Scaling Quality Customer Service in the Pandemic Era

Since February 2020, the pandemic has reshaped everyone’s daily reality, creating a perfect storm of financial challenges.

In early March 2020, the economy was thriving. Six weeks later, over 30 million U.S. workers had filed for unemployment. The pandemic has exacerbated alreadycrushing consumer debt loads. At the end of the first quarter, nearly 11% of the $1.54 trillion student loan debt was over 90 days past due. Emergency lending programs like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program have not been renewed.  

Guiding consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z, to financial wellness is critical to the future of financial institutions. These demographics bring long-term value to banks, given their combined spending power of over $3 trillion.

But the banking support system is straining under incredible demand from millions of consumers, and it feels broken for many. Consumers are scrambling for help from their banks; their banks are failing them. With hold times ranging from 20 minutes to three hours, compared with an average of 41 seconds in normal times, customers are having an increasingly aggravating experience. And website content isn’t helping either. Often too generic or laced with confusing jargon like “forbearance,” customers can’t get advice that is relevant to their unique situation and  make good financial choices.

All this comes at a time of restricted branch access. Gone are the days when customers could easily walk into their local branch for product advice. Afraid of coronavirus exposure, most consumers have gone digital. Moreover, many branches are closed, reduced hours or use appointments due to the pandemic. No wonder digital has become an urgent imperative.

How can community banks scale high-quality service and advice cost-effectively in the pandemic era and beyond? The answer lies in a new breed of technology, pioneered by digital engagement automation, powered by artificial intelligence and knowledge. Here is what you can do with it.

Deliver smarter digital services. AI-automated digital self-service enables banks to deliver service to more customers, while lowering costs. For example, next-gen chatbots are often just as effective as human assistance for solving a broad range of basic banking queries, such as bill payments, money transfers and disputed charges. The average cost per agent call could be as high as $35; an AI-powered chatbot session costs only a few pennies, according to industry analysts.

Provide instant access to help. The next generation of chatbots go beyond “meet and greet” and can solve customer issues through AI and knowledge-guided conversations. This capability takes more load off the contact center. Chatbots can walk customers through a dialog to best understand their situation and deliver the most relevant guidance and financial health tips. Where needed, they transition the conversation to human agents with all the context, captured from the self-service conversation for a seamless experience.

Satisfy digital natives. Enhancing digital services is also critical to attracting and keeping younger, digital-native customers. Millennials and Gen Z prefer to use digital touchpoints for service. But in the pandemic era, older consumers have also jumped on the bandwagon due to contact risk.

Many of blue-chip companies have scaled customer service and engagement effectively with digital engagement automation. A leading financial services company implemented our virtual assistant chatbot, which answers customer questions while looking for opportunities to sell premium advice, offered by human advisors. These advisors use our chat and co-browse solution to answer customer questions and help them fill forms collaboratively. The chatbot successfully resolved over 50% of incoming service queries.

The client then deployed the capability for their IT helpdesk, where it resolved 81% of the inquiries. Since then the client has rolled out additional domain-specific virtual assistants for other functional groups. Together, these virtual assistants processed over 2 million interactions in the last 12 months.

The economic road ahead will be rocky, and financial institutions cannot afford to lose customers. Digital engagement automation with AI and knowledge can help scale up customer service without sacrificing quality. So why not get going?

Exploring Customer Service in the Pandemic Age

Banks across the country are grappling with the right approach to branch banking as the Covid-19 pandemic lingers.

Management concerns surrounding logistics and safety must give way to longer-term considerations aimed squarely at the bottom line. Executives need to contemplate the future of their branch operations and  business model, incorporating the guidance that large-scale pandemics may persist in some shape or form in the future. Read on to explore key considerations relating to the long-term implication of pandemics on customer service delivery.

