How Will Fintech Innovation Scale?


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There is a lively debate in the fintech ecosystem about which firms will be able to scale fintech innovation and how they will do that. Will fintechs scale through organic growth and acquisitions or will they partner with more established providers? Three models are currently being discussed when pundits and the companies themselves attempt to predict how this will take place.

The Go It Alone Model
Those who think that fintech companies should go it alone believe that companies themselves will rise and beat incumbents by providing superior digital experiences and highly intuitive products to their customers. Supporters of this model point to three significant supporting facts. Disruption has happened in every other sector. Just as Amazon and Uber have changed the landscape when it comes to books and ground transportation, companies that grow quickly and join PayPal and Intuit will offer financial services beyond those provided by traditional banks.

These go it alone supporters point out that unlike most banks, fintechs are not built on top of clumsy legacy systems and therefore can offer cheaper and faster products. Those who believe that fintechs can grow organically see banks as being too slow to provide the innovation that consumers want and too stubborn to pay the appropriate multiples to buy fintechs that have a proven record of success. Unfortunately, there is a small but growing list of investors that refuse to back fintech startups that plan to distribute through banks. Early forays into distribution through banks have been sufficiently difficult to repel some investors.

Many in the ecosystem think the go it alone supporters are missing key points. They argue that the cost of customer acquisition is very high for these independent fintech companies. Getting to 80,000 users seems doable, but getting to 250,000 will be extremely difficult for most fintechs, in part because the cost of funding is much higher without bank deposits. Most fintechs rely on the capital markets and other institutional sources of money, including private equity investors, for their funding. Go it alone skeptics also believe that regulators will eventually demand expensive and complex compliance from fintechs that will increase their costs while decreasing their nimbleness. They are concerned that many of these companies are growing by subsidizing the cost of their products, and also lack business models that would make them independently profitable.

Financial Service Incumbents as Innovation Partners Model
A significant number of thought leaders believe incumbent financial services players such as banks and insurance companies will build platforms for best-in-class fintech partnerships. They believe this will be necessary because customers, having seen and heard the promise of new innovation, will demand better products. Supporters of this point of view emphasize that banks do not have the high customer acquisition costs of fintechs, are already familiar with regulatory expectations and have a much lower cost of funds. They argue that such competitive advantages will give them time to partner with or acquire any innovations that they will need. There may come a time when financial service incumbents build their own fintech products. However, at least in the near term, the sheer number of potential innovation needs—ranging from from machine learning tools and data analytics to natural language voice interface–will mean they will need to partner in order to keep up.

Skeptics of this model believe banks make bad partners when partnering with fintechs seeking scale. They insist banks are slow and generally do not do a good job of selling their customers on products they do not own or control. There are also concerns about the cost of partnering with banks. Some fintechs see integration with legacy solutions as a long and clumsy process and believe that meeting vendor risk management standards and other bank regulatory mandates as unnecessarily expensive and time consuming.

The Other Incumbents Model
Another relatively new view is that fintech innovation will scale through other incumbents. This approach often arises as an alternative in conversations concerning the flaws inherent in the other two models. Three types of incumbents are mentioned:

  • Retail: Proponents suggest that retailers or wholesalers will enter the financial services arena by partnering with fintechs and using a bank as a utility. These outlets have existing customer bases and some already offer various forms of financing. For specific niches it is easy to see the connection. If Home Depot offered financial tools to manage a contractor’s business, it would help their core business.
  • Employers and Payroll Providers: One of the most successful savings programs of all time is employer sponsored 401(k) plans. Recent talk of rolling in student debt payoff plans and financial health programs through employers have some fintechs wondering if they can scale through employers. Earned wage management tools are advancing earned money to employees outside of a normal pay cycle to help employees avoid payday lenders. Saving tools for goals other than retirement could be offered by employers.
  • Telecoms: Telecom providers are functioning as financial service providers in developing countries where there is limited financial infrastructure. Supporters argue that many fintechs are mobile-first technologies and data suggests that mobile is the preferred banking channel for a significant–and growing–percentage of consumers.

Most of the other incumbent models recognize that there has to be a bank involved but relegates its role to one of a utility. This position tends to spark another round of debate. Will banks become utilities if they don’t learn to be better partners?

Common to all of these conversations is the growing expectation that innovation will alter how we interact with financial service providers. Whether the provider is a bank, fintech or employer, all agree that consumers and businesses expect innovative solutions and that the best solutions will scale or be widely imitated. No matter how these innovations scale, there is little doubt that significant change is coming and much of the innovation will be driven by technology.

Welcome to the Wild West for Small Business Management Technology


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Today’s small businesses are empowered more than ever by technology. Start-ups and emerging technologies are colliding with established financial institutions to create a true Wild West for business and financial management in the small and medium business (SMB) sector. But what approaches are different finance and technology players taking—and how will they impact the way small businesses manage their finances?

