The Promise, and Peril, of Risk Technology

The pandemic has underlined how essential risk technology is for proactive and responsive financial institutions.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, bank risk managers were already incorporating such technology to manage, sift and monitor various inputs and information. The pandemic has complicated those efforts to get a handle on emerging and persistent risks — even as it becomes increasingly critical to incorporate into day-to-day decision-making.

Data, and getting insights from it, has always been central to how risk managers have worked. That hasn’t changed,” says Sandeep Mangaraj, an industry executive at Microsoft who focuses on digital banking transformations.

Prior to the pandemic, concerns about operational risk had increased “somewhat” or “significantly” among 51% of CEOs, chief risk officers and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2020 Risk Survey, which was completed just before the pandemic. More than half also revealed heightened concerns around cybersecurity, credit and interest rate risk, and strategic risk.

That survey also found respondents indicating there was room for technology to improve their compliance with Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering rules (76%), know your customer (50%) requirements, and vendor management requirements.

One way executives and risk managers can keep up is by incorporating risk technology to help sift through reams of data to derive actionable insights. These technologies can create a unified view of risk across exposure types and aggregation levels — product, business line, region — so executives can see how risk manifests within the bank. Some of these solutions can also capture and provide real-time information, supplementing slower traditional sources or replacing end-of-day reports.

But the pandemic led more than half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey to alter or adjust their technology roadmaps — including 82% of respondents at institutions with more than $10 billion in assets. Two-thirds said they would upgrade existing technology; just 16% planned to add technology to improve regulatory compliance.

Artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in helping banks more efficiently and effectively comply with regulations and manage risk. Many banks are still early in their risk technology journeys, and are working to identify areas or situations that can be serviced or assisted by risk technologies. Forty-six percent of respondents to Bank Director’s Technology Survey say they are not utilizing AI yet.

Those that have are applying it to situations like fraud monitoring, which generates large amounts of data that the bank can correlate and act on, Mangaraj says. Others have applied it to process intelligence and process improvement, or used it to enhance the control environment. Key to the success of any AI or risk-technology endeavor is finding the right, measurable application where a bank can capture value for heightened risk or capabilities.

“We have a client who uses AI to monitor trader conversations that can proactively flag any compliance issues that may be coming up,” he says. “There are lots and lots of ways in which you can start using it. Key is identify cases, make sure you have clear measurement of value, monitor it and celebrate it. Success breeds success.”

The addition and incorporation of innovative risk technologies coincides with many banks’ digital transformations. While these changes can often complement each other, they can also make it difficult for a bank to manage and measure its risk, or could even introduce risk.

A strong management team, effective controls and active monitoring of the results are essential keys to a bank’s success with these technology endeavors, says James Watkins, senior managing director at the Isaac-Milstein Group. Watkins served at the FDIC for nearly 40 years as the senior deputy director of supervisory examinations, overseeing the agency’s risk management examination program.

“It’s time for a fresh look of the safeguards and controls that banks have in place — the internal controls and the reliability of the bank system’s and monitoring apparatuses. All of those are extremely important,” he says.

Bank executives and boards of directors must have the processes and procedures in place to ensure they’re using this technology and contextualizing its outcomes in a prudent manner.

“I think the importance of general contingency planning, crisis management strategies, thinking strategically — these are all areas that boards of directors and senior management really need to be attuned to and be prepared for,” Watkins says.

What We’ve Learned From the Pandemic (So Far)

Year in and year out, Bank Director’s surveys tap into the views of bank leaders across the country about critical issues: risk, technology, compensation and talent, corporate governance, and M&A and growth.

But 2020 has been a year for the record books. It’s been an interesting time for me as head of research for Bank Director, with the results of our recent surveys revealing changes that, in my view, will continue to have far-ranging effects for the industry.

As boards plan for 2021 and beyond, here are a few things I believe you should be considering.

The Great Tech Ramp-Up
The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated technology adoption by the industry, an issue we explored in Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey.

Sixty-five percent of the executives and board members responding to that survey told us that their bank implemented or upgraded technology to respond to Covid-19, primarily to issue Paycheck Protection Program loans. As a result, most banks reported increased spending on technology, above and beyond their budgets for 2020.

The primary drivers that fuel bank technology strategies remain the same — improving customer experience and generating efficiencies — and pressure has only grown on financial institutions to adapt. More than half of the survey respondents told us that their bank’s technology plans had been adjusted due to the pandemic, with most focused on enhancing their digital banking capabilities.