Will customers ever come back into our branches? How will that impact our bank?
Branch visits have irrevocably changed. A recent study asked consumers to rank their preference of seven different banking channels, before, during and post-pandemic. Six months after the start of the pandemic, branch banking has settled into sixth place. The study predicts “a rapid decrease in the importance of the physical branch as customers become more habituated to the use of digital, which is a behavior that will linger long term.”

Jimmy Ton, senior vice president and director of digital channels at Irvine, California-based First Foundation Bank, agrees. “For those who adopted digital services during this time, they’ll probably stick with them. It takes 60 days to form a habit and people have been reconditioned during the pandemic. There’s no reason to believe they will abandon these services,” said Ton.

Novantas highlights another concern. “The branch network’s competitive advantage for sales has been eliminated overnight, possibly forever. Although sales were already shifting away from branches, they will now need to be even more digital.”

Banks must prepare for a permanent, significant reduction of branch visits. They should discuss this impact on their business models and what changes, internally and customer-facing, will need to occur.

Highly personalized service is our hallmark. How can we possibly digitize that?
Many banks have long leveraged high-touch customer service as a differentiator when competing with national banks. This was often delivered through branch networks and sales teams — until now.

Bankers have witnessed pandemic-induced migration to digital channels. But this is no time to celebrate;  J. D. Power shows overall satisfaction has declined as customers transition from branch to digital channels. That’s because banks have so far been unable to replicate the personalized nature of in-branch experiences digitally.

But it can be done.

Think of it this way: branch staff can glance at a screen filled with information about the customer sitting in front of them to personalize the conversation. That same data can be used to craft a personalized conversation, delivered via email or text message instead. Both methods communicate to the customer that you know who they are, and can offer ways to help them.

Digital engagement platforms offering deep personalization delivered via individualized websites, text messages, video and online chats exist today. They deliver a positive, digital experience with minimal effort, even for data-challenged banks.

A significant chunk of interactions can move to digital. A great parallel is what we saw happen with telehealth, moving routine physical in-person appointments to virtual ones,” said John Philpott, a partner at FINTOP Capital. “It’s a great example of how professional conversations can be digital; banks can absolutely do the same.”

Banks should plan to shift all or a significant portion of sales and service delivery away from their branch networks and to digital engagement and sales platforms that are ideally powered by insightful data to hyper-personalize the experience.

Strategically speaking, what else should we consider?
With branch-based account opening limited and most banks flush with cash, the pressure for new deposits has lessened. Now is an opportune time to focus on the existing customer base to minimize attrition and boost profitability of those relationships.

Ted Brown, CEO of Digital Onboarding, founded the company based on the idea that opening a new account does not mean you’ve established a relationship.

“[The ] number of new checking accounts is the wrong metric to obsess over,” Brown said. “Are your customers fully utilizing the products and services they’ve signed up for? Are they turning to your bank to satisfy additional needs? Starting with Day One, successful onboarding — and continuous engagement thereafter — increases product usage, cross-sell success and ultimately drives profits.”

Zeroing in on customer engagement and retention, instead of new customer growth, may be a smart, strategic and profitable move in the current environment. Responsible bank leadership must contemplate what changes and investments they will need to make to stay relevant with customers post-COVID 19.

The Illusive Hunt for Revenue

Fintel.pngThe operating environment for banks is becoming increasingly inhospitable. Rising credit costs and falling interest rates threaten to squeeze profitability in a vice grip unless banks find new revenue sources.

This is why Bank Director’s second annual Experience FinXTech event and awards, hosted virtually at the beginning of May, highlighted fintech companies that are helping banks grow their top lines.

The event brought together bankers and technologists for demonstrations and conversations about the present and future of banking.

As a part of the event, Bank Director crowned fintech winners in seven categories, including Best Solution for Customer Experience, Best Solution for Loan Growth and Best Solution for Revenue Growth.

Fintel Connect won the final category: Best Solution for Revenue Growth.

The Canada-based company amplifies a bank’s marketing campaigns by leveraging an affiliate network of publishers and social influencers, as we explain on our FinXTech Connect platform, which profiles hundreds of tried-and-true technology companies serving the banking industry.