There’s no doubt that business owners recognize the benefits of technology—one recent survey found that 29 percent of all SMBs say technology is critical to improving business outcomes. The result is a mad dash by incumbents to catch up, keep pace and partner with innovators in the right ways to earn the loyalty of business owners.

Here are four different ways that financial companies are battling it out to help small businesses manage their cash flow, start to finish.

Integrating POS with Financial Management
In a recent report by technology provider Wasp Barcode, a majority of small business owners said that their number one priority for technology investment this year is to replace hardware. For a great many SMBs, this includes front end equipment like cash registers and credit card processing devices. Square was the primary innovator of integrating credit card swiping with iPads, but today the bar is much higher in terms of payment hardware technology design, performance and accessibility.

Take Bank of America’s Clover Point-of-sale (POS) solution, for example. As opposed to Square, which only allows for card swiping, Clover is a fully integrated POS, cash drawer and receipt printer. BofA supplements the basic hardware and software with an app store, where businesses can add extra layers of functionality and customization based on their unique processes. The POS software is then able to communicate and send data back to financial management software, so that the two are seamlessly integrated.

Offering End-to-End Cash Flow Management
Other companies are approaching small business management technology with the goal of providing complete, end-to-end financial management. This means that everything from payments, checking, savings, credit, insurance and investments are all handled by one technology platform. This is the logic behind Capital One’s Spark Program for small business finance, that offers a different Capital One Spark product or service for each of those areas, all tailored towards entrepreneurs.

That isn’t to say businesses can pick and choose from different products within the Spark ecosystem (such as checking, corporate credit Cards and 401(k) account management), but the goal is to have everything tightly integrated so business owners can access everything in one place. The ancillary part of the pitch is that it makes customer service that much more convenient, as you only have one partner to contact if multiple issues arise. The challenge will be for a medium-sized mainstay like Capital One to innovate on a pace with both fintech start-ups and mega-bank competitors that acquire or partner with these new players.

Creating a Best of Breed Ecosystem
Having an all-in-one suite is great in theory, but there are certain small business tools that will always be known as being the best at what they do. Accounting and financial management is an area that Quickbooks has traditionally dominated; it still occupies 80 percent of total market share for SMB accounting. But rather than building additional features onto the Quickbooks product, companies like Intuit are building out tightly integrated ecosystems consisting of first-class applications across the breadth of business management needs.

Intuit is an interesting case also because it owns another hugely popular brand, TurboTax. It has been in Intuit’s best interest to keep these successful brands, and add others like the hugely successful personal finance app Mint.com. The intent is to not only make the business easier to manage, but to handle the business owner’s personal finances as well.

SalesForce.com’s strategy is another great illustration of building out a comprehensive ecosystem under one umbrella. Any business that uses SalesForce.com can purchase proprietary financial management apps on the firm’s cloud platform, and perform multiple functions without leaving the SalesForce interface. Businesses can utilize the Financial Force app for payroll, Accounting Seed for accounting and so forth. In these cases, SalesForce often provides resources and guidance to these start-ups to make the software on their platform as competitive as possible.

Innovating the right way
Fintech startups have the stated goal of disrupting a financial services sector that has become known as overly traditional and lacking in personalization. But as startup technologies for small business management begin to scale, like the example of Mint.com, these companies often face a crossroads in terms of how and where to expand. Some choose to be acquired, as in the case of Mint.com, while others seek partnerships with big banks to gain additional marketing exposure while retaining control of their product.

David Gibbons, managing director at Alvarez & Marshal financial consulting, recently told CNBC that “Banks are partnering to keep in the game and keep relevant. I think they’ve caught up fairly well.” On Deck Capital is one of the foremost innovators in small business lending, using technology to gauge creditworthiness based on the performance of an entrepreneur’s business instead of personal credit score. But rather than be acquired, On Deck has partnered with JP Morgan Chase to build a new lending product for small businesses, under the Chase brand. This is a great example of some “quick win” technology partnerships taking place in the small business space that combine the benefits of innovation with the security and scalability of big banking to better serve SMBs.

And these are just a few of the innovations, technologies and trends that are constantly emerging in the small business sector. The bottom line is big banks now realize that adopting new technologies is critical to retaining SMB clients. With so many startups and established players evolving to offer more services with less hassle, it’s a pretty good time to be a tech-savvy small business owner.

Commercial Customers Want Fintech Innovation Too


fintech-6-3-16.pngOnline banking, electronic bill pay, and mobile deposits are no longer seen as innovative offerings by consumers. They’re simply check boxes—a bare minimum set of tools and services that they expect their bank to offer. Despite the fact that this technology is considered table stakes in the battle to win consumers, business customers at most banks are still waiting their turn to benefit from this technology. And as the workforce skews younger and gets even more tech savvy, they’re going to get frustrated from waiting for comparable services—if they haven’t already.