“The next generation will rarely use a branch,” one survey respondent commented, “so a totally quick efficient comprehensive digital experience will be necessary to survive.”

The 2020 Compensation Survey confirmed that most banks dialed back on branch service early in the pandemic; by the time we fielded the Technology Survey in June and July, bank leaders finally recognized the digital channel’s preeminence in terms of growing the bank and serving customers. (The previous year’s survey found respondents placing equal emphasis on digital and branch channels.)

Our FinXTech Special Report on mobile banking provides tips on evaluating your bank’s mobile app.

The Technology Survey revealed gaps in small business and commercial lending as well — deficiencies that have been laid bare as a result of the pandemic. More than half of respondents that have adjusted or accelerated their technology strategy indicated they’d expand digital lending capabilities.

Some bankers I spoke with about the survey results indicated concerns that banks could dial back on technology spending due to the profitability pressures facing the industry. However, given the changes we’ve seen, I don’t believe it’s sustainable to dial back on this investment.

That leaves bank leaders facing a few key challenges, starting with determining where to invest their technology dollars. It’s difficult to gauge where the wind will blow, but the survey provides solid clues: 42% believe process automation will be one of the most important technologies affecting their bank, followed by data analytics (39%). Almost 40% believe the security structure to be vitally important; cybersecurity is a perennial concern for bank leaders and as banking grows more digital, this will require additional investment.

Additionally, 64% told us that modernizing their bank’s digital applications forms a core element of their bank’s strategy.

Implementing new technology requires expertise, and the 2020 Compensation Survey found most respondents (79%) telling us that it’s difficult to attract technology and digital talent.

But this may not mean bringing data scientists or other highly-specialized roles on staff. Olney, Maryland-based Sandy Spring Bancorp hired a senior data strategist who is responsible for the use, governance and management of information across the organization; that individual also reviews vendor capabilities and identifies areas that help the bank achieve its goals. “The senior data strategist should be on the lookout for ways to find opportunities for and through data analytics, whether that’s predicting customer trends or finding new revenue-generating opportunities,” said John Sadowski, chief information officer at the $13 billion bank.

Finally, 69% told us their bank didn’t streamline vendor due diligence processes in response to Covid-19. As technology adoption accelerates, consider whether your bank’s third-party management process is sufficiently comprehensive, while still allowing it to quickly and efficiently put new solutions into place. 

Work-From-Home Will Alter the Workplace
The 2020 Compensation Survey found that banks almost universally implemented or expanded remote work options as a result of the pandemic; the 2020 Technology Survey later told us that for many banks (at least 42%) that change will be permanent for at least some of their staff.

In late October, $96 billion Synchrony Financial — a direct, virtual bank — announced that remote work will become permanent for its employees, allowing them to choose from three options. Some can simply work from home. Others can schedule office space, while some will have an assigned desk. This third group includes executives, who will be asked to work remotely at least a couple days a week to reinforce the cultural shift.

It’s a move that the bank believes will make employees happy, but it also promises to yield significant cost savings by cutting real estate expenses.

It could also yield competitive benefits for banks seeking top talent. Glacier Bancorp, for example, doesn’t limit hires to its Kalispell, Montana-based headquarters — instead, it hires anywhere within its multi-state footprint. That helps the $18 billion bank recruit the technology talent it needs, human resources director David Langston told me in May.

Remote work is a cultural shift that many bank executives will be reticent to make. But even if a long-term remote work option doesn’t align with your bank’s culture, offering flexibility will help support employees, who have their own struggles at home with virtual schooling or caring for high-risk family members.

Too often, working parents are forced to choose between their children and their career, meaning companies are losing valuable employees or, in the least, productivity.

A recent McKinsey study finds that a lack of flexibility, among other issues, drives women in particular to leave the workforce. The authors also advise that companies “should look for ways to re-establish work-life boundaries” — putting policies in place to assure meeting times and work communications occur within set hours, and encouraging employees to take advantage of flexible scheduling. Unfortunately, employees often worry that taking advantage of these benefits will damage their reputation at work. “To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will not be measured based on when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility [and] can model flexibility in their own lives. … When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.”

Flexibility and remote work can help companies retain valued employees.

It’s difficult to change a culture, especially if you believe that what you’re doing works. But sometimes, culture can change around you.  I’d encourage you to approach these issues with fresh eyes to ensure your leadership team can direct the change — not the other way around.

