How Tech Hinders the Ability to Hire

In my role as a CEO of an up-and-coming fintech startup, I spend a lot of time talking to bank executives. In recent months, those conversations have often focused on a common pain point they are all feeling: hiring.

Many executives are struggling with hiring resources and adequate staffing. While the focus is often on salaries, I think the underlying problem is that a culture lacking an innovative spirit, evidenced by outdated technology, deters the new generation of applicants. Banks are not delivering a culture that fosters innovation, nor are they using or employing technology that applicants want in their daily job. Ultimately this leads to insufficient numbers of applicants; filling open positions is an ongoing struggle.

In contrast, open positions at our company typically get hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants for any opening. The question then is: Why is there more interest in a position at a “risky” startup than in an established financial institution?

Unlocking Satisfaction
Ultimately it comes down to one thing: employee satisfaction. Higher satisfaction is often correlated with successful and long-lasting teams; the lack thereof spells doom and high turnover. As millennial employees become the majority of the workforce, their preferences and desires are becoming a more prominent factor in evolving impressions of employee satisfaction. Ultimately it comes down to a few elements:

  • Having a clear mission and ability to affect decisions that influence progress toward fulfilling the mission.
  • Delivering a collaborative and innovative culture.
  • Providing flexible work schedules and remote work possibilities.
  • Encouraging and supporting personal development.

While banks incorporate some of the elements above, they often overlook the impact of technology and business models. Banks often use an outdated technology stack that, while painful for experienced employees, is perceived as utterly terrifying for younger generations who grew up using customer-centric apps and highly customizable digital experiences. In addition, the procedures for handling customers at these institutions are often highly scripted and regimented, allowing little room for variation and a personal touch. These factors can contribute to lower employee satisfaction and an annual turnover among frontline staff that has surged to 23.4% — its highest level since 2019, according to a 2022 compensation and benefits survey from Crowe LLP.

Nonetheless, bank executives rarely consider the impact the technology they make employees use has on that employee’s satisfaction at the company. This is something that definitely deserves more attention from the board and management, and should be one of the major factors when evaluating new technology.

Creating Employee Engagement
There are several elements that make new technologies more desirable to younger employees and that may increase their satisfaction. Improving these could lower your institution’s annual churn and benefit the bottom line.

  • The user interface and user experience of your technology should be similar to that of popular consumer-facing apps. Familiarity requires less time training on how to use the technology and will increase affinity from the get-go.
  • Basic capability features should also be similar to what consumer-facing apps offer. For example, communication and messaging apps should have features like the ability for customers and employees to seamlessly transfer and move between text to video.
  • The technology should allow employees to access feedback and training in the same platform. This increases the platform’s transparency and timeliness of any feedback.
  • The technology should allow for gradual deployment and a test/iterate approach. This collects feedback from a wider number of employees and can generate a greater sense of contribution.

Incorporating the employee’s experience to an already complicated technology acquisition process might sound daunting, but it’s important to remember that this change does not need to be comprehensive and instantaneous. Instead, it can be deployed in stages, allowing your employees and the whole organization time to deploy, observe and adopt. Gradual but consistent change will yield better long-term results for both your customer and employee satisfaction.

Institutions that embrace technology their employees want to use and allow for a culture of innovation and bottom-up input will lay the groundwork for higher employee satisfaction in the future, leading to less turnover and a better bottom line. Those banks that don’t will continue to struggle to attract and retain staff, while relying on pay hikes to close the gaps.

Nailing the Customer Experience in a Digital Upgrade

To get your bank’s people ready for a technology upgrade, you need to do two things: educate front line staff so they become ambassadors for the new tech and help customers learn how to use it. Sounds easy, but in many cases, financial institutions don’t have the right tools to nail their digital customer experience through a technology upgrade.

Start with developing your training and development assets for staff training into the bank’s technology project plan and each rollout. Your staff needs to time to become familiar with the new technology; launching training two weeks prior to go-live won’t set them up to successfully help customers access the new services. Project managers and executive sponsors should develop and test a digital banking curriculum in advance of rollout and begin training front line staff on how to use the tech before launching it to the public.

The seemingly logical approach is to ask the bank’s learning and development group to create some new tech training in the learning management system (LMS). But that often doesn’t work. Traditional LMSes often aren’t tooled for digital experiences; static learning content struggles to drive digital fluency among employees. And tedious training approaches or topics can foster an aversion to LMS training among staff. Banks investing in their digital products and services may want to consider a modern solution that’s tooled for teaching tech.

Game-based learning that uses built-in incentives and an employee’s inherent motivation, as well as interactive role-plays and visually appealing learning modules, are often the most effective way to help today’s employees retain essential information. These innovative elements can make the difference in a bank’s training system and subsequent customer interactions.

And as your staff tries out the tech, either in-house or after launch, be sure to explicitly ask and encourage for their feedback on the digital experience. What can be improved? Which features are hard to understand or non-intuitive? What additional features and functions are desired? Where do they stumble when using the tech?

Endicott, New York-based Visions Federal Credit Union created a digital advisory board made up of a dozen rank-and-file employees who meet monthly to discuss consumer behavior trends, review prospective vendor partnerships and provide feedback on the institution’s use of consumer technology.