A selling point is that, instead of paying for clicks or impressions, customers of Fintel Connect only pay once a lead converts into an actual customer.

Canada’s EQ Bank has been working with Fintel Connect for years, using it to manage media affiliates — bloggers, interest rate aggregators, etc. EQ attributes the service with boosting customer acquisition “fairly substantially,” with between 5% and 10% of EQ’s new customers now coming through it.

Nest Egg was a runner-up in the category of Best Solution for Revenue Growth. The Philadelphia-based company enables banks to offer high-quality, fully digital investment services in order to increase customer affinity.

OceanFirst Financial Corp., a $10.5 billion bank based in Red Bank, New Jersey, liked Nest Egg so much that it invested in the company.

OceanFirst has recommended Nest Egg’s semi-automated money management tool to retail clients for about a year, with assets under management growing from $0 to $43 million over that time. The service is already cash flow positive for OceanFirst.

The last finalist for this category was Flybits, a fintech company based in Toronto.

Mastercard has been working with Flybits for a year now. They’re still in the early stages of implementing its product, which helps provide contextualized offers to end users of their cards for the purpose of driving usage.

The trajectory has been a positive one for Mastercard, leaving the company optimistic that working with Flybits will help their clients — mainly banks — increase card usage and associated fee income.

One reason Mastercard chose to work with Flybits is because of the way it deals with data. All data is tokenized, with Flybits only selectively accessing the data it needs. There are any number of ways for banks to grow revenue. These are three of the best, according to experienced panel of judges convened to choose the winners at Bank Director’s 2020 Experience FinXTech.

Fixing What’s Broken In Bank Product Pitches

There’s a better way to sell pens: Don’t start with the pen.

A classic teaching example for sales hands a shiny new pen to someone with the instruction, “Sell me this pen.” Typically, the student takes the pen and begins to describe it, attempting to use the looks and features of the pen to sell it. The would-be salesperson often struggles to “sell” the pen, because they fail to discover if the person needs a pen to begin with.

This is often how banks sell products and services to their customers. But the search for a solution to this sales dilemma has led to new and advanced ways to sell pens (and everything else) the wrong way.

A better way to sell the pen is to put it in your pocket and, instead, ask the customer questions. The goal is to discover the customer’s needs and help them realize that a pen — the one you happen to have in your pocket — is what will meet their needs.

Artificial intelligence companies and fintech platforms want banks to pay enormous sums of money to help identify products and services for customers. Having given away all manner of financial tools, products and advice, they’re now pursuing bank customers by offering demand and savings deposits, mortgages and loans. Some of the biggest names in technology are joining the fray as well: Facebook, Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Uber Technologies, among others.

Customers aren’t necessarily getting more savvy, but technology is.

A venture capital firm we work with that invests in fintechs was very clear that most online financial tools are merely marketing devices used to poach customers and grow assets. Often these tools expose a problem in a customer’s existing account and offer an immediate remedy if the customer transfers accounts to them. This isn’t necessarily good for the customer, but can be devasting to a bank.

Pushing product is difficult; providing solutions is far more rewarding — and efficient.

Recently, we met with a regional bank that has over 80 retail branches and offers wealth management as part of their service model. They have only 17 financial advisors to service customers in their home state. They confessed that of only 27% of their wealth management clients have a retirement account with the bank.

Only 27%. How is this possible? Is it because they don’t sell retirement accounts? Or is it because they don’t know their customers? After all, who doesn’t need a retirement account?

Another bank we work with wondered if they should start offering business credit cards. They didn’t understand their customers’ needs well enough to decide what products would address those needs or wants, so they opted to pitch a credit card offered by a vendor.

One of the industry’s largest digital banks confessed to us they are considering adding a human element to their arsenal, seeing a need for a digital/human hybrid approach. They’ve realized that society is moving to digital, but also recognize there is not enough value in digital alone.

