How Fintechs Can Help Advance Financial Inclusion

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic swiftly shut down the U.S. economy. Demand for manufactured goods stagnated while restaurant activity fell to zero. The number of unbanked and underbanked persons looked likely to increase, after years of decline. However, federal legislation has created incentives for community banks to help those struggling financially. Fintechs can also play an important role.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone — but not all equally. Although the number of American households with bank accounts grew to a record 95% in 2019 according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s “How America Banks” survey, the crisis is still likely to contribute to an increase in unbanked as unemployment remains high. Why should banks take action now?

Financial inclusion is critical — not just for those individuals involved, but for the wider economy. The Financial Health Network estimates that 167 million America adults are not “financially healthy,” while the FDIC reports that 85 million Americans are either unbanked or “underbanked” and aren’t able to access the traditional services of a financial institution.

It can be expensive to be outside of the financial services space: up to 10% of the income of the unbanked and underbanked is spent on interest and fees. This makes it difficult to set aside money for future spending or an unforeseen contingency. Having an emergency fund is a cornerstone of financial health, and a way for individuals to avoid high fees and interest rates of payday loans.

Promoting financial inclusion allows a bank to cultivate a market that might ultimately need more advanced financial products, enhance its Community Reinvestment Act standing and stimulate the community. Financial inclusion is a worthy goal for all banks, one that the government is also incentivizing.

Recent Government Action Creates Opportunity
Recent federal legislation has created opportunities for banks to help individuals and small businesses in economically challenged areas. The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes $3 billion in funding directed to Community Development Financial Institutions. CDFIs are financial institutions that share a common goal of expanding economic access to financial products and services for resident and businesses.

Approximately $200 million of this funding is available to all financial institutions — institutions do need not to be currently designated as a CDFI to obtain this portion of the funding. These funds offer a way to promoting financial inclusion, with government backing of your institution’s assistance efforts.

Charting a Path Toward Inclusion
The path to building a financially inclusive world involves a concerted effort to address many historic and systemic issues. There’s no simple guidebook, but having the right technology is a good first step.

Banks and fintechs should revisit their product roadmaps and reassess their innovation strategies to ensure they use technologies that can empower all Americans with access to financial services. For example, providing financial advice and education can extend a bank’s role as a trusted advisor, while helping the underbanked improve their banking aptitude and proficiency.

At FIS, we plan to continue supporting standards that advance financial inclusion, provide relevant inclusion research and help educate our partners on inclusion opportunities. FIS actively supports the Bank On effort to ensure Americans have access to safe, affordable bank or credit union accounts. The Bank On program, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, certifies public-private partnership accounts that drive financial inclusion. Banks and fintechs should continue joining these efforts and help identify new features and capabilities that can provide affordable access to financial services.

Understanding the Needs of the Underbanked
Recent research we’ve conducted highlights the extent of the financial inclusion challenge. The key findings suggest that the underbanked population require a nuanced approach to address specific concerns:

  • Time: Customers would like to decrease time spent on, or increase efficiency of, engaging with their personal finances.
  • Trust: Consumers trust banks to secure their money, but are less inclined to trust them with their financial health.
  • Literacy: Respondents often use their institution’s digital tools and rarely use third-party finance apps, such as Intuit’s Mint and Acorns.
  • Guidance: The underbanked desire financial guidance to help them reach their goals.

Financial institutions must address both the transactional and emotional needs of the underbanked to accommodate the distinct characteristics of these consumers. Other potential banking product categories that can help to serve the underbanked include: financial services education programs, financial wellness services and apps and digital-only banking offerings.

FIS is committed to promoting financial inclusion. We will continue evaluating the role of technology in promoting financial inclusion and track government initiatives that drive financial inclusion to keep clients informed on any new developments.

Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics

Imagine a local manufacturer, beloved as an employer and a pillar of the community. The company uses 100% renewable energy and carefully manages its supply chain to be environmentally conscious. The manufacturer has a diverse group of employees, upper managers and board. It pays well and provides health benefits. It might be considered a star when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) parameters.

Now imagine news breaks: Its product causes some customers to develop cancer, an outcome the company ignored for years. How did a good corporate citizen not care about this? You could say this was a governance failure. Everyone would agree that it was a trust-busting event for customers.