“They’re not necessarily managers, VPs or SVPs,” says Tom Novak, vice president and chief digital officer at Visions Federal Credit Union. “They’re day-to-day employees that are in the know about what’s happening in technology, social media and typical consumer lifestyles. They understand why people are on TikTok more than Facebook, or why they use Venmo instead of traditional PayPal mechanisms.”

Your team will also need the right tools to support your customers after their training. Consider providing them with access to technology walk-throughs and simulators, so they can easily find quick tips and features to help customers calling in or visiting a branch. Ensure your learning solution provides staff with support in the flow of work, so they can help customers on demand.

Finally, allow your customers to “test drive” the tech before they commit. Change is hard on your customers too. Your institution needs to be prepared to coach them along the journey — whether that’s a new digitally based product or service or an upgrade from a prior solution that they have grown comfortable with over time. Give them a chance to try it out, and provide them with a safety net through easy-to-use, shareable technology walkthroughs and simulators to make learning easy.

While financial institutions of all sizes are making significant investments to transform their technology to meet the ever-changing needs of their customers, the biggest hurdle often comes in right at the end. To achieve success in your technology upgrade, your bank will need to leverage the power of your people through a well-considered deployment strategy that places intuitive learning and technology support squarely at its center. New, innovative learning and development tools make these processes — and ultimately, the digital transformation — less intimidating, engaging, fun and flexible.

Creating Breakthrough Value: Crafting the Right Technology Strategy

Banking is becoming more invisible, more embedded and less conscious to consumers. Finding ways to capitalize on this banking shift will continue to be one of the industry’s defining evolutionary challenges.

And it all begins with crafting the right technology strategy.

In this episode of Reinventing Banking, a special podcast series brought to you by Bank Director and Microsoft Corp., we talk to Nikhil Lele, Global and Americas Consumer Banking Leader from EY. He brings his expertise as a former core technologist to expand on how banks can digitally transform by using the correct data.

Lele also touches on three fundamental pillars that banks can build on to drive digital adoption: growth and strategy ambition, incentivized leadership and talent, and having the right capabilities.

The business model of banking is changing. Listen here to find out how to stay proactive in that change.

This episode, and all past episodes of Reinventing Banking, are available on Bank Director.com, Spotify and Apple Music.

How APIs Changed Bank Security From Castles to Strip Malls

The application programming interface, or API, has become one of the principal building blocks of the modern digital economy.

APIs are at the center of modern application architectures and system design; over 90% of the world’s internet traffic passes through them. For banks, APIs are the conduit that connects institutions to customers, partners and each other. Their responsiveness and agility drives innovation while dramatically lowering the cost of application development and integration. In addition to remaining competitive and innovative, API adoption and the microservices that use them are key to addressing regulatory requirements for open banking, such as PSD2.

But there’s a problem, and it’s a familiar one: With new technology, adoption tends to outpace security. It is the same situation with each new generation of tech solutions: adoption leads and security lags a few steps behind. This is happening right now with APIs — and banks should be anxious.

But anxiety is frequently taking second place to blissful ignorance. Most chief information security officers in financial services don’t understand the full implications of the API economy and are not measuring their institution’s exposure to its risks. It’s a major blind spot; you can’t secure that which you can’t see or don’t understand. Within the same organization, the CISO and the DevOps (a portmanteau of “software development” and “IT operations”) team commonly don’t really speak the same language. DevOps teams can often see the issues, but CISOs are not as alert to them. This gap in understanding means many back-end systems and critical infrastructure could be exposed to a cyberattack.

Regulators and auditors are catching up on the implications of architectural and attack surface changes and have yet to update their audit or examination methodologies. They are learning what questions to ask, from the basics around API ownership to detailed metrics and matters of governance around operating effectiveness. But some are still hazy about what an API even is, let alone why it might pose a problem.

Complexity is the Enemy of Security
Part of the difficulty is the complexity of legacy IT stacks that most banks are sitting on. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a financial return on a bank retiring a mainframe or decommissioning legacy systems. This leads to IT and security teams being responsible for maintaining and securing several generations of different technology, from ancient “Big Iron” mainframes and AS/400s right up to modern, fully API-driven digital banking platforms. The discipline and focus on system life cycle management is a continuous challenge. Migrations are complex and you can’t just switch off old systems — that’s like changing a plane’s engine mid-flight.

The complexity of securing and managing these multiple generations is immense; most banks don’t have the skills or resources in-house to do it. Complexity is the enemy of security, and the complexity of modern computing environments is only increasing. For chief information officers, chief technology officers and CISOs, it’s difficult enough to keep up with the current complexity. While Gartner estimates that APIs will become the No. 1 attack vector this year, API threats are just coming onto the radar as an area of focus.

Why are APIs at Risk?
The benefits of migrating to an API-first, microservice-based architecture are so strong that their adoption is inevitable. The advantages of APIs are manifest in terms of being able to easily collaborate with other companies, share data and simplify all kinds of integrations that weren’t possible before. The problem is that yesterday’s security model wasn’t built for this architecture.

Think of the security model for old monolithic web applications like a castle with a moat: a gate with a drawbridge that means one way in, one way out. Your services sit behind your defenses inside the castle. The microservice and API-first model changes that attack surface to more of a strip mall: external doors on each store. Data is highly distributed, but the castle’s security methods were never designed to monitor or protect this approach.