Don’t Put Diversity on the Backburner
Almost half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey told us their bank doesn’t measure its progress around diversity and inclusion, indicating to me that they don’t have clear objectives around creating an inclusive culture that hires, retains and rewards employees despite race, ethnicity or gender.

Further, just 39% of the CEOs and directors responding to our 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey told us their board has several members who are diverse, based on race, ethnicity or gender. And almost half believe that diversity’s impact on a company’s performance is overrated.

Employees and customers take this issue seriously. Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp., which has been recognized for LGBTQ workplace equality by the Human Rights Campaign since 2016, incorporates inclusion in its “cycle of engagement.” This starts with engaged employees who provide a higher level of service that delights customers, resulting in strong financial performance for the institution, allowing the company to invest back into its employees — continuing the virtuous cycle.

The $13 billion bank’s culture promotes respect, teamwork, empathy — and inclusion, COO Robert Cozzone told me in a recent interview. “Think about working for a company where you enjoy being around the people that you work with, you enjoy the work that you do, you buy into the mission of the company — you’re going to be much more productive than if you don’t have those things,” he says. Today, “It’s all that more important to show [employees] care and empathy and understanding.”

Small, rural banks may believe it’s difficult to hire diverse talent, making it nearly impossible for them to tackle this issue. Expanding remote work options, mentioned earlier, can help. But ultimately, it’s an issue that companies nationwide will need to address as the demographics of the country change. “We all need to do better [on] diversity and inclusion,” one survey respondent wrote. “Many of us out in rural America don’t have as many opportunities, but we need to keep this topic front of mind, and [read] information and stories on how to be more intentional.”

Directors Must Be Engaged and Educated
The 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey also found 39% indicating that at least some members of their board aren’t actively engaged in board meetings; 36% said some members don’t know enough about banking to provide effective oversight.

That survey, conducted just before the pandemic effectively shut down the U.S. economy, found executives and directors identifying three top challenges to the viability of their institution: pressure on net interest margins (53%), meeting customer demands for digital options (40%) and industry consolidation and the growing power of big banks. Further, most directors said that staying on top of the changes occurring in the industry is one of the great challenges facing their board.

Confronting these issues will require engaged and knowledgeable leadership.

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, surveyed 265 independent directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks to understand trends around the acquisition of talent, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, surveyed more than 150 independent directors, CEOs, chief operating officers and senior technology executives of U.S. banks to understand how technology drives strategy at their institutions and how those plans have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also includes compensation data collected from the proxy statements of 98 public banks. The survey was conducted in June and July 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, surveyed 159 independent directors, chairmen and CEOs of U.S. banks under $50 billion in assets to understand the practices of bank boards, including board independence, discussions and oversight, engagement and refreshment. The survey was conducted in February and March 2020.

Bank Director has published several recent articles and videos about issues related to today’s economic environment. Our Online Training Series includes units on “Managing the Balance Sheet in a Zero-Rate Environment” and “Managing Through the Coronavirus Pandemic.” You may also consider watching Bank Director Editor at Large Jack Milligan’s conversation with Huntington Bancshares CEO Steve Steinour, which focuses on “Strategic Planning in an Age of Uncertainty.”

Our Bank Services membership program also includes licenses to FinXTech Connect, which helps banks identify technology providers. You can find out more about that tool and how to access it here.

Enhancing Risk & Compliance

Financial institutions increasingly seek to use technology to efficiently and effectively mitigate risk and comply with regulations. Bank leaders will need the right solutions to meet these objectives, given the amount of data to make sense of as organizations include risk as part of their decision-making process. Microsoft’s Sandeep Mangaraj explains how banks should explore these issues with Emily McCormick, Bank Director’s vice president of research. They discuss:

  • How Risk Management is Evolving
  • Adopting AI Solutions
  • Planning for the Future

Pandemic Presents Technology Ecosystem Opportunities for Banks

Historically, banks have relied on a small number of monolithic suppliers and systems to provide them with broad capabilities, augmenting their own internal development, to provide all their infrastructure.

These systems are patched to add features as banks grow and markets evolve. Mergers can lead to overlapping, incompatible systems; the bank’s infrastructure can make these systems brittle, costly and time-consuming to change.

Still, this suits the entrenched oligopoly of suppliers: locked-in customers unable to sunset anything but stuck paying substantial recurring license fees. Interfaces between systems are often proprietary, making integrations multi-year projects. Most of these are undertaken by a select group of implementation firms that are incentivized to install systems that maximize billable hours and ensure years of lucrative integration work.