ESG, at its root, is about looking at the overall impact of a company. The most profound impact of banks is the impact of banking products. Most bank products are built for use in a perfect world with perfect compliance, but perfect compliance is hard for some people. Noncompliance disproportionately affects the most vulnerable customers ⎯ people living paycheck-to-paycheck and managing their money with little margin to spare. That isn’t to say that these individuals are all under or near the poverty line: Fully 18% of people who earn more than $100,000 say they live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey of 8,000 U.S. workers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. There is growing recognition that bank products need to reflect the realities of more and more Americans.

Years ago, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares started working on better overdraft solutions for customers whose financial lives were far from perfect. Currently, the $123 billion regional bank will not charge for overdrafts under $50 if a customer automatically deposits their paycheck. If the customer overdrafts $50 or more, the bank sends them an alert to correct it within 24 hours.

Likewise, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group recently announced a new feature that gives PNC Virtual Wallet customers 24 hours to cure an overdraft without having to pay a fee.  If not corrected, an overdraft amounts to a maximum of $36 per day.

“With this new tool, we’re able to shift away from the industry’s widely used overdraft approach, which we believe is unsustainable,” said William Demchak, chairman and CEO of the $474 billion bank, in a statement. The statement alone reframes what sustainability means for banking.

The banks that become ESG leaders will create products that improve the long-term financial health of their retail and small businesses customers. To do so, some financial institutions are asking their customers to measure their current financial realities in order to provide better solutions.

For example, Credit Human, a $3.2 billion credit union in San Antonio, is putting financial health front and center both in their branches and digitally. Their onboarding process directs individuals to a financial health analysis supported by FinHealthCheck, a data tool that helps banks and credit unions measure the financial health of customers and the potential outcomes of the products they offer. The goal of Credit Human is to improve the financial health of their customers and eventually make it a part of the overall measurement of the product’s performance.

Measurement alone will not build better bank products. But it will provide banks and credit union executives with critical information to align their products with customer well being. With the implementation of overdraft avoidance programs such as PNC’s Low Cash Mode, the bank expects to help its customers avoid approximately $125 million to $150 million in overdraft fees annually. PNC benefits its bottom line by driving more customers to its Virtual Wallet, nabbing merchant fee income and creating customer loyalty in the process. PNC’s move makes it clear that they believe promoting the long-term financial health of their customers promotes the long-term financial health of the company.

Banks need to avoid appearing to care about ESG, while failing to care about customers. The banks that include customer financial health in their ESG measurement will survive, thrive and become the true ESG stars.

Fraud Attempts on the Rise Since Pandemic’s Start

As Covid-19 passes its one year anniversary in the United States, businesses are still adjusting to the pandemic’s impacts on their industry.

Banking is no exception. While banks have quickly adjusted to new initiatives like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the most notable impact to financial institutions has been the demand for online capabilities. Banks needed to adjust their offerings to ensure they didn’t lose their client base.

“ATM activity is up, drive-through banking is up 10% to 20% and deposits made through our mobile app are up 40%,” said Dale Oberkfell, president and CFO of Midwest Bank Centre last June.

The shift to digital account openings has been drastic. The chart below looks at the percent change in cumulative number of evaluations from 2019 to 2020 for a cohort of Alloy customers, limited to organizations that were clients for both years. Since the onset of the pandemic, digital account opening has increased year-over-year by at least 25%.

Although the shift to digital was necessary to meet consumer demands, online banking opens up the possibility of new types of fraud. To study the pandemic’s impact on fraudulent applications, we took a closer look at changes in consumer risk scores since the onset of the pandemic. Similar to credit scores, risk scores predict the likelihood of identity or synthetic fraud based on discrepancies in information provided, behavioral characteristics and consortium data about past fraud activity.

Comparing the pandemic months of March 2020 to December 2020 to the same period in 2019, Alloy clients saw a dramatic rise in high-risk applications. Total high-risk applications increased by 137%, driven both by overall growth in digital application volume and a comparatively riskier population of applicants.

There are several ways for you to protect your organization against this growing threat. One way is to use multiple data sources to create a more holistic understanding of your applicants and identify risky behaviors. It also ensures that you are not falling victim to compromised data from any one source. It’s a universal best practice; Alloy customers use, on average, at least 4 data sources.