In many cases, security teams are not even aware that this is happening; this is even more common where there are third parties involved. Third-party dependencies are very common in banking, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to get appropriate visibility into critical supply chain vendors that banks rely on for key operational and control processes.

All this begs the question: If the adoption of APIs is inevitable, how will banks manage them safely? Security programs must evolve to address API challenges directly. Without management and appropriate security designed for them, APIs expose your bank’s essential data while the “guards at the front gate” have no idea what’s going on.

Unlocking the Opportunities of Open Banking

Whether banks know it or not, their customers may already be leveraging open banking technology.

If they pay friends using Venmo, transfer money from their account at your bank to websites like Robinhood to purchase stocks or use any other third-party financial applications that require a connection to their financial accounts, they are using open banking. Simply defined, open banking is a system that helps enable fast, innovative, and frictionless digital financial services.

Open banking creates a number of opportunities for consumers and businesses. Customer demand for seamless management of financial experiences has increased as they’ve grown accustomed to the benefits of personalized digital services. Research from Visa’s Open Banking Consumer Survey shows that 87% of U.S. consumers use open banking to link their financial accounts to third parties; however only 43% of U.S. consumers are aware that they are using open banking.

What is Open Banking?
Open banking is a system through which consumers or businesses authorize third parties, which can include any financial services organization like mortgage underwriter, banks or budgeting or trading app, to access their financial information or services. The third party may need the customers’ transaction or payment history or make a payment or requesting a loan on their behalf. Aggregators connect third parties to the financial accounts of consumers and businesses. When consumers or businesses share their financial data with third parties, the third parties can provide a number of products and services, including budgeting, credit checks or help initiating payments. Open banking enables consumers to connect financial accounts and share data securely.

How Does Open Banking Work?
Open banking is increasingly enabled by application programming interfaces, or APIs. Open banking APIs are specifically designed to link software systems and apps to securely communicate with each other. Financial institutions can establish these APIs to make consumer financial data available to third-party aggregators that serve as the bridge between account providers, like banks, brokerages and credit unions, and third-party applications, such as fintechs, merchants and other banks, that use this bank account data to provide financial services to consumers and businesses.

Open Banking Use Cases
A common, early use case is digitizing traditional financial management in a more efficient and secure way. But there is virtually no limit to the products and services that could be enabled by open banking.

Open banking enables financial institutions to improve their consumer experiences, illustrating the value of open access to financial information. Importantly, open banking could be a significant catalyst for financial inclusion and equity. The ability for all parties in the ecosystem to innovate and offer financial products to underserved communities could be considerably increased in a world where access to customer-permissioned information is easily available.

So while open banking is still in its early days, there are many potential opportunities and benefits that financial institutions should explore and consider offering to customers.

FinXTech’s Need to Know: Cash Flow

This article is the second in a series focusing on small business banking financial technology. The first covers accounts payable technology and can be found here.

There are 33.2 million small businesses in the United States. With a looming recession, many may soon be looking for ways to lower their budgets, be it by reducing staff, cutting back on hours or even terminating contracts with other vendors. The median small business holds only 27 days of cash on hand, according to a 2016 study from the JPMorgan Chase Institute — an amount that could be challenged by the changing economic state.

Financial institutions should see cash flow management as an opportunity to provide their small business customers with integrated products and services they used to go elsewhere for.

Business owners decide where, when and how to invest and spend revenue after tallying bills, employee hours and balance sheets. They now have modern tools and ways to leverage third-party softwares to automate their balances.

Banks can provide this software to their small business customers, and they don’t have to start from scratch: They can turn to a fintech partner.

Here are three fintechs that could satiate this software need.

Boston-based Centime launched its Cash Flow Control solution in partnership with $26 billion First National Bank of Omaha in 2019. Centime gathers accounts receivable and accounts payable data to provide accurate, real-time forecasts to business customers. Any bank can integrate the solution as an extension of their online banking or treasury management services.

Banks can profit off of these cash flow products, too. Small business customers have access to a direct credit line through the analytics platform. And in a still rising interest rate environment, expanding the lending portfolio will be crucial to a bank. Banks that offer Cash Flow Control to their business customers can play a strategic role in their clients’ cash flow control cycle, gain visibility into their finances and provide streamlined access to working capital loans and lines of credit.

Centime states that it works best with banks with more than $1 billion in assets.

Cash flow solutions can also provide essential insight into current and projected business performance for a bank’s own purposes. Less than 50% of banks said that not effectively using and/or aggregating their data was one of their top concerns in Bank Director’s 2022 Technology Survey. Data segmented into business verticals could shed light into what businesses need from their banks and when they need it.

Monit from Signal Finance Technologies is another cash flow forecasting and analytics solution available to small businesses. Monit aggregates data from the small business’s accounting software, like QuickBooks, Xero or FreshBooks, along with data inputs from the business owner. The projections are dynamic: Business owners can dive deeper into exact factors that influence anticipated dips in cash flow. They can also model alternative scenarios to find ways to avoid the shortfall.

Using the projections, Monit provides business owners with suggestions for the future success of their business, such as opening a new line of credit or slowing down on hiring.