Just last year, millennials surpassed Gen Xers as the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. This is the first digitally native generation that grew up with computers in their homes and came into adulthood with near ubiquitous access to the Internet, social networking, and mobile phones. As they take over the workforce, they’re going to want—and expect—the same conveniences they’ve become accustomed to in their personal lives. But when it comes to banking technology, they’re not getting it.

The stark difference between bill payment processes of accounting professionals at home and at work is just one example of how a lack of adequate technology is holding them back. A study last year by MineralTree found that 81 percent of respondents use paper checks frequently or exclusively at work, whereas almost half (48 percent) said they rarely use checks in their personal lives and 7 percent said they never use them at all.

If banks don’t start providing business customers with innovative tools to do their jobs more efficiently, they’re going to start looking elsewhere for the technology they want. As JP Morgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon now famously noted in his 2015 annual shareholder letter, “Silicon Valley is coming.”

The Path to Business Banking Innovation
It’s not surprising that business customers have found themselves in this position. It makes sense that technology on the consumer side has paved the way for innovation in banking because it’s so much less complex to build and implement.

Take mobile deposits for example. Being able to take a picture of a check with a mobile phone and deposit it via a banking app is a significant advancement in mobile banking. But it’s much more realistic for a personal account holder to use this technology than it is for a business. For a company that might deposit hundreds of checks every day, taking photos of each of them with a mobile phone is simply not practical or efficient. Not to mention adding the complexities of a business’s need for increased security features like role-based permissions for different users, or integration with other enterprise systems.

Bill pay faces similar hurdles. On the consumer side, banks have proven capable of creating directories that include most of the vendors their customers regularly pay—companies like electric, cable TV or mortgage providers. But it would be nearly impossible for a single bank to create such a directory for all business payments because the size and scope of such a network is just too vast. And then there are complexities like supporting approval workflows, role-based permissions, and integrations.

Integration with other core enterprise systems is a major issue for business customers. Being able to seamlessly connect a bank’s bill pay technology with a company’s financial system of record—their accounting/ERP system—is a must have. But again, it’s a complex task that takes a high level of technical knowledge and expertise to achieve.

Innovations in consumer banking technology have made significant strides in moving the industry forward, but now commercial customers want their share of fintech innovation too. We’re at a tipping point where business banking technology needs to catch up, and the burden is on the banks to make it happen. They can either build the technology on their own or partner with companies who can. But if they don’t, they risk being left behind.

Finding New Sources of Growth Takes Leadership


growth-5-25-16.pngThe Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has some very good advice in its publication, The Directors Book: “Sound financial performance means more than simply how much the bank earned last quarter. Equally important is the quality of earnings over the long term.”

This has always been challenging for bank leaders because of the inherent cyclicality of interest rates and the overall economy. Now, additional challenges have emerged from the relatively new phenomenon of fintech startups that provide competitive alternatives for every bank product and service. The average time spent at the top of any industry, whether a bank, or a company in the Fortune 500, is getting shorter and shorter. Yesterday’s top performers are soon long forgotten, and today’s leaders are already watching out for tomorrow’s darlings in their rearview mirror.

How is that some companies seem to defy the gravitational pull of these forces? How do some companies always find new ways to keep the growth engine going? How do they transition their company’s focus from low growth products to high growth products? One of the most important roles of boards and executive management is the effective allocation of resources—financial resources, human resources, managerial attention—and the best leaders allocate resources not to optimize for current returns, but for the long run.

Kodak was not suddenly surprised by the invention of digital photography; they were one of its key pioneers. So why did they end up being a poster child for an industry leader disrupted by new upstarts? In the final analysis, they didn’t adequately shift enough of the company’s resources away from the dying celluloid film business to the nascent digital photography business. When they did, it was too little, too late.

Direct examples like this are harder to find in banking—and the lessons harder to learn—because banks never really die, they just get absorbed by stronger performers. “Lack of innovation” is never listed as a cause of death in banking, but there is an unmistakable commonality among the industry leaders today—they are all investing resources in new products and services, and many of them are technology-driven.

A huge part of Steve Jobs’ lasting legacy is how he focused Apple’s resources away from the less profitable sectors of PCs and peripherals to create new products at the right times to capture market share in the growing categories of digital music, smartphones and tablets. It remains to be seen if Tim Cook can do it again in smartwatches, in-home entertainment, or even the Apple Car, but innovation is a valued and expected act of leadership in the company’s culture.

Bank customers today are increasingly comfortable with the value those technologies provide, and they expect their bank to keep up with their growing expectations. That takes a leadership team that invests in new ideas, but it goes beyond technology.