Another way for you to protect your institution is by using an identity decisioning platform to understand and report on trends in your customer’s application data. Many data providers will return the values that triggered higher fraud scores, such as email and device type. An identity decisioning platform can store that data for future reference. So, even if a risky application is approved at onboarding, you can continue to monitor it throughout its lifetime with you.

Digital banking adoption and usage is expected to only increase in the future. Banks need to ensure that their processes for online capabilities are continuously improving. If your organization is spending too much time running manual reviews or using an in-house technology, it may be time for an upgrade. Click here to see how an identity decisioning platform can improve your process and help you on-board more legitimate customers.

How Digital Channels Can Complement Physical Branches

With the rise of digital services and changing customer habits during Covid-19, the future of brick-and-mortar banking may seem in doubt.

Looking ahead, physical bank branches remain crucial for any community bank’s outreach and distribution strategy, but their use and purpose will continue to evolve. Digital acceleration is an opportunity for community banks to reshape the in-person banking environment. Incorporating the digital channel allows banks to offer more comprehensive, customer-focused experiences that complement their brick-and-mortar branches.

Physical Banks Remain a Valuable Asset
Digital banking is a critical way for community banks to provide excellent service. Integrating best-in-class online services allows financial institutions of all sizes to compete against larger banks that may be slower to innovate. Digital branch tools can bring greater accessibility and convenience for customers, a larger customer base and enhanced automation opportunities.

While many customers are excited by digital tools, not every demographic will adapt right away. Customers of all ages may lack confidence in their own abilities and prefer to talk to someone in person. These visits can be a prime opportunity for staff to educate customers on how to engage with their digital platforms.

In-person banking is an opportunity for banks to offer above-and-beyond customer service, especially for more complex services that are difficult to replicate digitally. An in-person conversation can make all the difference when it comes to major financial decisions, such as taking out a mortgage or other loans. Customers may start out with remote tools, then visit a branch for more in-depth planning.

How One Community Bank Is Evolving
Flushing Bank in Uniondale, New York, is using digital account opening software to accelerate growth. The $8 billion bank’s mobile and online banking capabilities went live in March 2020 — the timing of which allowed the bank to more easily serve customers remotely. Digital deposit account openings comprised 19% of Flushing’s customer growth between April and June.

Implementing digital account opening expanded Flushing Bank’s geographic footprint. The online account opening software allowed the existing branches to become more efficient and have a wider reach within the surrounding community, servicing more customers without building new branches.

At the same time, in-person branches and staff remain irreplaceable for Flushing Bank. The bank is leveraging digital tools as more than just an online solution: New technology includes appointment booking, improved phone services and enhance ATM video capabilities, creating a digital experience that is safe, convenient and delightful.

Transforming Brick-and-Mortar Banking for the Future
Digital tools allow more transactions to occur remotely, which may lessen in-person branch traffic while expanding the institution’s geographic reach. Banks can focus on the transactions that do occur in person, and ensure that digital tools improve customer service in branches.

A report from Celent and Reflexis surveying banks on their current strategies noted how more institutions could use digital tools for maximum effect. Just as digital channels offer comprehensive data analysis capabilities, banks can more effectively track each customer’s in-person journey as well. One starting point is to determine why customers visit physical locations — in one case, a bank learned many customers come in looking for a notary and will quickly leave if one is not available.

The report suggests that digital tools can automate their staff’s workflow, ultimately contributing to an improved customer experience. For instance, only a third of surveyed banks offer digital appointment booking, a service that can create a more efficient experience for both customers and staff. Or, banks could onboard customers with account opening software on tablets at physical branches. These tablets are often easier for customers to understand, lower the burden on staff, and help prevent fraud with thorough identity validation.

Community banks have an opportunity during this transitional time to develop a digital strategy that complements their physical branches. A comprehensive plan includes best-in-class digital tools for remote transactions while bringing new digital capabilities to brick-and-mortar locations to ensure the highest-quality customer service.

The Secret to Increasing Wallet Share

Quick, name a bank.

Did you name your bank, or another local or national bank? It is often easier for people to think of a national bank than a local one, thanks to name recognition through advertising and branches.