Accessing business data and the third-party apps that house it is another way to strengthen a bank’s understanding of their business clients, as well as indicate how, where and when to help them. UpSWOT’s data portal could be the right solution for a bank looking to gather better data on their business customers and connect with the third-parties that house it.

UpSWOT uses application programming interfaces, or APIs, to collect data from over 150 business apps and provide key performance indicators, marketing data and actionable insights to both bank and business users. It can even notify a bank about a small business client’s activity such as new hires, capital purchases like real estate or vehicles, payment collection and accounts receivable, financial reporting and tax information.

The upSWOT portal also creates personalized marketing and sales dashboard, which bankers can use to anticipate their business clients’ needs before their balance sheets do.

Essential to every single one of the more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S. is cash. And without the ability to effectively forecast and manage it, these small businesses will fail. Banks can help them flourish with the aid of fintech partners.

Centime, Monit and upSWOT are all vetted companies for FinXTech Connect, a curated directory of technology companies who strategically partner with financial institutions of all sizes. For more information about how to gain access to the directory, please email finxtech@bankdirector.com.

What to Consider as Regulators Scrutinize Bank-Fintech Partnerships

Fintech partnerships, specifically banking as service arrangements, are changing the risk profile at community banks and require heightened risk management from executives and the board.

Banking as a service has evolved from the niche domain of certain community banks to a business line facilitated by software. The growth of the industry, and its concentration among small banks, has attracted the attention of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and its Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu. Experts say that community banks should respond by increasing their due diligence and strengthening their risk management oversight, practices and processes ahead of potentially more scrutiny from regulators.

“The growth of the fintech industry, of [banking as a service] and of big tech forays into payments and lending is changing banking, and its risk profile, in profound ways,” Hsu said in prepared remarks at a conference hosted by The Clearing House and the Bank Policy Institute in New York City in September. 

Banking as a service leverages an institution’s charter so a nonbank partner can offer banking products or services to customers. It creates a series of layers: A bank services a fintech, who offers products to a business or individual. And increasingly, the connection between the fintech and the bank is facilitated, partially or completely, by software that is in the middle of the fintech and bank relationship, called middleware. 

One company that makes such an operating system is Treasury Prime, where Sheetal Parikh works as associate general counsel and vice president of compliance solutions. 

“We’ve learned how to become more efficient; we have a lot of these banks with antiquated technology systems and cores that can’t necessarily get fintech companies or customers to market as quickly as maybe they could,” says Parikh.  

While software and operating systems can make the onboarding and connections easier between the parties, it doesn’t ease the regulatory burden on banks when it comes to vendor due diligence and customer protections. A bank can delegate different aspects and tasks within risk management and fraud detection and prevention, but it can’t outsource the responsibility.

“The banks that do it [banking as a service] well have constant engagement with their fintechs,” says Meg Tahyar, co-head of Davis Polk’s financial institutions practice and a member of its fintech team. “You need someone at the end to hold the bag – and that’s always the bank. So the bank always needs to have visibility and awareness functions.” 

Even with middleware, running a rigorously managed, risk-based BaaS program in a safe and sound manner is “operationally challenging” and “a gritty process,” says Clayton Mitchell, Crowe LLP’s managing principal of fintech. The challenge for banks adding this business line is having a “disciplined disruption” approach: approaching these partnerships in an incremental, disciplined way while preparing to bolster the bank’s risk management capabilities.

This can be a big ask for community institutions — and Hsu pointed out that banking as a service partnerships are concentrated among small banks; in his speech, he mentioned an internal OCC analysis that found “least 10 OCC-regulated banks that have BaaS partnerships with nearly 50 fintechs.” The found similar stats at banks regulated by the Federal Reserve and FDIC; most of the banks with multiple BaaS partnerships have less than $10 billion in assets, with a fifth having less than $1 billion.

Tahyar says she doesn’t believe Hsu is “anti-banking as a service” and he seems to understand that community banks need these partnerships to innovate and grow. But he has a “sense of concern and urgency” between fintech partnerships today and parallels he sees with the 2007 financial crisis and Great Recession, when increasing complexity and a shadow banking system helped create a crisis.  

“He understands what’s happening in the digital world, but he’s ringing a bell, saying ‘Let’s not walk into this blindly,’” she says. “It’s quite clear that [the OCC] is going to be doing a deep dive in examinations on fintech partnerships.”

To start addressing these vulnerabilities and prepare for heightened regulatory scrutiny, banks interested in BaaS partnerships should make sure the bank’s compliance teams are aligned with its teams pushing for innovation or growth. That means alignment with risk appetite, the approach to risk and compliance and the level of engagement with fintech partners, says Parikh at Treasury Prime. The bank should also think about how it will manage data governance and IT control issues when it comes to information generated from the partnership. And in discussions with prospective partners, bank executives should discuss the roles and responsibilities of the parties, how the partnership will monitor fraud or other potential criminal activity, how the two will handle customer complaints. The two should make contingency plans if the fintech shuts down. Parikh says that the bank doesn’t have to perform the compliance functions itself — especially in customer-facing functions.  But the bank needs strong oversight processes. 