Covid-19 and the subsequent government interventions, however, are forcing banks to move quickly: multi-year projects would never adequately address the emergency needs of customers and existential challenges of businesses. The crisis comes at a seminal moment for the industry, when many banks are beginning to experiment with cloud infrastructure. These solutions are able to provision (or decommission) infrastructure in seconds what previously would have taken years, and are well suited for rapid experimentation. This has led to an appetite at banks to try new things and “fail fast.”

The Darwinian effect of running multiple parallel experiments lends itself to thinking of a bank as an ecosystem, where the best providers can be brought in for each functional area. Meanwhile, the bank’s own technologists can focus their people and budgets on key priorities, rather than spending large portions of ever-shrinking budgets patching a leaky ship.

This requires a change in emphasis for financial technology firms: Rather than attempting to disrupt incumbents, there is now a unique opportunity to cooperate with them, providing a much-needed injection of innovation and dynamism at a crucial moment for the economy and communities. Fintechs need to be able to prove their value fast, so the emphasis is on deep vertical expertise that can be deployed rapidly in a variety of environments. Having open APIs and the ability to play a part in a diverse ecosystem of providers is an absolute necessity. Suppliers with “Mechanical Turk” solutions that paper over missing functionality with services will battle to scale rapidly enough and struggle to meet the demand from multiple client banks.

The qualities required to thrive in this new order already exist at banks and fintechs; the winners will be those that can get out of their own way and utilize these strengths. Over the last few years, banks have learned how to integrate disparate systems. The pandemic is forcing them to learn how to do to this quickly.

They need to remove obstacles in their purchasing processes that entrench large suppliers and prevent them from building tech stacks made up of agile and best-in-class solutions. If they back their own ability to craft a cohesive and comprehensive ecosystem, they can tailor this end-state to achieve their desired results. Fintechs are used to bringing innovation and dynamism to the table. Creating lasting impact requires them to follow through and turn this into tangible products. There will be no shortage of opportunities for them to prove their value.

The extraordinary circumstances brought about by the coronavirus have led to a moment of unique opportunity for both banks and fintechs. The economic environment and policy responses by the federal government has meant that banks are forced to act with surprising resourcefulness and agility. They are now seeking to carry this momentum to radically transform projects that seemed previously destined to move at a snail’s pace.

To do this at speed and at scale, they have had to look beyond the short list of traditional vendors and implementation partners more accustomed to project timelines of several years, to a constellation of smaller, more agile fintechs that are able to meet specific needs at a rapid pace. The Davids and Goliaths are finally working together — so far, the outcomes have been pretty phenomenal.

How Settlement Service Providers Help Banks with Surging Refinance Demand

Real estate lenders are racing against the clock to process the deluge of refinancing demand, driven by record-low interest rates and intense online competition.

Susan Falsetti, managing director of origination title and close at ServiceLink, discusses the challenges that real estate lenders are facing — and how they can address them.

What particular stressors are real estate lenders facing?
We’ve seen volume surge this year, but heavy volume is only part of the equation. Market volatility, job loss and forbearance are adding even more pressure. Meanwhile, the origination process is increasingly complicated, with the regulatory environment remaining an important factor. Amid all of this, many lenders have shifted to a remote work business model, forcing team members to grapple with additional caregiving and family complications.

How have market conditions affected lenders’ abilities to meet consumer expectations for closing timelines?
Some of our clients working with other providers have reported processes as simple as obtaining payoff demands and subordinations are causing delays. They’re telling us that, in some cases, these requests have gone from 24-hour turn times to 10-day turn times. Working with an efficient settlement service provider is essential, given that 75% of recent homebuyers in a Fannie Mae survey expect that it should take a month or less to get a mortgage.

What can lenders do to immediately reduce their timelines?
One way is by selecting the right settlement service partner, which can help them get to the closing table faster without making major changes to their process or tech investment. Settlement service providers should provide a runway to close, not contribute to a bottleneck. Examining or revisiting settlement service providers is low-hanging fruit for lenders looking to immediately deduct days from closing timelines.

What characteristics should lenders look for when making a settlement service provider selection?
Communication: Lenders should examine how they’re communicating with their settlement service provider. Is their provider integrated into their loan origination system or point-of-sale platform? Can they submit orders through a secure, auditable platform, or is email the only option? Regardless of how orders are submitted, lenders should also consider whether their provider has the resources to dedicate to communication and customer service, even in a high-volume environment.