But as important as top of mind awareness is, staying top of wallet is even more important. When your organization comes to both customers and prospective customer’s minds, you increase the chances at becoming their primary financial institution (PFI).

At Wallit, we define PFI as a customer having an active checking account, a debit card and direct deposit with a financial institution. There are five ways banks can accomplish this objective, increase deposit growth and boost non-interest income in a way that maintains healthy, growing customer relationships.

1. Elevate the debit card. The debit card isn’t just a payment card, method or option. It is a powerful and valuable lifestyle tool that many community banks underutilize.

At the point of sale, consumers decide whether to use a credit or debit card, based on their own needs. They make this decision multiple times each day.

I’m sure that most community bank customers that have a checking account also have that bank’s debit card in their wallet. But do they use it? Do they use a competitor’s card? Do they reach for a credit card?

2. Be Visible. Consumers have more options than ever when choosing financial services providers. So many, in fact, that consumers actively avoid marketing and advertising. Community banks have to be more visible, but not pushy.

Look for opportunities to connect your brand to things your customers value by linking it to places that your customers already think deliver value. Connect your brand to local businesses in the communities you serve, building and growing relationships with these businesses.

Promoting local businesses and providing information people need extends your bank’s reach and gets your name out there. This also borrows the brand halo of those businesses and makes your brand top of mind and top of wallet in the process.

3. Capitalize on Connections. The best businesses succeed through collaboration. Leveraging current relationships and connecting local merchants to local consumers unlocks the trapped value of your bank in the digital age.

Your bank can create a sense of belonging for members of your community, with your institution at the center. Think about it this way – Connecting buyers and sellers is far more valuable than merely connecting the bank accounts of buyers and sellers.

4. Generate Word of Mouth. Consumers will always share what they think of brands, products and services with others in their network across a wide range of communication channels. These recommendations are highly credible and relevant; they’re generally more effective than the marketing and advertising your bank currently pays for.

The best tactic to generate word of mouth is to impress current customers with a card-linked, cash back offer when they visit one of your local businesses. Your customers already have your bank’s debit card with them, making it a tool for spreading positive word of mouth, building your brand and driving revenue by offering and rewarding unique, highly personal, share-worthy experiences.

5. Experiment. Create a culture of experimentation. Start small and learn fast. Having the courage to apply new technologies and reinvent existing ways of working can improve financial performance.

Develop and improve your bank’s ability to be hyper-relevant and serve customers more effectively by sensing and addressing their changing needs. Consider starting a pilot with employees, then extending to scale with a portion of your customers.

Increasing share of wallet and becoming a primary financial institution requires intention, commitment and experimentation.

By leveraging your bank’s current strengths and investing in your debit card and merchant services programs, such as offering and marketing cash back rewards to local businesses and consumers, you can tip the scale in your favor.

Why Nailing the Customer Experience Comes Down to Empathy

While this pandemic has brought many challenges to the financial industry, it’s also brought the opportunity of accelerating customer adoption of your digital banking services.

But it’s also presented an opening for your bank to build genuine customer loyalty and turbocharge your net promoter score.

Difficult times bring out the best and the worst in both people and companies. It’s easy to offer amazing service when things are going well, but it’s how you treat your customers during tough times that builds, or breaks, loyalty. American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Right now is your opportunity to make your customer feel valued, supported and secure. To do that, you need to be empathetic to your customers and your staff.

Consider your customers. They’re stressed.

This is a stressful time for them. Many are financially strained and need advice on the new programs and policies put in place to help them. They’re socially isolated and trying to avoid public places in an effort to stay safe. So, naturally, they’re increasingly banking through your digital channels — but that’s stressful too. How do I use mobile banking? Is it secure? How do I make sure I don’t send money to the wrong person?

To navigate these tricky waters, your customers need access to knowledgeable people who can guide them through your technology, and help them understand how to use your products and services.

Your frontline is your bank. It’s through your frontline that your customers experience your bank. And these are difficult times for frontline staff, too. Many are working from home, and have had to switch roles to handle the increased volume of remote support requests.

At the same time, they don’t have the in-person support of their colleagues, and they don’t have the same toolsets at their disposal. And new programs and policies are being rolled out faster than ever. All this at a time when many of them are experiencing personal difficulties.