OCC-regulated banks engaged in fintech partnerships should expect more questions from the regulator. Hsu said the agency is beginning to divide and classify different arrangements into cohorts based on their risk profiles and attributes. Fintech partnerships can come in a variety of shapes and forms; grouping them will help examiners have a clearer focus on the risks these arrangements create and the related expectations to manage it.

What is clear is that regulators believe banking as a service, and fintech partnerships more broadly, will have a large impact on the banking industry — both in its transformation and its potential risk. Hsu’s speech and the agency’s adjustments indicate that regulatory expectations are formalizing and increasing. 

“There is still very much a silver lining to this space,” says Parikh. “It’s not going anywhere. Risk isn’t all bad, but you have to understand it and have controls in place.”

How Legacy Systems, Tech Hold Bank Employees Back

The recent explosion in financial technology firms has allowed banks to make massive strides in improving the customer experience.

The most popular solutions have focused on making processes and services faster and easier for customers. For example, Zelle, a popular digital payments service, has improved the payments process for bank customers by making transfers immediate — eliminating the need to wait while those funds enter their checking account. There are countless examples of tools and resources that improve the bank customer experience, but the same cannot be said for the bank staffers.

Bank employees often use decades-old legacy systems that require weeks or months of training, create additional manual work required to complete tasks and do not communicate with each other. Besides creating headaches for the workers who have to use them, they waste time that could be better spent meaningfully serving customers.

The Great Resignation and tight labor market has made it difficult to find and retain workers with adequate and appropriate experience. On top of that, bankers spend significant amounts of time training new employees on how to use these complicated tools, which only exacerbates problems caused by high turnover. The paradox here is that banks risk ultimately disengaging their employees, who stop using most of the functionality provided by the very tools that their bank has invested in to help them work more efficiently. Instead, they revert to over-relying on doing many things manually.

If bank staff used tools that were as intuitive as those available to the bank’s customers, they would spend less time in training and more time connecting with customers and delivering valuable services. Improvements to their experience accomplishes more than simply making processes easier and faster. As it stands now, bank teams can spend more time than desired contacting customers, requesting documents and moving data around legacy systems. This manual work is time-consuming, robotic and creates very little profit for the bank.

But these manual tasks are still important to the bank’s business. Bankers still need a way to contact customers, retrieve documents and move data across internal systems. However, in the same way that customer-facing solutions automate much of what used to be done manually, banks can utilize solutions that automate internal business processes. Simple, repetitive tasks lend themselves best to automation; doing so frees up staff to spend more of their time on tasks that require mental flexibility or close attention. Automation augments the workers’ capabilities, which makes their work more productive and leads to a better customer experience overall.

There are good reasons to improve the experience of bank employees, but those are not the only reasons. Quality of life enhancements are desirable on their own and create a greater opportunity for employees to serve customers. When deciding which tools to give your staff, consider what it will be like to use them and how effectively they can engage customers with them.

Asking the Right Questions About Your Bank’s Tech Spend

Bank Director’s 2022 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, finds 81% of bank executives and board members reporting that their technology budget increased compared to 2021, at a median of 11%. Much of this, the survey indicates, ties to the industry’s continued digitization of products and services. That makes technology an important line item within a bank’s budget — one that enables bank leaders to meet strategic goals to serve customers and generate organizational efficiencies.

“These are some of the biggest expenditures the bank is making outside of human capital,” says John Behringer, risk consulting partner at RSM US LLP. The board “should feel comfortable providing effective challenge to those decisions.” Effective challenge references the board’s responsibility to hold management accountable by being engaged, asking incisive questions and getting the information it needs to provide effective oversight for the organization.  

Banks budgeted a median $1 million for technology in 2022, according to the survey; that number ranged from a median $250,000 for smaller banks below $500 million in assets to $25 million for larger banks above $10 billion. While most believe their institution spends enough on technology, relative to strategy, roughly one-third believe they spend too little. How can boards determine that their bank spends an appropriate amount?

Finding an apples to apples comparison to peers can be difficult, says Behringer. Different banks, even among peer groups, may be in different stages of the journey when it comes to digital transformation, and they may have different objectives. He says benchmarking can be a “starting point,” but boards should delve deeper. How much of the budget has been dedicated to maintaining legacy software and systems, versus implementing new solutions? What was technology’s role in meeting and furthering key strategic goals? 

A lot of the budget will go toward “keeping the lights on,” as Behringer puts it. Bank of America Corp. spends roughly $3 billion annually on new technology initiatives, according to statements from Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan — so roughly 30% of the bank’s $11 billion total spend.

For banks responding to the survey, new technology enhancements that drive efficiencies focus on areas that keep them safe: For all banks, cybersecurity (89%) and security/fraud (62%) were the top two categories. To improve the customer experience, institutions have prioritized payments capabilities (63%), retail account opening (54%), and consumer or mortgage lending (41%).

Benjamin Wallace says one way board members can better understand technology spend is to break down the overall technology cost into a metric that better illustrates its impact, like cost per account. “For every customer that comes on the board, on average, let’s say $3.50, and that includes the software, that includes the compensation … and that can be a really constructive conversation,” says Wallace, the CEO of Summit Technology Group. “Have a common way to talk about technology spend that you can look at year to year that the board member will understand.”