Automation and digitization: Selecting a title provider with automation and digitization built into its processes can help lenders thrive, even as their volume fluctuates. The mortgage industry is cyclical; it’s essential that settlement service providers have the capacity to scale with their client banks and grow with their business. They should help banks manage their volume, without having to make dramatic process or technology changes.

Some providers can provide almost-instantaneous insight into the complexity of particular title orders through an automatic title search. This type of workflow helps both the lender and the provider. They both can quickly funnel the simplest orders through to the closing table while employing more-experienced team members to work on more-complicated loans.

Transparency: That kind of insight gives lenders extra transparency into their customers. When originators are aware of the complexity of a title early in the process, they can let their borrower know that the title is clear. If that’s the case, the consumer can stop shopping and leave the market.

Access to virtual closing solutions: Of course, the origination process doesn’t stop once a loan is clear to close. A survey recently conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research at the request of ServiceLink found that one of consumers’ chief complaints about the mortgage process was the number of physical forms that must be signed at closing. The survey also found that 79% expressed interest in using e-signatures specifically for mortgage applications. This interest in e-signings has evolved into genuine demand for virtual closings.

The right settlement service provider should help lenders to operate more efficiently and profitably. The key is identifying a partner with solutions to help banks thrive in today’s high-volume environment.

Three Reasons to Take Banking to the Cloud

Bankers challenged by legacy technology can leverage a low-cost workaround as a way to keep up with the latest innovation.

Today’s marketplace is challenging bankers to keep pace with the rate of technology innovation and provide a level of functionality and service that meets — or hopefully, exceeds — their customers’ expectations. Many find, however, that they must first overcome the limitations of existing legacy technology in order to deliver the customer experience that will keep them competitive.

A revolution of sorts has been developing within the computing world: a shift to internet-based, cloud services has introduced a more cost-effective, scalable and reliable approach to computing. With essentially no or little cost to join and access to on-demand platforms and application programming interfaces (APIs), users are empowered to leverage virtually unlimited resources while paying on a metered basis. An additional benefit of the cloud is its ability to support transformation over time, providing options to configure services based on users’ specific needs as they evolve — which has a direct application for bankers.

Many banks have already learned that a move to the cloud not only helps them increase efficiencies and reduce operational costs, but can drive innovation where it matters most: the customer experience. The inherent advantages of the cloud are being applied within retail banking to provide a modern banking experience for customers through services that are offered in a scalable, “pay-as-you-go” format that grows and evolves over time.

Most importantly, the cloud helps bankers build off of their existing technology infrastructure to more easily create new services and experiences for their customers, particularly in three ways:

Faster innovation. The cloud breaks down the barriers to innovate across departments, eliminating a disintermediated, “spaghetti” architecture and allowing banks to go to market faster. Projects that may have taken months or years to implement before can now often be completed through a click and initiated within days. Much like an appstore, the cloud allows banks to subscribe, try and launch new products almost instantly, as well as delete applications that no longer serve their account holders.

More cost savings. Compared to the expense of enterprise and on-premises solutions, the cloud minimizes the need for costly investments, like physical infrastructure or storage and maintenance fees. Instead, banks pay only for the specific applications they use. Services that were once available only through binding, long-term contracts are now accessible entirely within the cloud on a metered basis, removing the significant upfront costs associated with legacy technology.

Improved flexibility. The number of resources and tools available within the cloud environment is growing daily, which drives growth in the developer community as a whole. This leads to more participants who are creating and contributing even better offerings. Banks benefit through the ability to implement new products or services quickly and easily in response to market demand or the specific banking needs of account holders. If the bank finds a certain application does not provide enough value, the cloud offers the flexibility to try other services until it identifies the product with the best fit for its unique situation.

For too long, too many banks have simply settled for “good enough” from an innovation perspective, hamstrung by their legacy technology’s complex infrastructure. In most cases, banks’ core technology investments have been sound ones — the technology is stable, secure and reliable and has a proven track record. But it can create limitations when it comes to flexibility, ease and speed to deploy new capabilities. With cloud computing, bankers can effectively extend the value of their core technology investments by leveraging all of the benefits that they provide, while cost-effectively supporting a more innovative approach to providing customers with a true, modern banking experience.

Build Versus Buy Considerations for Data Analytics Projects

It is the age-old question: buy versus build? How do you know which is the best approach for your institution?