Whether those new ideas are created from the front lines, in an internal innovation lab, or through partnerships with external entrepreneurs, they only become valuable when they are implemented. That takes a leader willing to dedicate the right resources—and that usually means directing them from something else—in order create new sources of value for the company.

The Innovation Game


innovation-7-30-15.pngWhat would Amazon look like if it were run by a banker?

First, you’d have to go to an Amazon branch to buy a novel. When you asked for a novel, the teller would tell you that you weren’t signed up for any novels. When you asked to buy one, they’d tell you that you had to go over to the fiction department.

This critique comes from JP Nicols, formerly the chief private banking officer at U.S. Bancorp, now a management consultant. He was up at midnight in Hong Kong recently after a business meeting, Skyping and talking about innovation in banking, a passionate topic for him.

“The world is moving faster and faster, and the banking industry is not moving that fast,’’ says Nicols, the chief operating officer of Menlo Park, California-based Innosect. When bankers tell him that they are “fast followers” when it comes to technology, he tells them, “You’re only half right. There is nothing fast about what you’re doing.”

It’s a biting retort for an industry increasingly attuned to the threats and opportunities afforded by financial technology companies, most of them nonbanks. The giants, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, along with startups such as online lenders and peer-to-peer payment processors, may not make banks irrelevant, but they may certainly put many of them out of business. Some banks are realizing that they have to change to keep up, and are trying to shift their organizational structure and culture to become more innovative, and more focused on what customers want and expect in an increasingly digital age.

Some of the biggest banks have introduced innovation labs in the last few years to experiment and develop software programs and solutions that benefit customers. Some banks are buying tech startups, or investing in them. Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria Group(BBVA), possibly the most innovative big bank doing business in the United States, is revamping its entire organizational structure to get rid of silos inside the bank that create friction for customers. U.S. Bancorp has 25 people working in an innovation lab in Minneapolis experimenting with new ideas and technologies, and working closely with the bank’s management team to bring new products to fruition. The biggest banks such as BBVA and U.S. Bank obviously have the money to invest, but some smaller banks are trying to get into the game as well. For example, a mutual with less than $10 billion in assets near Boston is spending 1 percent of revenues, or $4 million this year, on research and development with the intent of spinning off technology-related companies for profit. They are all trying to make their banks more innovative, and in the end, keep themselves in business.

But what is innovation, and why does it matter? There is no one definition of innovation. For Nicols, it means putting new ideas into action that move the organization forward. It may mean coming up with a completely new business model, or introducing a product or service that no one has tried before. It may mean solving a problem in a completely new way. Banks are used to identifying, monitoring and mitigating risks, more so than they are adept at innovating. But an argument gaining increasing weight is the notion that banks really are technology companies and need to think more like a technology company. Terms such as “disruptive innovation,” popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, have become mainstream, and they portray companies as vulnerable to lower-margin startups with innovative business models that begin taking market share at the bottom of the market and eventually displace established competitors.

Companies such as Amazon don’t worry about “disrupting” themselves, as Amazon did when it introduced its e-book product, the Kindle, even though it would cannibalize its existing print book business. The idea is that companies have to focus on what customers want and expect, not the business’ legacy systems and products.

Investors outside banking are so excited about “disrupters” stealing market share from banks and other financial companies that global investment in financial technology startups jumped 201 percent between 2013 and 2014 to more than $12 billion, across 730 deals, according to New York-based data research firm CB Insights.

Banks have been busy making sure they meet regulatory guidelines and laws, says Somesh Khanna, a senior banking partner at McKinsey & Co. “Meanwhile, their customers’ preferences have changed dramatically, and nonbanks are offering very simple solutions.” There are payment processors who are essentially money transmitters and there are tech companies offering loans, and regulators may eventually catch up to them in the same way they already regulate banks. But according to Kenny Smith, vice chairman and U.S. banking and securities leader at consulting firm Deloitte, the nonbanks will adapt to regulations, and it won’t be as difficult for them because they are more niche-oriented than the banks are. Banks are trying to react by investing in startups and creating innovation labs. They are collaborating in many cases with the “disrupters,” such as online lender The Lending Club and Apple, in an effort not to get left behind. Banks are trying to adjust to the new environment by becoming more innovative, giving people the title “chief innovation officer,” and hiring from tech companies such as Yahoo, Amazon or Google.

Spanish-based BBVA purchased a design firm and a variety of startups, including online banking services provider Simple, whose founders promised it was nothing like a bank. BBVA Ventures makes small investments in startups and introduces them to BBVA management across the globe. The company’s commitment to innovation really comes from the top. Earlier this year, the BBVA board announced it had reorganized to focus on technology in the company, and appointed D. Carlos Torres Vila as president and chief operating officer, a man who had been global head of digital banking and has an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“You’ve got enough bankers in banking. We don’t need more bankers,’’ says Brett King, the author of the books Bank 2.0 and Bank 3.0, and the founder of Moven, a mobile phone application that allows you to track your savings and offers you credit for purchases. “BBVA will be more tech than banking,’’ King says. “[Chairman and CEO Francisco Gonzales] realizes that. They are trying different models. They aren’t married to one way.” Just like a tech company, “they are trying different things and seeing what works.”