The COVID-19 crisis will accelerate the shift to digital. If brick and mortar banks are going to survive, and even thrive, they need a digital component that complements their human element. Throwing money at new technology that pushes products that customers may or may not want or need will only lead to costly and disappointing results.

Banks need tools that develop and deepen customer relationships and make it possible to offer real solutions, as opposed to pushing products they hope will increase revenue.

Accenture recently released a study with five key findings about customer expectations. They are:

  1. They want integrated propositions addressing core needs.
  2. They want a personalized offering.
  3. They are willing to share data with providers in return for better advice and more attractive deals.
  4. They want better integration across physical and digital channels.
  5. Their trust in financial institutions is increasing.

Essentially, customers want personal offerings that serve their core needs and delivered in the medium they choose. Banks that want to grow revenue and increase retention shouldn’t continue to “push the pen.” They should find and offer digital/human hybrid models to help customers self-discover solutions.

Bridging The Gap Between Retail & Business Banking



Speed, ease of use and convenience define the customer experience today for both retail and commercial clients. In this video, First Data’s Christian Ofner and Eric Smith explain what retail and commercial customers expect from banks today—and you might be surprised to find they have similar needs. They also share how banks should enhance the experience.

  • Strengthening the Retail Experience
  • Enhancing Commercial Clients’ Experience
  • Technologies Banks Should Consider
  • Evaluating Your Bank’s Digital Strategy

Big Banks Deliver Mobile Shopping Features


The five biggest retail banks—recognized by the brand names U.S. Bank, Chase, Bank of America, Citi and Wells Fargo—control over 50 percent of total assets in the U.S. and are driving the mobile banking agenda. In a race to meet the mobile transaction needs of their customers, these banks have all conquered the most basic services that soon almost all banks will have—mobile banking, mobile bill pay, mobile deposit, ATM and branch locators and P2P payments. Now in phase two of mobile banking, these banks are in an arms race to further engage with customers’ mobile lifestyles, particularly by helping people save money when they shop.

U.S. Bank has been previewing Peri, a mobile app that will launch soon that allows customers to instantly purchase products from what they hear on the radio and television or see in a print ad. For example, if you’re watching a TV commercial, Peri can simply “listen” to it to identify the product and find the place where you can buy it.

On the surface, apps like Peri seem a bit futuristic, but many of us actually already have these types of features on our phone right now. The Amazon app uses its “flow” image recognition technology to allow iPhone users to find the product in the app just by pointing the phone’s camera at it. U.S. Bank is simply taking the best in class, “for the future” shopping features and ensuring they can deliver that functionality in a way that helps their customers.

In a recent presentation to bank executives, Dominic Venturo, chief innovation officer for U.S. Bank Payments Services, shared another pilot program that will allow the bank to be a connector between its retail customers and small business customers. With this technology, merchants can see in real time where consumers are using the app and asking to receive discount offers.

If a customer decides “I want coffee,” or “I want lunch,” they just click in the app to request a discount offer. That message is sent to small businesses in the area, which can access a portal showing all the customers who are currently requesting a deal. The merchants that rise to the occasion will pop up on a map on the customer’s app in real time.

According to Venturo, it’s an entirely different way of thinking about search and awareness offers than banking has produced in the past. The program was tested in Minneapolis and saw offer-to-conversation rates in the mid-double digits, which is an extremely impressive redemption statistic.

In late 2012, Chase Bank acquired Bloomspot, a start-up company that used credit card data to allow merchants to target their best, most loyal customers with offers tailored to their specific interests. Bloomspot was started in 2010, and by the time it was acquired, it had around 2 million members and 500,000 merchants, while raising $46.1 million in venture funding. Chase bought Bloomspot for $35 million, taking in both its technology as well as its team. While Chase has yet to announce their exact plans, they’re likely to use the tools that Bloomspot built for their own debit and credit cards and mobile app experience.