For years, bankers have known their data is a significant untapped asset, but lacked the resources or guidance to solve their data challenges. The coronavirus crisis has made it increasingly apparent that outdated methods of distributing reports and information do not work well in a remote work environment.

As a former banker who has made the recent transition to a “software as a service” company, my answer today differs greatly from the one I would have provided five years ago. I’ve grown in my understanding of the benefits, challenges, roadblocks and costs associated with building a data analytics solution.

How will you solve the data conundrum? Some bank leaders are looking to their IT department while other executives are seeking fintech for a solution. If data analytics is on your strategic roadmap, here are some insights that could aid in your decision-making. A good place to start this decision journey is with a business case analysis that considers:

  • What does the bank want to achieve or solve?
  • Who are the users of the information?
  • Who is currently creating reports, charts and graphs in the institution today? Is this a siloed activity?
  • What is the timeline for the project?
  • How much will this initiative cost?
  • How unique are the bank’s needs and issues to solve?

Assessing how much time is spent creating meaningful reports and whether that is the best use of a specific employee’s time is critical to the evaluation. In many cases, highly compensated individuals spend hours creating reports and dashboards, leaving them with little time for analyzing the information and acting on the conclusions from the reports. In institutions where this reporting is done in silos across multiple departments and business units, a single source of truth is often a primary motivator for expanding data capabilities.

Prebuilt tools typically offer banks a faster deployment time, yielding a quicker readiness for use in the bank’s data strategy, along with a lower upfront cost compared to hiring developers. Vendors often employ specialized technical resources, minimizing ongoing system administration and eliminating internal turnover risk that can plague “in house” development. Many of these providers use secure cloud technology that is faster and cheaper, and takes responsibility for integration issues.  

Purchased software is updated regularly with ongoing maintenance, functionality and new features to remain competitive, using feedback and experiences gained from working with institutions of varying size and complexity. Engaging a vendor can also free up the internal team’s resources so they can focus on the data use strategy and analyzing data following implementation. Purchased solutions typically promotes accessibility throughout the institution, allowing for broad usage.

But selecting the criteria is a critical and potentially time-consuming endeavor. Vendors may also offer limited customization options and pose potential for integration issues. Additionally, time-based subscriptions and licenses may experience cost growth over time; pricing based on users could make adoption across the institution more costly, lessening the overall effectiveness.

Building a data analytics tool offers the ability to customize and prioritize development efforts based on a bank’s specific needs; controllable data security, depending on what tools the bank uses for the build and warehousing; and a more readily modifiable budget.

But software development is not your bank’s core business. Building a solution could incur significant upfront and ongoing cost to develop; purchased tools appear to have a large price tag, but building a tool incurs often-overlooked costs like the cost of internal subject matter experts to guide development efforts, ongoing maintenance costs and the unknowns associated with software development. These project may require business intelligence and software development expertise, which can carry turnover risk if institutional knowledge leaves the bank.

Projects of this magnitude require continuous engagement from management subject matter experts. Bankers needed to provide the vision and banking content for the product — diverting management’s focus from other responsibilities. This can have a negative impact on company productivity.

Additionally, “in-house” created tools tend to continue to operate in data silos whereby the tool is accessible only to data team. Ongoing development and releases may be difficult for an internal team to manage, given their limited time and resources along with changing business priorities and staff turnover.

The question remains: Do you have the bandwidth and talent at your bank to take on a build project? These projects typically take longer than expected, experience budget overruns and often do not result in the desired business result. Your bank will need to make the choice that is best for your institution.

Designing a Pandemic-Proof Compensation Plan

The ability to pivot and adapt to a changing landscape is critical to the success of an organization.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a unique challenge for banks in particular. Government stimulus through the Paycheck Protection Program tasked banks with processing loans at an unheard-of rate, turning bankers working 20-hour days into economic first responders. Simultaneously, the altered landscape forced businesses to adopt a remote work environment, virtual meetings and increase flexibility — amplifying the need for safe and reliable technology platforms, enhanced data security measures and appropriate cyber insurance programs as standard operating procedure.

Prior to Covid-19, a major driver of change was the demographic shift in the workforce as baby boomers retire and Generation X and millennials take over management and leadership positions. Many businesses were focused on ways to attract and retain these workers by adapting their cultures and policies to offer them meaningful rewards. The pandemic will likely make this demographic shift more relevant, as the workforce continues adapting to the impending change. 