Trevor Dryer, an entrepreneur and investor who joined the board of Olympia, Washington-based Heritage Financial Corp. in November 2021, thinks boards should keep the customer top of mind when discussing technology and strategy. “What’s the customer’s experience with the technology? [W]hen do they want to talk to somebody, versus when do they want to use technology? When they do use technology, how is this process seamless? How does it align with the way the bank’s positioning itself?” If the bank sees itself as offering high-touch, personal service, for example, that should be reflected in the technology.

And the bank’s goals should drive the information that floats back to the boardroom. Dryer says $7.3 billion Heritage Financial has “great dashboards” that provide important business metrics and risk indicators, but the board is working with Chief Technology Officer Bill Glasby to better understand the impact of the bank’s technology. Dryer wants to know, “How are our customers interacting with our technology, and are they liking it or not? What are the friction points?” 

Some other basic information that Behringer recommends that bank leaders ask about before adopting new technology include whether the platform fits with the current infrastructure, and whether the pricing of the technology is appropriate. 

Community banks don’t have Bank of America’s $11 billion technology budget. As institutions increase their technology spend, bank leaders need to align adoption with the bank’s strategic priorities. It’s easy to chase fads, and be swayed to adopt something with more bells and whistles than the organization really needs. That distracts from strategy, says Dryer. “To me, the question [banks] should be asking is, ‘What is the problem that we’re trying to solve for our customers?’” Leadership teams and boards that can’t answer that, he says, should spend more time understanding their customers’ needs before they go further down a particular path. 

The best companies leverage technology to solve a business problem, but too many management teams let the tail wag the dog, says Wallace. “The board can make sure — before anyone signs a check for a technology product — to press on the why and what’s driving that investment.” 

Forty-five percent of respondents worry that their bank relies too heavily on outdated technology. While the board doesn’t manage the day-to-day, directors can ask questions in line with strategic priorities. 

Ask, “’Are we good at patching, or do we have a lot of systems where things aren’t patched because systems are no longer supported?’” says Behringer. Is the bank monitoring key applications? Have important vendors like the core provider announced sunsets, meaning that a product will no longer be supported? What technology is on premises versus hosted in the cloud? “The more that’s on prem[ises], the more likely you’ve got dated technology,” he says.

And it’s possible that banks could manage some expenses down by examining what they’re using and whether those solutions are redundant, a process Behringer calls “application rationalization.” It’s an undertaking that can be particularly important following an acquisition but can be applied just as easily to organic duplication throughout the organization. 

A lack of boardroom expertise may have members struggling to have a constructive conversation around technology. “Community bank boards may not have what we would consider a subject matter expert, from a technology standpoint,” says Behringer, “so they don’t feel qualified to challenge.” 

Heritage Financial increased the technology expertise in its boardroom with the additions of Dryer and Gail Giacobbe, a Microsoft executive, and formed a board-level technology committee. Dryer led Mirador, a digital lending platform, until its acquisition by CUNA Mutual Group in 2018. He also co-founded Carbon Title, a software solution that helps property owners and real estate developers understand their carbon impact. 

Experiences like Dryer’s can bring a different viewpoint to the boardroom. A board-level tech expert can support or challenge the bank’s chief information officer or other executives about how they’re deploying resources, whether staffing is appropriate or offer ideas on where technology could benefit the organization. They can also flag trends that they see inside and outside of banking, or connect bank leaders to experts in specific areas. 

“Sometimes technology can be an afterthought, [but] I think that it’s a really critical part of delivering banking services today,” says Dryer. “With technology, if you haven’t been in it, you can feel like you’re held captive to whatever you’re being told. There’s not a really great way to independently evaluate or call B.S. on something. And so I think that’s a way I’ve been trying to help provide some value to my fellow directors.”  

Less than half of the survey respondents say their board has a member who they’d consider a tech expert. Of the 53% of respondents who say their board doesn’t have a tech expert, just 39% are seeking that expertise. As a substitution for this knowledge, boards could bring in a strategic advisor to sit in as a technologist during meetings, says Wallace. 

On the whole, boards should empower themselves to challenge management on this important expense by continuing their education on technology. As Wallace points out, many boards play a role in loan approvals, even if most directors aren’t experts on credit. “They’re approving credit exposure … but they would never think to be in the weeds in technology like that,” he says. “Technology probably has equal if not greater risk, sometimes, than approving one $50,000 loan to a small business in the community.”

The ways in which banks leverage technology have been featured recently in Bank Director magazine. “Confronting the Labor Shortage” focuses on how M&T Bank Corp. attracts and trains tech talent. “Community Banks Enter the Venture Jungle” examines bank participation in fintech funds; a follow-up piece asks, “Should You Invest in a Venture Fund?”  Some institutions are evaluating blockchain opportunities: “Unlocking Blockchain’s Power” explores how Signature Bank, Customers Bancorp and others are leveraging blockchain-based payments platforms to serve commercial customers; risk and compliance considerations around blockchain are further discussed in the article, “Opportunities — and Questions — Abound With Blockchain.” 

Technology is an important component of a bank’s overall strategy. For more information on enhancing strategic discussions, consider viewing “Building Operational Resiliency in the Midst of Change” and “Board Strategic Leadership,” both part of Bank Director’s Online Training Series.   