You need to provide them with the knowledge, skills, and tools to deliver an exceptional customer experience. For the knowledge and skills part, they need practical training, which has been made more difficult by the pandemic. Instructor-led trainings are off the table, your learning management system could be better. You need an engaging and effective way to train remote staff so they can offer the right solution at the right time for your customers.

One of the biggest holes you need to plug is the lack of employee knowledge and familiarity with your digital products — the very ones you customers need to rely on right now. Many of your staff don’t bank with you, so they’ve never experienced your digital tools. If they’re not familiar with your tech, how can they be expected to promote and support it? To empower them, you need to train them on your tech and give them tools to help customers navigate transactions.

It all works together. The goal during this pandemic is to deliver an exceptional customer experience, to make customers feel secure and valued during a difficult time. Banks that can pull this off will build coveted long lasting customer loyalty. My contention is that empathy is the key to success.

Your customer experience is curated by your frontline employees. If you can remove stress from their jobs with training and support tools, they’ll be in a better position to help your customers. Investing in your frontline and showing them that you care about them will make them feel valued and help you build staff loyalty.

A well-trained, supported and secure frontline will do a much better job of helping your customers get through these tough times. Armed with the knowledge, skills and tools they need, frontline staff will be able make prescient recommendations that promote your products while making the customer feel confident and secure with their banking situation.

In the long run your customers won’t remember the details of each transaction and how it was handled. They’ll remember whether their bank added to their stress, or gave them one less thing to worry about during a trying time.

Customer Loyalty and the Competition for Stable Funding

It’s more important than ever for banks to compete on value and increase client loyalty.

Banks are increasing loan loss reserves to counteract eroding credit quality at the same time they are also contending with competitors’ high-yield savings accounts, which pay more than 0.60% APY in some cases. August’s consumer savings rate was 14%, albeit down from a high of nearly 34% in April.

It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of competing on value in this environment, even as cost-effective ways to retain funding are more necessary than ever.

When I managed cash and investment products for banks and brokerage firms, I was regularly asked to increase the interest rate we offered our clients — often because a large client was threatening to leave the firm. My response then is still relevant today: A client relationship is more than an interest rate. In fact, multiple research studies I’ve sponsored over my career showed that when it comes to their cash deposits, the majority of clients rank safety, in the form of deposit insurance protection, first; access to their cash when they need it second; and interest rate third.

It’s a given that the majority of banks are members of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and have debit cards linked to savings accounts, making clients’ funds accessible. According to the FDIC, the current average national savings rate at the end of October was 0.05% APY.

I ask potential bank partners the following key questions to understand what their strategy is to retain the excess deposits as long as possible on their balance sheet.

  • Does your bank create value with relationship pricing?
  • Does your institution have an easy-to-navigate website and app?
  • Can clients easily open an account online?
  • Does your bank offer a broad range of flexible products that meet clients’ cash needs?
  • When was the last time your institution launched an innovative savings product?

We’ve learned a lot about building more value for customers from successful consumer technology over the last few decades. Decisive points include that product attributes should be intuitive for use by front-line sales, be easily incorporated into a bank’s online experience, and allow clients to co-create a banking experience that meets their individual needs.

What would tech-inspired, easy-to-use, personalized products look like in retail banking?

Example 1:
A savings ladder strategy can meet clients’ needs for safety and access to their cash. This approach gains crucial additional value, however, when a bank deploys technology linking all the steps in the ladder into one account. Clients want to see what they’re getting in advance too: to test different inputs and compare potential strategies easily prior to  purchasing. Implementing new, individualized products should be as easy as clicking on the Amazon.com “Buy” button.

Example 2
In the face of economic uncertainty and job losses, many clients may look for flexibility. Some consumers will want to readily access cash for their already-known needs — for instance, parents with college-age children, small businesses, or homeowners with predictable renovation schedules. Advanced software lets banks meet these needs by creating customizable, fixed-term deposits with optimized rates that allow for flexible withdrawals.

Banks can consider adding value to their product offering beyond rate with time-deposit accounts that are easy for clients to implement and designed to meet their specific cash needs and terms. A product with such attributes both meets clients’ individualized needs and creates value in a competitive field.