Gen X and millennial employees are more likely than previous generations to value flexibility in when and where they work. They may seek greater  alignment in their career and life, according to Gallup. The pandemic has forced businesses to either adapt — or risk the economic consequences of losing their top performers to competitors.

Many employees find they are more productive when working remotely compared to the traditional office setting, which could translate into increased employee engagement. In fact, the Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” study finds that employees who spend 60% to  80% of their time working remotely reported the highest engagement. Engagement relates to the level of involvement and the relationship an employee has with their position and employer. Gallup finds that engaged employees are more productive because they have increased autonomy, job satisfaction and desire to make a difference. Simply put, increase engagement and performance will rise.

The demographic shift and a force-placed virtual office culture means that designing programs to attract and retain today’s workers require a well thought out combination of strategies. An inexpensive — though not necessarily simple — method of employee retention includes providing recognition when appropriate and deserved. Recognition is a critical aspect in employee engagement, regardless of demographic. Employees who feel recognized are more likely to be retained, satisfied and highly engaged. Without appropriate recognition, employee turnover could increase, which contributes to decreased morale and reduced productivity.

In addition to showing appreciation and recognizing employees who perform well, compensating them appropriately is fundamental to attracting and retaining the best. The flexibility of a non-qualified deferred compensation program allows employers to customize the design to respond to changing needs.

Though still relevant, the traditional Supplemental Executive Retirement Plan has been used to attract and retain leadership positions. It is an unsecured promise to pay a future benefit in retirement, with a vesting schedule structured to promote retention. Because Gen X and millennials may have 25 years or more until retirement, the value of a benefit starting at age 65 or later could miss the mark; they may find a more near-term, personally focused, approach to be more meaningful.

Taking into consideration what a younger employee in a leadership, management, or production position values is the guide to developing an effective plan. Does the employee have young children, student loan debt or other current expenses? Using personalized criteria, the employer can structure a deferred compensation program to customize payments timed to coincide with tuition or student loan debt repayment assistance. Importantly, the employer is in control of how these programs vest, can include forfeiture provision features and require the employee perform to earn the benefits.

These benefits are designed to be mutually beneficial. The rewards must be meaningful to the recipient while providing value to the sponsoring employer. The employer attracts and retains top talent while increasing productivity, and the employee is engaged and compensated appropriately. Banks can increase their potential success and avoid the financial consequences of turnover.

Ultimately, the pandemic could be the catalyst that brings the workplace of tomorrow to the present day. Nimbleness as we face the new reality of a virtual office, flexibility, and reliance on technology will holistically increase our ability to navigate uncertainty.

Five Questions to Ask When Weighing Banking Software

A contract for banking software should be the start of a working relationship.

When your bank purchases a new banking system, you should get more than a piece of software. From training to ongoing support, there’s a tremendous difference between a vendor who sells a system and a true partner who will work to enhance your banking operations.

But how do you know which is which? Here are some questions that could help you determine if a vendor is just a vendor — or if they could become a more-meaningful resource for your bank.

Do they have real banking expertise?
A software vendor that lacks real-world banking experience will never have the institutional knowledge necessary to serve as a true partner. The company may have been founded by a banker and their salespeople may have some cursory knowledge of how their solution works in a banking environment. However, that is not enough. You need a vendor that can offer expert insights based on experience. Ask salespeople or other contacts about their banking background and what they can do to help improve your bank.

Do they want to understand your issues?
A vendor won’t be able to help solve your problems if they aren’t interested in learning what they are. You should be able to get a sense of this early in the process, especially if you go through a software demonstration. Does the salesperson spend more time talking about features and system capabilities, or do they ask you about your needs first and foremost? A vendor looking to make a sale will focus on their program, while a true partner will take time to find out what your challenges are and what you really want to know. Look for a vendor who puts your needs above their own and you’ll likely find one who is truly invested in your success.

How quickly do they respond?
Vendors will show you how much they care by their turnaround speed when you have a question or need to troubleshoot a problem with your banking system. Any delay could prove costly, and a good partner acts on that immediate need and moves quickly because they care about your business. It can take some companies weeks to fully resolve customer issues, while others respond and actively work to solve the problem in only a few hours. Go with the software provider who is there for you when you need them most.

Do they go above and beyond?
Sometimes the only way to address an issue is to go beyond the immediate problem to the underlying causes. For example, you might think you have a process problem when onboarding treasury management customers, but it could actually be an issue that requires system automation to fully resolve.