Other big banks are also snatching up or partnering with start-ups that offer shopping assistance in the form of budgeting. When BBVA acquired Simple in 2014 for $117 million, they gained only 100,000 new customers but gained the technology that’s likely to steadily grow a massive audience. TD Bank also partnered with Moven in 2014 to offer customers more advanced financial management tools in their mobile app—tools that the online bank Moven had already built for its customers.

The rest of the world, particularly investors, are beginning to take notice of this growing sector. Just last year, there were 250 investment deals involving Fintech start-up companies, and that number has been growing since 2008. More and more, big banks are funding as well as buying some of these best in class start-ups so they can use their fresh new ideas.

While many other banks are just now catching up, U.S. Bank, Chase and other big banks are now on their way to offer products and services that go beyond the basics to impact their customers’ financial wellbeing.

Optimizing Your Branch Network


12-29-14-Fiserv.pngIn this day of razor-thin interest margins and heightened competition, most banks are focusing on becoming more efficient to increase profitability. Yet, many of these financial institutions may be looking for efficiency gains and cost savings in the wrong places. It’s fine to streamline work processes, scrutinize vendors and tighten the belt on discretionary spending, but that’s not really where the fat is.

The fact is, branch networks and their associated costs, including personnel, make up about two-thirds of a typical bank’s non-interest expense. If you want to make a dent in your cost structure, you have to focus on more intelligent management of people and facilities.

How important is this? Bank Intelligence Solutions, an advisory arm of Fiserv, conducted a study of America’s banks, in which our team gathered metrics such as revenues per branch, core deposits per branch, number of deposit accounts and revenues per employee. We found that 45 percent of banks have an excess branch capacity problem. Their allocation of resources is out of alignment with the needs of the marketplace. As a result, inefficiency and weak performance continue to create a drag on earnings. It’s one of the top issues that banks need to address in 2015 and beyond.

Smart branch optimization begins with tapping into and interpreting data—using market analysis and your bank’s internal reporting to execute informed business decisions.

Know Your Markets
First, you have to understand the markets in which your branches operate, from both a consumer and commercial perspective, as dictated by your unique operating strategy. You need to know the makeup of households and businesses, as well as their product propensities and current growth rates. Is the area populated by young families or retirees? What is the ratio of homeowners to renters? Are the businesses predominantly retail, service-oriented or industrial? Then you need to understand the competitive dynamic – the market saturation of the geographic area, who you are competing with and how effectively.

This market profile, drawn from current census data and other information sources, drives other important questions: Based on current trends, what does the future of the market look like? Considering the types of households and businesses in the market, what product and service set will be most appealing and helpful to them, now and in five years? Answering these questions helps you move beyond a one-size-fits-all branch strategy to serving specific community needs.

Rank Your Branches by Performance
You need to understand the markets, but also how well your branches are succeeding in those markets. How does your bank measure success at the branch level? Review key metrics to measure branch performance, such as the number of accounts, profitability of the branch, fee income and transaction activity. Are you generating sufficient revenue from the loan, deposit and fee activity at the branch? These are all metrics available in your internal data.

Decisions, Decisions
Now that you have your rankings, it’s time to use that information to make some decisions about the future of your branches, choosing from four options:

  • Keep: This branch is performing well, with good growth potential.
  • Close: The community has changed in the last five years and there’s not enough growth to sustain a branch at this location.
  • Move: This branch is not performing well where it is, but market analysis suggests that a move to an area in close proximity would result in more traffic and greater success.
  • Consolidate: Two branches are located fairly close together, and the market data supports the idea of serving this community with one branch instead of two.

What if your bank doesn’t have all the funds up front to make the needed changes to your branch network? Prioritize which branches you need to invest in first, and execute a phased plan over your projected timeframe. And remember, some of your reinvestment may pay for itself if you’re closing a few branches.

Embracing a Unified Approach
Data-driven decision making can bring new focus to your financial institution’s branch strategy and marketing efforts. But whether you attempt branch optimization using these techniques on your own, employ software tools or engage consultants to guide you through the process, it must be a team effort.