Example 3
If a client prefers safety with some exposure to the market upside, a market-linked time deposit account also helps banks offer more value without increasing rate. An index or a basket of exchange traded funds can be constructed to align with your client’s values, which is especially attractive in today’s market. Consider the appeal of a time deposit account linked to a basket of green industry stocks, innovative technology companies, or any number of options for a segment of your clients. Offering products that align with your client’s broader worldview allows you to build a more holistic, longer-lasting relationship with them.

The ability to create customer value beyond rate will ultimately determine the long-term loyalty of banking clients. Fortunately, we can look to technology for successful models that show how to add value through simple, intuitive, and individual products. At the same time, tech already has many solutions, with software and IT services that banks can access to meet their clients’ personal needs, even at this challenging moment. Innovation has never been more relevant than now — as banks need to secure their communities, their client relationships, and their funding in a cost-effective manner.

Banks Can’t Keep Playing Defense on Postal Banking

As momentum builds for offering expanded financial services via the U.S. Postal Service, the banking industry to date has responded with flat opposition.

Banks argue that the post office isn’t set up to take deposits, workers don’t have much experience offering financial services products and the agency has enough issues it needs to address already — all solid points. Yet while playing defense may work in the short term — even if Democrats win the White House and Senate in November, it would be a tough fight on the Hill to enact a postal banking bill — it doesn’t feel like the smart play.

There is an opportunity in postal banking, one that the industry would do well to seize before banks competitors do. Credit unions are already circulating a plan that would allow them to bid to open branches at nearby post office locations. JPMorgan Chase & Co., meanwhile, has been quietly negotiating with the U.S. government about putting ATMs at post office locations.

If both smaller institutions like credit unions and JPMorgan, the nation’s largest bank, see the possibilities in post offices, banks should too.

The push for postal banking is only going to increase
Banks may not agree, but on some level, offering banking services at post offices makes sense. Many foreign countries already do it successfully and the U.S. itself offered them from 1911 to 1966 (It largely ended because banks could offer higher interest rates). A growing number of progressives see postal banking as a potential solution to the roughly 55 million un- and underbanked Americans. The Postal Service is both popular and trusted, making it an attractive alternative to check cashers, payday lenders and yes, even banks.

Many Democrats have embraced the idea, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee has his own version of postal banking that involves the Federal Reserve and the creation of digital currency. Even the campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has endorsed postal banking.

Those ranks are only likely to increase as economic disparities in the country sharpen. And while Democrats may not have the votes right now, that could change if they eliminate the filibuster or as Americans look for more help during the economic fallout of Covid-19.

Post offices are just about everywhere — including places banks aren’t
Despite budget cuts, there are more than 31,000 post offices in the U.S. To put that in perspective, Wells Fargo & Co. currently has the largest branch network in the country, with nearly 5,500 branches. As of 2019, there were about 77,500 bank branches in the U.S. overall.

But consumers can ignore bank branches, especially when they don’t have an account. Branches are also absent in so-called “banking deserts” that lack a significant financial institution presence. By their nature, post offices are geographically diverse, close to most communities and likely to have a lot of foot traffic.

If the government offered expanded banking services in all 31,000 USPS locations, it’s easy to see why banks view that as a huge threat. But if community bankers could compete for the right to open a branch or put an ATM inside their local post office — similar to how many already do in Walmart stores — it becomes a chance to expand their customer base.

To be sure, any bidding or proposal process would have to be open and balanced, designed to ensure big institutions like JPMorgan couldn’t muscle out community banks. But if bankers develop their own plan, they could make sure such a process is part of any final deal.

Banks can solve some postal banking problems
Bankers are right to note the many practical difficulties if the Postal Service gets involved in the financial services space. Personnel aren’t trained and already face a crush of duties. It’s not even clear postal banking would bring in the profits that its supporters hope for, precisely because they would be limited in what services could be offered and fees charged.

But adding a bank to the equation could help address at least some of these issues. There’s no need to train additional personnel since bank staff would be on hand. Banks also have experience in offering low-cost services and could be explicitly encouraged to do so by federal regulators. In short, it could become a win-win, where banks and post offices work hand in hand to help serve low- and moderate- income consumers.