Already, the company had tinkered with its organizational structure to get rid of banking silos between departments, silos that didn’t really benefit customers. Jeff Dennes, the chief digital banking officer for BBVA Compass Bancshares Inc., the U.S.-based bank, is charged with digital integration of the bank’s products and services, including online banking, mobile banking, payments, a good portion of information technology and data analytics. He says the bank is “totally committed to investing in digital capabilities” that allow clients to have easier access to money, along with real time advice that helps them make sound decisions with their money.

The $85.5 billion asset BBVA Compass has a development center that employs 500 people in Birmingham, Alabama, according to Dennes. The company renovated an existing operations center into an 80,000-square-feet, open-floor office space that employs teams of five to nine people. They work in two week sprints to develop working software, compared to a more typical timeframe of six to nine months for software development. The compressed time frame creates a different environment. “The energy is off the charts compared to any other area of the bank,’’ Dennes says. “Every day, developers have to stand up and say what they were going to do yesterday, whether they got it done, and what they intend to do that day. It has a way of focusing you,’’ he says. But innovation is also transforming the rest of the bank as well. Even risk management needs to get creative, Dennes says. The vision of creating a digital bank “requires everyone to think differently,’’ he says. “If that was just one guy saying it, it would be tough. But you have senior leadership talking about it, and people tend to get on board.”

U.S. Bancorp’s approach is slightly different, but it has spent a long time making its bank forward-thinking. It has had an innovation group for more than eight years, with the original intent to look at long-term trends in the payments business. The bank realized early on that innovation was happening, and competition was coming from nonbank competitors, says Dominic Venturo, executive vice president and chief innovation officer for the Minneapolis-based bank with $403 billion in assets.

“It’s difficult to run a business as well as our business leaders do today, and at the same time focus on [the] long term and try to decide what’s important,’’ he says.

Nicols, who worked at U.S. Bancorp, says CEO Richard Davis decided shortly after becoming CEO in 2006 that he needed to make the bank more innovative. “Richard drew a line in the sand and said, ‘We’re going to be an innovative bank.’’’ Davis decided to invest heavily in the payments business. As a result, U.S. Bancorp was one of the first to introduce mobile photo bill pay, in early 2013. It signed up early for Apple Pay and Android Pay, Google’s rival to Apple’s phone-based payments service. U.S. Bancorp is consistently recognized as a leader in mobile banking for the variety of services it provides. The innovation lab has experimented with Google Glass and augmented reality, the concept that reality can be enhanced by computer inputs, such as images or information displayed in your glasses. Two years ago, Venturo published a paper on the privacy implications of the Internet of Things, which involves connecting everything mechanical, including such things as cars, TVs and refrigerators, to the Internet. The bank created a mobile shopping app called Peri that partners, such as retailers, could use to help people shop and compare prices using their smartphones.

But the innovation team isn’t cut off from the bank’s goals. Twenty-five people work on the team in the bank’s headquarters offices. Staff meets regularly with the heads of the four major business groups: wholesale and commercial banking, commercial real estate, trust and wealth management, and payments and consumer banking, which tell the innovation team what their problems are and their customers’ problems. The innovation team then works on solving them collaboratively with the bank’s management team. The team also brings in customers to the lab to collaboratively develop software that meets their needs.

Unlike BBVA, the bank doesn’t have a venture capital arm, and although it does partner with other companies or hire vendors to jointly create solutions, it doesn’t tend to invest in them or buy a lot of startups. Venturo himself has a banking background, having worked 15 years for U.S. Bancorp. Before that, he was with Bank of America Corp., and has worked stints in payments and as a commercial banker. He tends to promote from within U.S. Bancorp.

“One of the misconceptions about innovation is you have to go bring in a bunch of disrupters who don’t know anything about your business to think differently, but I think it’s more helpful to bring in deep domain expertise and give them permission to think differently,’’ Venturo says. “They are more likely to come up with an idea you can actually do.”

Community and regional banks may have a tough time affording an innovation lab, whether they come from in-house or the technology industry. Many of them already struggle with attracting and retaining talented people, and will largely have to rely on vendors to provide many of their technological platforms and services. Just because small banks often are focused on commercial clients, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to stay relevant to those commercial customers. “Those who want to be innovative have to have a plan in place that is executable, to make sure their technology presence is relevant and stays relevant, even if the business line focus is commercial,’’ says Ryan Rackley, a director at Cornerstone Advisors in Scottsdale, Arizona. Moven’s King advises banks to be very careful about picking a core platform vendor, and any technology vendors that they use on top of that. Since they are so dependent on vendors, they must choose wisely.