It is critical to be in agreement, enterprise wide —from retail to lending to the executive team —on the process you’re going to use and the metrics you’re going to measure and track over time. Even more important is having full executive team buy-in on how to weight these factors. Finally, it must be understood that you’re going to use this analysis to make real decisions.

With smart branch optimization, the goal is growth. Good analysis, intelligently used, can propel you toward it.

To learn more about making the most of your branch network, view Driving Smart Branch Optimization Decisions from Market Analysis, a recorded presentation from Fiserv.

Are Your Retail Branches Too Large or Too Outdated? Here are Some Ideas


12-17-14-Emily.pngWhen it comes to branch innovation, the chatter often focuses on two things: Make it smaller, and load it with technology. But many banks are still left with larger legacy locations, and technology alone won’t drive more customers to your bank. The branch is still seen as a powerful branding tool, and some financial institutions have found creative ways to tap into their local communities, with positive results.

The solution for one credit union was to split their 3,200 square foot branch in half with a local tea house. The space was designed so clients of GECU, a $2-billion asset credit union based in El Paso, Texas, could easily walk over and grab a cup at the tea house—and the restaurant’s regular customers would maybe think of GECU for its next loan. “This shared tenancy approach helps lower costs, and if you can find the right alternate tenant, it will drive in more traffic,” says John Smith, chief executive officer of DBSI Inc., the branch design firm that worked with GECU.

However, a tenancy arrangement with a local business isn’t without its risks. According to the Small Business Administration, roughly half of all new businesses survive for at least five years, and one-third survive ten years or more.

Instead of sharing their branch space with a tenant, more banks prefer to make space available to the community. Even with the rise of digital banking, Portland, Oregon-based Umpqua Holdings Corp., with $22 billion in assets, still values the branch as a way to build client relationships, resolve more complex issues for customers and promote the bank’s brand, says Eve Callahan, senior vice president of corporate communications. As a way to draw in the community, each store hosts events, ranging from Nintendo Wii bowling leagues to an Oktoberfest celebration. For Umpqua’s business clients, Umpqua promotes a local business each quarter and even sells that business’s products within its stores. The program has been popular, with a waiting list of up to 18 months, says Callahan. Decisions on which business makes the cut, as well as which events to host, are made locally by the store manager. “They get to know the local businesses around them, the nonprofit organizations [and] the schools, and program events in their store that are going to reflect what’s happening” locally, she says.

C1 Bank, a $1.4-billion asset financial institution based in St. Petersburg, Florida, designed its newest branch in Miami with the local neighborhood—the Wynwood Art District—in mind. C1 converted an old warehouse into a 4,500-square-foot branch designed with a large, open and adaptable space to host local events, such as art openings. The furniture was designed to be removed for these events, and the bank boasts a kitchen for use by caterers. The space is available for use by local businesses and charities, and the bank itself regularly invites local business owners to network with each other and with C1’s bankers. The unique space—artwork is featured in the branch—makes C1 stand out, and leaves the community with a positive impression, says CEO Trevor Burgess.

In Roseville, California, 120-branch Rabobank N.A., a $14-billion asset subsidiary of a Dutch financial company, worked with DBSI to design a branch that plays on the affluent community’s agricultural roots. A vintage farm truck displays goods from the bank’s customers, such as olive oil, and a glass door opens like a garage to bring the outside in. So far, the bank has used the space for local events, and Kimberly Hval, the bank’s executive vice president and director of channel strategy and support, says Rabobank plans to regularly host a farmer’s market in 2015 as a way to promote the bank’s customers.

Location plays a big role, and sharing space with a coffee shop or hosting events won’t attract more customers if the branch isn’t located in a well trafficked area, says Mark Charette, CEO of commercial real estate design firm Solidus. His firm works with institutions to design for efficiency by minimizing the branch area and relocating another line or channel of the institution—a call center, for example—which creates a cost savings by merging that channel’s location into the redesigned branch.