Bank Director’s 2022 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, surveyed 138 independent directors, chief executive officers, chief operating officers and senior technology executives of U.S. banks below $100 billion in assets to understand how these institutions leverage technology in response to the competitive landscape. Bank Services members have exclusive access to the complete results of the survey, which was conducted in June and July 2022. 

How Fifth Third Crafts Successful Bank-Fintech Partnerships

From the start, Eric White anticipated the solar lender he launched in 2013 would eventually be owned by a bank. But it wasn’t until last fall that he settled on the $207 billion Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The bank announced on Jan. 19 that it would acquire Dividend Finance for an undisclosed amount and closed the deal in May, with White, its founder and CEO, continuing to run the business.

White recalled two moments that made him feel certain his company had found its ideal buyer — the first was last fall when a group of Fifth Third’s top executives visited the fintech’s San Francisco’s headquarters for an initial meeting and the second was not much later when he met Ben Hoffman, Fifth Third’s chief strategy officer.

“It starts with people,” White says. “You have to like the people who are on the other side of the table from you before you get on the same side of the table as them.”

Hoffman echoed that, saying Fifth Third has come up with a couple of heuristics that help it determine whether it wants to pursue a partnership with a particular fintech. One is the way it assesses the entrepreneurs at the helm.

“We look at the leadership team and we ask, ‘Are these people that we could see filling other roles in the bank? Not because we intend to take them off mission — quite the opposite. When we bring these leaders in, it’s about empowering them to continue doing the thing that they’re incredibly passionate about and great at,” Hoffman says.

Not all bank-fintech partnerships turn into acquisitions, nor does Hoffman intend them to. And not all acquisitions start out as partnerships. Fifth Third and Dividend Finance had not worked together prior to striking their deal.

But Fifth Third’s introspective question serves as “a real test for cultural fit,” Hoffman says. “If there isn’t another real job on the org chart that you think these individuals could do, how can you expect them to understand us, and how can you expect us to really understand them, and to appreciate each other?” 

Ensuring a Cultural Fit
In anticipation of rising interest rates, White began seeking prospective bank buyers for Dividend Finance late last year. His prerequisite was that the banks had to be experienced with indirect lending, as his company is a point-of-sale lender that partners with contractors nationwide to provide their customers with financing for solar and other home improvement projects.

White says Fifth Third’s long partnership with GreenSky – a point-of-sale lender that offers home improvement loans through merchants – gave him comfort. Fifth Third invested in and began collaborating with GreenSky starting in 2016. (Goldman Sachs acquired the fintech in March.)

“Indirect lending is a very different model than direct lending. Some banks just don’t get it, and Fifth Third did,” White says.

But it was in that first meeting with Fifth Third, as then-President Tim Spence talked about how he had previously worked at technology startups and as a strategy consultant, when White first felt a sense that this bank stood out from the other contenders. Spence had been lured away from Oliver Wyman, where he focused on helping banks — Fifth Third among them — with their digital roadmaps. (He succeeded Greg Carmichael as Fifth Third’s chief executive officer in July.)

“Hearing Tim introduce himself and give his background was an eyeopener in and itself. He doesn’t come from a traditional bank executive background,” White says. “So, it was a different and a very refreshing perspective. It was very exciting for us.”

Hoffman made just as strong an impression on White when they met later on, further reassuring him that Dividend Finance had found “a perfect cultural fit” in terms of management philosophy and the long-term goals of both sides.

Hoffman previously worked with Spence as part of the Oliver Wyman team that advised Fifth Third and other banks; he followed Spence to the bank side in 2016. Hoffman’s mandate has evolved over the years, but one facet of his duties is overseeing Fifth Third’s fintech activities. White gives Hoffman rave reviews, calling him “one of the most creative thinkers that I’ve come across in my entire career.”

With the people test passed, the most salient selling point for White was “how the bank thinks about technology and product.”

In his perspective, too many banks are stuck in “archaic approaches” to managing growth and innovation. But Spence’s answer when asked why he decided to work at a bank in Cincinnati “really stuck with me,” White says. “He viewed Fifth Third as a platform to combine the best elements of traditional banking along with the opportunity to infuse innovation and a technology-driven approach to product development and organizational management.”

It gave White confidence that Fifth Third would not make the mistake that he believes other banks sometimes do, which is “trying to make the fintechs conform to the way that the bank has operated historically and in doing so, stripping out the qualities that make that fintech successful.”

White says his confidence has only grown since the acquisition. At Fifth Third, his title is Dividend Finance president, and he operates the business with a comfortable level of autonomy, reporting to Howard Hammond, executive vice president and head of consumer banking.

Ensuring a Strategic Fit
Fifth Third has partnerships with about a dozen fintechs at any given time and, over the past year and a half, has acquired two niche digital lenders outright, Dividend Finance, in the ESG space, and Provide, in the healthcare space. (ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, and is often used to refer to the components of a sustainability-minded business approach.)

ESG and healthcare are two categories that align with Fifth Third’s own areas of focus, in accordance with a rule Hoffman follows when choosing fintechs of interest, whether for partnerships or acquisitions. He considers this rule — the fintech must help the bank improve on its existing strategy — key to helping ensure a partnership will eventually produce enough of a return to make Fifth Third’s investment of time, effort and money worthwhile.