Whether bankers embrace this idea or come up with their own, they would do well to join the debate. Either they help steer the outcome to a solution they can support — or run the risk of watching a big bank, credit union or the federal government gets there first.

A Rare Opportunity for Change

Jeff Rose believes there’s no rush to reopen his bank’s branches.

Davenport, Iowa-based AmBank Holdings’ eight branch lobbies have been closed since March, limiting physical interactions to drive-thru lanes and by appointment. Even then, the $373 million bank is exercising caution — customers who schedule appointments have to complete a questionnaire, have their temperature taken by an American Bank & Trust employee, wear a mask and socially distance.

“A lot of banks in our area did reopen their lobbies [around] mid-June,” says Rose, the bank’s CEO. “Many of those are now reclosing, some of them because of the spike in the virus.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced banks and other businesses to change their operations to remain open. But while the health crisis underlying the economic downturn may be temporary, it offers banks an opportunity to rethink the role of the branch in serving the customer.

For some financial institutions, Covid-19 has merely accelerated this shift.

Bank OZK, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, doesn’t focus singularly on branch strategy, explains Carmen McClennon, chief retail banking officer of the $26 billion bank. Instead, OZK considers how the combination of its digital, ATM, call center and branch channels can build a high-quality client experience. Its lobbies have remained open during the pandemic, but social distancing measures still limit in-person connection.

The reality is, we’re not face-to-face and having that critical contact with our clients on such a regular basis,” she adds. “What worries me is I’ve got to think about what we’re doing in these other channels so we’re at the top of the consideration when our client has their next financial need.”

An analysis of consumer traffic trends by the advisory firm Novantas finds weekly branch visits down by 20% as of July 14, since the pre-pandemic period of Jan. 30 through Mar. 4, 2020. An earlier survey found branch activity unlikely to recover, with only 40% of consumers saying they’d return to their local branch once the pandemic abates.

Separately, Fidelity National Information Services (FIS) reported that new mobile banking registrations increased by 200% in April, and mobile banking activity rose by 85%.

McClennon believes that personalization across channels will be important. “We’re looking at things like smart offers when they’re logging in to pay a bill,” she explains. Also, “how do we personalize an ATM experience so we’re maintaining that relationship with our client? I think we’ve got to challenge ourselves [to do that].”

OZK plans to unveil mobile app enhancements soon, and will thoroughly train branch and call center staff on its features. “We want them to confidently promote it” to clients, says McClennon.

Covid-19 doesn’t appear to be driving OZK to close locations. These decisions will be made by branch and by market, McClennon explains, based on OZK’s ability to serve its clients and meet its strategic objectives.

It recently sold four branches — two each in South Carolina and Alabama. “Candidly, we didn’t have enough density to deliver a strong client experience. That’s really challenging in a low-density market,” says McClennon. But she points out that the bank opened as many branches as it closed — three — in 2019.

Rose says AmBank will soon field surveys to better understand customer preferences and help the bank’s leadership team plot a path forward. While drive-thru transactions have risen 10% over the past couple of months — which Rose partially attributes to the warmer weather — mobile and online usage are back to pre-pandemic levels.

Data will drive AmBank’s reopening plans, but Rose believes that some lobbies will remain closed in less-frequented locations where customers have adapted to drive-up service.

When its lobbies reopen, Rose believes it will be a rare opportunity to change how customers interact with his bank. AmBank has invested in new technology, including DocuSign and improved payment capabilities; they’re also looking at self-service technology, like interactive teller machines. Rose is inspired by Apple’s stores and the hair salon chain Great Clips, which let customers schedule service appointments digitally.

“We’ve got one shot at modifying the client experience for the betterment of our customer,” he says. “We love our customers, we want to see them, but if they can self-serve and not have to drive to the bank, it’s going to be a better experience for them overall. How do we take advantage of the pandemic situation to permanently upgrade the client experience?”

Scaling Customer Acquisition Through Digital Account Openings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is scale.

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

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

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

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

Technology (Software): $395

Telecom: $315‍

Banking/Insurance: $303

‍Real Estate: $213

Technology (Hardware): $182

Financial: $175

Marketing Agency: $141

Transportation: $98

Manufacturing: $83

Consumer Goods: $22

Retail: $10

Travel: $7‍ ‍‍

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