However, with the right location, a strategy to draw the community in can have a positive impact for the bank. Rabobank attracted its largest depositor through one of its events. “Our community can benefit, and obviously being able to drive in more clients through the experience is certainly icing on the cake,” says Hval.

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.

Succeeding With Mobile Bill Pay


Succeeding-With-Mobile-Bill-Pay.pngWhen James C. Cherry, a banking executive with over 31 years of experience, left his position as chief executive officer for Wachovia Bank’s Mid- Atlantic Banking sector to take over a small community bank in Charlotte, North Carolina, with just a few branches, his goal was to create a competitive niche he could dominate.

“Our company is working to position itself between the small banks and the very large banks as a regional bank,” said Cherry, who is now chief executive officer at Park Sterling Bank Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina. “People don’t feel like they get the personal service they want from the large banks, yet that’s where everybody banks because they offer a broad array of products and services that the smaller banks can’t. Our objective is to exist between the two.”

The strategy is working. Over the past four years, Park Sterling has grown from three humble branches into a 53-branch institution with $2.3 billion in assets. According to Cherry, mobile banking is expected to play a significant role in his bank’s growth plans.

“I think everyone acknowledges that mobile banking is the fastest growing segment of banking services today,” he said. “I think most people believe that eventually your phone will literally be your bank.”

That could be a problem for smaller institutions that have extended online offerings to their customers but that have not yet made the leap to their own smartphone apps, according to Robb Gaynor, chief product officer of Malauzai Software, Inc., Austin, Texas, the firm Park Sterling turned to for its mobile banking platform.

“Community banks may be shrinking in numbers, but there are also community bankers who are growing their institutions,” Gaynor said.

ParkSterling.pngMalauzai works with about 320 community banks and credit unions across the country, providing them with the tools they need to connect to their customers through smartphone applications. According to the company, 55 percent of all banks with less than $15 billion in assets currently have an app. The rest are already behind.

“Being able to distinguish yourself with mobile banking services becomes really important, but it becomes especially important for a company like ours that may have a relatively small footprint in some markets relative to the larger banks,” Cherry said. “Mobile banking can allow us to play larger than our footprint.” One of the solutions Malauzai provided is called PicturePay, a program that lets retail customers take photos of their bills with their smartphones to make a payment. Cherry says that bank customers like the app better than traditional online bill pay functionality offered through the bank’s website. It’s easier to use and doesn’t require the customer to re-enter information about the payment.

PicturePay doesn’t even require the customer to use a computer to pay their bills, Cherry said. “It’s really an extraordinarily user-friendly, attractive product. It positions us very well to deliver on our tagline, which is, providing ‘Answers you can bank on.’’’

According to Malauzai, about 15 percent of the average bank’s customers will use PicturePay to process their monthly bills. That compares to about 4 percent of bank customers who typically use traditional online bill pay functionality.

“The uniqueness of these products, the fact that they’re not offered generally in our marketplace, sets us apart from our competitors in exactly the way we are trying to distinguish ourselves,” Cherry said. “This speaks to the viability of community banks. Today, bankers can get products and capabilities that previously required more scale than the smaller community banks could muster, but that can now allow them to compete very effectively with the larger banks.”

Ralph Marcuccilli is president and CEO of Allied Payment Network, the company that provides the back-end processing for the PicturePay feature. “I think what Malauzai has proven is that community banks can really lead,” he said. “They don’t have to sit back and wait for the big banks to deliver the technology that >customers are adopting. They can really be out in front of them.”

For Cherry and his institution, it’s about providing the tools bank customers want without sacrificing the feel of a community- based bank.

“We don’t market ourselves as a community bank, nor do we market ourselves as a large bank,” Cherry said. “We market ourselves as a bank that is large enough to provide customers with the solutions they need and small enough to deliver those in a personal way. We think (PicturePay) will result in increased interest in our company, which always translates into increased business.”