A vendor that can identify those issues and give you insights on how to fix them, instead of bandaging the problem with a quick workaround, is one worth keeping around. This may mean your vendor proposes a solution that isn’t the easiest or the cheapest one, but this is a good thing. A vendor that is willing to tell you something you may not want to hear is one that truly wants what’s best for your organization.

Do they continue to be there for you?
Some software companies consider the engagement over once they’ve made the sale. Their helpline will be open if you have a problem, but your contact person there will have moved on to new targets as you struggle with implementation and the best way to utilize the software.

Find a vendor that plans to stick with your institution long after agreements have been signed. They should not only provide training to help facilitate a smooth transition to the new system, but they should remain accessible down the road. When a new software update becomes available or they release a new version of the system, they should proactively reach out and educate you on the new features — not try to sell you the latest development. Although you won’t know how those interactions will go until after you’ve made your purchase, it pays to evaluate the service you’re getting from your vendors at every stage of your engagement.

Finding a software vendor that you trust enough to consider a partner isn’t always easy. But by looking for some of the characteristics discussed above, you can identify the most trustworthy vendors. From there, you can start building a relationship that will pay dividends now and into the future.

Creating the Next Opportunity for Your Bank

Health, social, political and economic stressors around the world are bumping up business uncertainty for banks everywhere.

Some bankers may find a hunker-down posture fits the times. Others are taking a fresh look at opportunities to achieve their business objectives, albeit in a different-than-planned environment. What is your bank trying to accomplish right now? What are you uniquely positioned to achieve now that creates value for your institution, your shareholders and your customers?

The best opportunities on your bank’s list may be straightforward initiatives that may have been difficult to prioritize in a non-crisis environment. This can be a good time for banks to review their suppliers and vendors, their risk management, cybersecurity and compliance plans and protocols.

We’ve seen bank clients of ours with rock-solid foundations find themselves with the ability to leverage these times to pursue growth, to increase their technology offerings and explore niche markets, such as an all-digital delivery of banking services. These institutions are creating their own opportunities.

From straightforward to downright bold opportunities, BankOnIT and our client banks across the United States have observed that skillful execution requires one constant: a solid technology and systems foundation.

Here are a few examples of various objectives that we see our clients pursuing:

Embrace and Excel at Digital Banking
Digital banking, not to be confused with online banking, is more than a trend. Banks with user-friendly digital experiences are meeting the needs of millennials and Generation Z by offering activities that were once only accessible from the banking center. It removes geographical barriers and limitations of the traditional bank, such as operating hours and long lines.

Technological hurdles are grievances of both digital and traditional banks. The simple solution is unrestricted technology capabilities that improve reliability and increase security, especially when introducing features like artificial intelligence and digital banking.

A Growth Plan with The Ability To Compete
Customers’ expectations are shifting; banks need to be technologically nimble in response. With a high-growth plan in place, one BankOnIT client viewed outsourcing the network infrastructure to a partner with industry knowledge as the key to success. The result: opening four bank offices in seven months.

“We have all of the benefits of a large bank infrastructure, and all of the freedom that comes with that, without being a large bank,” said Kim Palmer, chief information officer at St. Louis Bank.

Partnering with Fintechs To Reach Niche Markets
The trick to accessing new markets will vary from bank to bank, but your strategy should start with the network infrastructure technology. This will be the foundation upon which all other technology in the institution is built upon. Cloud computing, for example, provides digital and traditional banks with resources needed to improve scalability, improve efficiency and achieve better results from all the other applications that rely upon the network foundation.   

Banks should look for partners that help them tailor their banking operations to benefit consumers who are conducting business in the virtual world. Technology at the forefront can keep business running smoothly during the global pandemic. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Mi Bank, for example, is able to accommodate customers during the pandemic, just like before.

“We can leverage technology to allow our customers to function as normal as possible,” said Tom Dorr, chief operating officer and CFO. “BankOnIT gives us the flexibility to function remotely without any disruption to our services. Our structure allows us to compete with the bigger institutions without sacrificing our personal service.”

Is your technology reliable, scalable, and capable of sustaining your goals post-pandemic?

A Solid Foundation
Take the opportunity to review your institution’s goals. How do they line up with the opportunities to act in the midst of this unplanned business environment? This may be your opportunity to build a solid technology, systems and compliance foundation. Or, this may be your time to seize the opportunities that are created from turning technology into a source of strength for your institution.