isn’t thinking about messaging as a box to check, focusing instead on the customer experience and brainstorming fresh and creative ways to communicate. Brand identity and emotion play a critical role in customer retention. According to a Deloitte study, over 35% of respondents who switched banks cited emotional reasons — they felt their bank was too large to care about their financial needs anymore.

Embracing a new acquisition model requires a proactive approach to post-merger communications and strategy. Framing a compelling story, integrating complex technology and bringing together multiple teams is achievable — but takes time and attention to detail.

A Fresh Approach to the M&A Playbook
Post-deal communications require a fresh approach to connecting emotionally and digitally with new customers. Forming deeper connections and reaching new opportunities for growth requires starting with an innovative model that leverages niche-focused products and services to create a greater affinity with the growing customer base.

Although a niche strategy isn’t an entirely new concept, it’s one of the most undervalued assets used by banks today. “Superior customer value occurs when a company can offer either a unique bundle of value, a comparable value at a lower cost than the competition or a combination of differentiated value and low cost,” research shows. Delivering tailored financial products to niche customer segments allows banks to build a brand that appeals to a new category of customers, creating a lasting connection and brand affinity.

Engaging a niche audience doesn’t mean your bank changes its foundation; it means focusing more deeply on an underserved segment of your newly acquired customer base to deliver a more robust and connected experience. Start by identifying these underserved markets with data to determine what opportunities exist. Maybe there’s a high concentration of gig workers who could benefit from new or newly combined digital bank offerings. As the acquiring bank, you could build an experience that meets these needs and the needs of other gig workers in your current customer base and communities.

This is a prime opportunity to jumpstart research, initiate conversations and craft meaningful marketing strategies that will delight your new audience. The standard welcome letter will not generate the same excitement as a bespoke campaign inviting gig workers to take part in building innovative products that will empower them to manage and grow their finances. This proactive approach demonstrates your dedication to providing top-notch customer services and solidifies your commitment to investing in each individual member.

Banks that take advantage of the new growth opportunities in today’s M&A landscape can move to a truly innovative approach that leverages data analytics to identify, differentiate and deliver value, leading to greater affinity and sustainable growth. Banks are poised to foster deeper trust in their new customers by building brands that deliver focused financial services for specific needs, ultimately creating lifetime value.

Taking Model Risk Management to the Next Level

A financial institution’s data is one of its most valuable resources. Banks constantly collect data on their loans, deposits and customer behaviors. This data should play a key role in how financial intuitions manage their risks.

Yet, developing a data strategy can be seen as too complex based on the sheer amount of data an institution may have, or as an unnecessary burden if the objective is solely to use the information to satisfy regulatory requirements. But a holistic data strategy can enhance value across all model risk management (MRM) platforms, both for regulatory and strategic purposes. On the flip side, being inconsistent or not updating data and inputs in a timely manner can lead to inaccurate or inconsistent results. Executives need to continually update and review information for consistency; if not, the information’s relevancy in assessing risk across various platforms will decrease.

Currently, the most common data strategy approach for banks is using individual tools to measure risk for regulatory purposes. For instance, financial institutions are required to calculate and monitor interest rate risk related to their balance sheet and potential movements in future interest rates. Typically, one team within the institution extracts data and transfers it to another team, which loads the data into an internal or external model to calculate the various interest rate profiles for management to analyze and make decisions. The institution repeats this process for its other models (credit, capital adequacy, liquidity, budgeting, etc.), adjusting the inputs and tools as needed. Often, banks view these models as individual silos — the teams responsible for them, and the inputs and processes, are separate from one another. However, the various models used to measure risk share many commonalities and, in many aspects, are interdependent.

Integrating model risk management processes require understanding a bank’s current data sources and aggregation processes across all of its current models. The first step for executives is to understand what data is currently used across these platforms, and how your organization can utilize it other beyond just checking the regulatory box. In order to enhance data quality, can one data extract be used for multiple platforms? For example, can the same loan-level data file be used for different models that use similar inputs such as asset liability management (ALM) and certain CECL models? While models may utilize some different or additional fields and inputs, there are many fields — such as contractual data or loan prepayment assumptions — that are consistent across models. Extracting the data once and using it for multiple platforms allows institutions to minimize the risk of inaccurate or faulty data.