As a result of the Dividend Finance acquisition, Fifth Third is actively assessing whether to increase its sustainable finance target. The bank had set a goal two years ago that called for achieving $8 billion of lending for alternative energy like solar, wind and geothermal by 2025.

“The things that we do with fintech are things that we were going to do one way or another. We’re not taking on incremental missions. We’re just pursuing those missions in different form. So, that framing completely changes the analysis that we’re doing,” Hoffman says.

Other banks might have to look broadly at competing priorities to decide between partnering with a specific fintech or tackling some other important initiative. But Fifth Third engages in a different thought process.

“It’s not, if we decide to partner with Provide, or should we acquire Dividend Finance, what will we not do?” Hoffman says.

Instead, Fifth Third asks, does this accelerate the timeframe for achieving a goal the bank has already set for itself?

“These partnerships are successful when they are aligned to our strategy and they accelerate, or de-risk, the execution of that strategy, as opposed to being separate and apart from the core ambitions of the franchise,” Hoffman says.

Assessing the Priority Level of Partnering — for Both Sides
Beyond that, any proposed partnership also needs to be “a top five priority” for both the fintech’s leadership and the relevant Fifth Third business line.

Hoffman advises other banks against the common approach of setting up a “tiny” partnership for the two sides to get to know each other with the idea of taking things to the next level when the time is right. “The likelihood of the timing ever being right, is very, very low,” he says. Those relationships often end up as distracting “hobbies” rather than ever escalating to the priority level necessary to add value for both sides and pay off in a meaningful way.

His insight is informed by experience. Hoffman leads Fifth Third’s corporate venture capital arm, which makes direct minority investments in fintechs. Given recent regulatory changes, it also participates as limited partners in several fintech-oriented venture capital funds.

His team is responsible for nurturing Fifth Third’s fintech partnerships, offering strategic insight and facilitating access to resources within the bank.

“As you can imagine, with some of the early-stage companies that we invest in, it’s six partners and an idea. Meanwhile, we have 20,000 people and branches and a half-dozen regulators and all of that. So, we provide a single point of contact to help sort of incubate and nurture the partnership until it reaches a level of stability and becomes a larger business,” Hoffman says.

“We work hard, as the partnerships mature, to stabilize the operating model such that the handholding, the single point of contact, becomes less necessary.”

That transition typically happens as the fintech gets better integrated into the day-to-day operations of the core business with which it is partnering, whether consumer banking, wealth management or another area in the bank.

Delivering Above and Beyond
With Provide, a digital lending financial platform for healthcare practices, the bank was an early investor, taking a lead role in a $12 million funding round with the venture capital firm QED Investors in 2018.

Fifth Third began funding loans made on the platform about two years later, with the amount increasing over time to the point where it was taking about half of Provide’s overall loan volume, the largest share among the five participating banks.

Through the Fifth Third partnership, Provide also expanded its offerings to include core banking and payments services, which are now used by more than 70% of the doctors for whom the fintech provides acquisition financing nationwide.

In announcing the agreement to buy Provide in June 2021, Fifth Third says the fintech would maintain its brand identity and operate as an independent business line.

Daniel Titcomb oversees Provide as its president and reports to Kala Gibson, executive vice president and chief corporate responsibility officer. (Gibson had oversight of business banking when Titcomb came on board and, though he’s in a new role as of March, continues to work with Provide.) Under Fifth Third’s ownership, Titcomb, who co-founded the fintech with James Bachmeier III in 2013, envisions being able to fuel loan growth and offer expanded services that help make starting and running a healthcare practice easier for doctors.

Since its launch, Provide has originated more than $1 billion in loans, largely through “practice lending,” which enables healthcare providers to start, buy or expand their practices. Its average loan size is $750,000.

Titcomb cited “a shared belief” in bank-fintech partnerships as one reason the early relationship with Fifth Third proved to be a success. “We both had a view of the future that didn’t include one destroying the other,” he says.

Years ago, fintechs and banks were often wary of each other — even adversarial — with banks being labeled by some as “dumb pipes,” the implication being that they were unable to keep up with nimble and innovative startups and were useful merely for product distribution to a larger customer base, Titcomb says. But he always found Fifth Third to be thoughtful and strategic, defying those stereotypes.

Though selling his business was scary, he says, “it was a lot less scary than it could’ve been,” given the established relationship.

Still, “we had to get comfortable and confident that they weren’t going to encourage us to spend less on technology,” he added. “Any time you enter into an agreement like that, you hope, but you don’t know.”

Titcomb says he is thrilled that the consistent feedback from Fifth Third since he joined has been: “You run this business the way you think it should be run.”

“It’s a relief,” he says.

Given outcomes like those experienced by White and Titcomb, Fifth Third has become known in fintech circles as a strong partner that delivers on its promises. Hoffman works hard to maintain that reputation—a competitive advantage.

“These companies have options, and some of those options are very compelling,” Hoffman says, adding that his goal is to make sure Fifth Third is “the partner of choice” for the fintechs it targets. That only happens, he says, if their experience after signing a deal aligns with what he says beforehand.

Count an enthusiastic Titcomb among those who attest that it has. “They have delivered above and beyond,” Titcomb says.