But a few banks are going beyond picking vendors and are experimenting with in-house innovation as well. After a merger in 2007, Eastern Bank Corp. president Bob Rivers noticed a huge drop-off in branch traffic, which has continued to this day. (The mutual’s busiest branch did 60,000 transactions per month back then, and it’s now half of that.) Rivers began to think, ”The world is changing radically, and if we don’t do something quickly, we are going to be left behind.”

With the support of management and the board, Rivers began networking around Cambridge, near the bank’s headquarters, where there was plenty of technology talent surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We knew we needed to make investments in new technology,’’ Rivers says. Rivers ended up recruiting the former executives of PerkStreet Financial, an online financial services provider with a rewards checking account tailored to each individual’s spending habits. The business ceased to operate after it failed to raise new capital. One of Eastern Bank’s recruits was Dan O’Malley, the enthusiastic, nobody-is-doing-what-we’re-doing co-founder of PerkStreet and now, chief digital officer at Eastern Bank with a team of about 20 to 25 innovators.

About a year ago, the bank put O’Malley and his team in charge of the customer call center, gave them access to a mass of data on the bank’s customers, and let them “build cool stuff, buy cool stuff and change our culture,” according to Rivers. The team’s goal is to spin off technology companies that make the bank a profit. Rivers said Eastern Bank’s directors didn’t need to be sold on the idea. “I would have to say, the board was more enthusiastic about it than management was here, by and large,’’ he says. Last year, when two members reached the retirement age of 70, the board brought in new expertise, including Joe Chung, a venture capitalist, and Bari Harlam, an executive vice president at BJ’s Wholesale Club in charge of membership, marketing and analytics. With such support from the top, the bank already has rolled out voice recognition software for the call center, so customers don’t have to answer a series of maddening questions to verify their identities. “The amount of friction we took out was huge,’’ O’Malley says.

Not all banks would have shareholders supporting long-term investments in research and development. But as a mutual, Eastern Bank doesn’t have the same pressure to meet quarterly earnings estimates that public banks have, and has more ability to invest, O’Malley says. Recruiting talent is always an issue, but O’Malley thinks the bank does have a leg up compared to a startup. The bank has a trove of data that can be harnessed to improve services and build new products. It already has a huge number of customers. It’s not trying to build capital and customers. It already has them. O’Malley is bringing in developers who have never worked for a bank. The head of the data center is an MIT-trained scientist who has been published in Science and Nature magazines. “You need people who know how to build stuff,’’ O’Malley says.

He feels strongly that banks need to adapt or they will lose business. “If we don’t do this right, we are going to lose chunks of our business. There are online lenders who will lend to small businesses within a day. Our traditional process takes a month, and they’re doing it in a day.” He thinks for many banks in the country, the situation is dire.

Judd Caplain, a banking advisory industry leader for the consulting firm KPMG, agrees that banks that don’t make changes will lose business. “As long as banks reinvent themselves, they will continue to exist,’’ he says. “Those that do not risk becoming dinosaurs.” Of course, banks have heard that before. The Internet was supposed to mean the death of branches, and yet they are still a powerful new customer acquisition tool, and a place to solidify a presence in the community. But Brett King has noticed a change. Bankers two years ago downplayed his predictions about a revolution in mobile banking, and countered that the Internet didn’t kill branches. Now, he doesn’t hear that anymore. “Banks are saying, ‘You’re right, it is changing, and we’ve got to do something now,’’’ he says. “It’s real this time.”

When Free Checking Is No Longer Enough


When-Free-Checking-Is-No-Longer.pngCity National Bank is a perennial industry leader in retail checking performance. By adopting free checking earlier than most banks in the region, City National helped grow its customer base by appealing to many types of customers in their communities looking for a no-fee checking account. Despite the success, City National realized there was a major market opportunity that was being missed—the chance to attract and appeal to the overlooked value buyer, those who gladly pay a fee for things they feel provide some form of commensurate value in return.

While this buyer type may sound strange for a mature banking market that has been dominated by free strategies, it is a large consumer segment that other top retailers have already capitalized on. More than 125 million Americans pay fees to save at Costco and Sam’s Club or with Amazon Prime. Nearly 100 million pay monthly fees for cell phone insurance and roadside assistance services. Providing value like these money-saving and protective services can be applied to checking products to attract these types of customers and grow relationships. It also helps with a new problem for the banking industry— regulatory initiatives that have reduced overdraft fees and other checking account-related fee income.