From here, bank executives can develop a centralized assumption set that can be modeled across all platforms to ensure consistency and align results between models. For instance, are the credit assumptions that are developed for CECL purposes consistent with those used to calculate your ALM and liquidity profile under various scenarios? Are prepayment assumptions generated within the ALM model also incorporated into your CECL estimate? Synchronizing assumptions can provide more accurate and realistic results across all platforms. The MRM dashboard is a tool that can be configured to alert bank executives of emerging risks and ensure that data shared by different models is consistent.

One common method of gaining insights using MRM is through scenario and stress testing. Today’s environment is uncertain; executives should not make future decisions without in-depth analysis. They can develop scenarios for potential growth opportunities, modeling through the integrated platforms to calculate impacts to profitability and credit and interest rate risk. Similarly, they can expand deposit data and assumptions to assess high-risk scenarios or future liquidity issues apart from normal day-to-day operations. Whatever the strategy may be, assessing risk on an integrated basis allows management to gain a better understanding of all impacts of future strategies and make stronger business decisions.

Once institutions begin centralizing their data and model inputs and streamlining their monitoring processes using MRM dashboards, management can shift their focus to value-added opportunities that go beyond compliance and support the strategic vision of the institution.

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.

Embracing Fraud Protection as a Differentiator

Community banks are under pressure from the latest apps or start-ups that attempt to lure customers away with features that they may lack: cutting edge technology, international capabilities and a digital-first approach.

However, much less attention is focused on where established banks thrive: compliance. It might not be as flashy as the latest app, but being able to offer customers a sense of protection is more valuable than many would believe. Main Street banks have long been integral parts of their communities, serving both local businesses and families through their people-first approach. These institutions are well known for reinvesting back into their communities, making them intertwined with their neighborhood. This approach is unique and solidified the reputation of these institutions as personable — a sentiment that remains today, even as tech giants grow within the financial sector. Established institutions have an edge as their long histories and reputations are deemed by consumers as more trustworthy than fintechs.

Public trust is a valuable asset, especially after high-profile data breaches in recent years and coronavirus scams. Payment scams suffered by banks and companies are typically front-page news and can cause significant damage to the business with costly fines and reputation harm. More than 75% of customers say security is a top consideration when choosing a financial institution. Interestingly, even if the organization is not directly at fault, consumers still consider them culpable. In fact, 63% say a company is always responsible for their data — even if the scam resulted from their direct actions, including falling for an email scheme.

$1 Billion Threat
The realization that banking customers hold their banks accountable for all types of fraud and scams may be surprising to some financial leaders. It underscores the importance of banks taking an active role in educating users, as well as protecting their own security behind the scenes.

One of the most common schemes is business email compromise: a cyber crime where a payee sends fraudulent banking information to a business or individual, who unknowingly sends funds to the wrong account. The fraud grew during the coronavirus pandemic as many businesses worked remotely for the first time and relied on email in place of phone calls or in-person interactions. The FBI reported $26 billion in losses in just a three-year period.

Such numbers should concern financial institutions, especially since these funds can be difficult to recover. These incidents are likely underreported, meaning the real figures are likely much larger.

Three Immediate Actions
Today’s challenging environment for financial institutions means that little focus is placed on non-revenue generating activities, especially with the emergence of new fintechs and start-ups. However, helping to ensure that customer funds are protected and providing them with preventative advice could become a huge value-add for banks.

  1. Though some banks do make information available on their websites or in-branches, this is often an afterthought. Showcasing your institution as an authority on these matters will emphasize your desire to put customers first — and they will take notice.
  2. Many customers ignore the threat of fraud because they do not see themselves or their business as a potential victim. Taking the time to explain how a scam targets each customer segment will demonstrate your institution’s ability to identify and mitigate risks to each person.
  3. Monitoring fraud is particularly difficult for many institutions because threats are constantly evolving. Working with larger partners can be an asset, as bigger organizations are more likely to invest both funds and personnel in monitoring and combatting scams.

Many misconceptions regarding fraud still exist, and customers may not realize they are at risk before it’s too late. Transforming your institution into their financial protector could be a low-cost — yet valuable — way to stand out.