“There are customers looking for something more out of their checking account,” said Tim Quinlan, senior vice president at City National Bank in Charleston, West Virginia. “Customers are more willing to pay a monthly fee if they feel they’re getting more than basic banking benefits.” To provide this, City National implemented StrategyCorps’ BaZing checking program. For $5 per month, customers who choose a BaZing account— which the bank brands as City Gold—receive protection benefits like roadside assistance, identity theft protection and cell phone insurance. They also receive shopping, dining and travel discounts with participating local merchants and national retailers, plus traditional checking benefits like check discounts and surcharge-free ATM access. “We want our customers to be excited about their relationship with City National,” Quinlan said.

CityNational.png“City Gold has been a big part of that solution: ‘Wow. I get all these extra benefits and services.’ They feel like they are getting a good deal with us.” When helping a customer determine the right checking account, City National employees are extremely disciplined in educating the customer— without a high-pressured sales pitch. They start each conversation about opening a new account by telling customers about City Gold rather than just having the customer select from a list of checking types. The bank understands that City Gold is not for every customer. But when the fit is right, that customer who chooses City Gold ultimately develops a deeper affinity for the bank.

“We believe our employees should have fun and be excited about offering the product to the customer,” Quinlan said. “We want to make sure we present all the options and that they feel they received great service, not that they were sold something.”

That not only builds customer loyalty but also referrals. “When customers get excited about an additional service they enjoy at their bank, they tell another customer,” Quinlan said.

City National employees also successfully sell City Gold by being active users of its benefits themselves and telling their own personal experiences about the product.

The BaZing program also provides banks with a way to participate with the local business community by allowing local merchants to offer discounts on the BaZing network. Local businesses that want to join the BaZing discount network do not have to pay a fee—they simply offer a discount. They don’t even have to be a City National business customer to participate. Bringing this type of relationship opens the door to a deeper connection between the bank and a key business in the area. City National is seen as a partner that can help these local businesses grow.

“Successful banks like City National are always looking for customer friendly ways to grow fee income. By offering products that fit with customers’ mobile lifestyles, they have succeeded in delivering real value, savings and security that customers will pay for,” said Dave Crook, a partner with StrategyCorps.

The alliance between City National and BaZing’s parent company StrategyCorps will soon mark a decade. Neither firm looks the same as it did in 2005. City National has grown to one of regional prominence, while StrategyCorps has significantly grown and expanded the discounts and other services offered through BaZing.

City National has proven that keeping a sharp eye on serving the value checking buyer with quality products and coaching and motivating employees to meet goals makes it possible to boost customer satisfaction and significantly improve fee income generation on a customer-friendly basis.

Leaders In Bank Innovation


Banks of all sizes are implementing innovative technologies to grow their organizations but which ones are doing it right? Filmed during Bank Director and NASDAQ OMX’s inaugural FinTech Day in New York City, four financial technology providers offer their perspectives on which financial institutions are leading the way with the latest technologies.


Giving Banks a Better Way to Cross Sell


Giving-Banks-a-Better-Way-to-Cross-Sell.pngArlene Vogel, vice president of commercial banking services for Central Bancompany, understands missed opportunities firsthand. When she paid for a recent product, she noticed that the store owner was using a credit card processing service that connected to a smartphone. That store’s business checking account was with a Central Bancompany bank.

“When I asked why she had signed up with that company, she said, ‘It was just so easy,’” Vogel said. “We missed the opportunity when we opened her accounts because we hadn’t addressed that need. Those companies are marketing a specific product around a specific need. We’re marketing mass products. A lot of it is about capturing the few opportunities you have when you have the customer in.”

Banks like those under Central Bancompany—a holding company for 13 regional banks in Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma—face missed opportunities like this each day. Banks are under historic pressures, from regulators as well as competitors that focus on one item in a bank’s significant portfolio of services. One may take merchant services while another offers Small Business Administration loans. And those competitors are taking customers away permanently.

Bancompany.pngBut there is another trend that is playing in banks’ favor—if they are able to take advantage of it. Busy business owners prefer to streamline relationships with one vendor—not multiple service providers.

When Central Bancompany engaged Ignite Sales, it needed to help its front-line associates improve relationships with its business customers. Using Ignite Sales’ Recommendation Guides, the front-line representative now has a tool to better serve business customers while growing its services.

At Central Bancompany’s banks, the customer service representative sits down with the business customer, turns the computer screen where both can see it and logs on to a Central Bancompany-branded page. The business customer answers a series of questions and the program then provides products and services based on those responses.

Central Bancompany initiated the program as a pilot in February 2014. Already, it has doubled the services that a new business customer typically opens from three or four to six or seven.

In many ways, banks are in the early stages of a shift that has happened in all forms of retail in recent years: a proper sales process. Most banks cannot ensure accurate product recommendations across all channels. They are not making recommendations and not tracking what’s being recommended versus what’s being opened. Because these recommendations are not tracked, opportunities for strategic follow-up are lost.

Central Bancompany has taken the initiative to do these things and it is paying off. Not only have its banks seen an increase in the new services opened, but customer sales representatives also say they feel more confident in sharing a full range of products using the program, which is called Business Analyzer.

“Prior to the Business Analyzer, we had products to ask questions around, but our CSRs [customer service representatives] wouldn’t because they were afraid the customers would ask a technical question about the product,” Vogel said. “Now, because these products are recommended in response to questions asked by the analyzer, they have more confidence in explaining it. With a marketing piece that explains the service, the customer is more confident in purchasing.”

Ignite Sales’ is providing Central Bancompany with information about how its CSRs are performing with bank goals as well. Perhaps more importantly, Central Bancompany’s customers are becoming more aware of the range of products available. “It’s been the biggest eye-opener how much our business customers did not realize we could have done for them,” Vogel said. “We’re using the analytics to improve our product design, bundling and pricing. We’re trying to watch particular business types. Is there a standard set of products that they are falling in to? We don’t have the answers on that yet, but we’re doing a deeper dive into cross sales.”

That is consistent with what many of Ignite Sales’ customers find. As they receive better data, they can realign products to what their customers want—not simply model their product line based on what the larger banks in the region offer. It leads to pretty dramatic improvements in the sales process.

And it’s not just for new customers. When Central Bancompany initiated Ignite Sales’ Recommendation Guides, one bank piloted a test around existing business customers. Representatives presented it as a business review. On average, each existing customer opted for at least one additional product.

At a time when competitors are nibbling around the edges of a bank’s customers, increasing existing relationships by one product—and doubling the number of products a new customer selects—can lead to major successes.

What’s Working and Why


DI_mag_thingy.pngI am a big believer that many banks have immediate opportunities to expand what banking means to individual and business customers. This special supplement to Bank Director magazine highlights a number of interesting technologies that have re-shaped the fortunes of banks across the U.S.

Now, technology in the financial world encompasses a broad spectrum of tools. For most officers and directors, I’ve found conversations about technology naturally incite interest in mobile banking. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that 68 percent of American adults connect to the Internet with smartphones or mobile devices, according to the Pew Research Center. Smartphone penetration is highest among people with higher incomes, and the young. What an opportunity to engage and reshape your relationships with this audience! To show how Americans use smartphones, and how banks are offering mobile services to meet that demand, Bank Director compiled an infographic on pages 4-5.

Clearly, banks are trying to reach customers with the appropriate technology to stay relevant. But some banks are pushing themselves beyond what every other bank is doing. A story on page 6 features interviews with banking leaders about the most successful innovations or technological advances impacting banks right now. Among new ideas is Malauzai Software’s and Allied Payment Network’s PicturePay, which allows banks to pay customer bills with a photo of the bill taken on a smartphone. 

As many banks face pressure to grow revenue or reduce expenses, we take a look at some that are coming up with creative solutions to tackle that problem. For instance, Central Bancompany in Jefferson City, Missouri, turned to Ignite Sales to double the number of services the average new business customer uses at the bank from three to six or seven different products or services. 

Likewise, City National Bank in Charleston, West Virginia, found success with the help of StrategyCorps. About one-third of the bank’s customers have opted into a value-added checking account for $5 per month, even though free checking is still available. Inland Community Bank in Ontario, California, used Paladin fs to save money on its core information technology contracts during the sale of the bank, improving the value of the deal and saving $700,000 in termination expenses.

While most banks are far more efficient than they were just five years ago, there is money to be saved in banking. Some of the more ambitious companies, who want to stay relevant and solve their customers’ problems, are saving money and growing revenues through a variety of means. Banks have to make changes to stay relevant and address customer needs, and some of the more inventive banks are finding unique ways to do this while boosting the bottom line. On behalf of our team, please enjoy this special supplement, one we designed to inspire and shine a light into what’s possible.

Contents

When Free Checking Is No Longer Enough

Successful banks like City National are always looking for customer friendly ways to grow fee income, says StrategyCorps’ Dave Crook.

Giving Banks a Better Way to Cross Sell

When Central Company engaged Ignite Sales, it needed to help its front-line associates improve relationships with its business customers.

Saving Money on IT Contracts

Financial institutions are generally paying too much for information technology contracts. In many cases, those contracts could negatively affect M&A transactions in the future.

Succeeding With Mobile Bill Pay

Park Sterling Bank is increasing customer retention through mobile bill pay.

BNY Mellon: Creating a Culture of Innovation


The fabric of the banking industry is changing as new technology players continue to emerge in the marketplace.  In this short video, Declan Denehan, managing director for strategy and innovation at BNY Mellon, shares how a financial institution that is over 230 years old embraces innovation by empowering new ideas and partnering with the FinTech community.