The Enduring Importance of Physical Engagement in Retail Financial Services

I take no issue with the growing importance being placed on digital in financial services. Indeed, it does not take extensive examination to see, in Wayne Gretzky’s words, “where the puck is going”. Digital needs to be a top technology priority among financial institutions – particularly in highly digitally-directed markets such as North America and Western Europe. But, that doesn’t mean physical engagement is unimportant. In my opinion, in-person (physical) engagement will be of lasting importance in financial services for at least three reasons:

1. Most consumers rely on brick and mortar for commerce and will continue to do so.

2. Most retail deposits still take place at the branch.

3. Most banks do not offer a decent digital customer acquisition mechanism

Most Consumers Rely on Brick and Mortar for Commerce

This week, comScore released its most recent measurement of digital commerce. It was truly exciting, with Q4 2016 m-commerce spending up 45% over 2015! But, even with that astonishing year-over-year growth, m-commerce constitutes just 21% of total e-commerce. And, with two decades of e-commerce, total digital commerce comprised just ten percent of total commerce in 2015. Plenty of consumers still like stores. * FRB Consumers and Mobile Financial Services 2011 – 2016, Percent of smartphone users with bank accounts
** US Department of Commerce, Internet Retailer, Excludes fuel, auto, restaurants and bars
***comScore

Digital is not equally important across segments. Books and music, for example, are highly digital. Not so much for food and beverage. I’m being simplistic for brevity, but the data suggests that most commerce will remain tied to the store experience – at least in part – for the foreseeable future. I don’t think financial services will be an exception.

Most Retail Deposits Still Take Place at the Branch

Banks are keen to migrate low-value branch transactions to self-service channels, and there is perhaps no better low-hanging fruit than check deposits. Yet, with a decade of remote deposit capture utilization behind us, a January 2017 survey of US financial institutions (n=269) clearly shows that the majority of retail deposit dollar volume still takes place in the branch. Like it or not, the branch remains a key transaction point for many consumers and small businesses. Sure, the trend lines support digital transaction growth (thank goodness), but we have a long way to go – farther than the hype would suggest.

Most banks do not offer a digital account and loan origination mechanism

Even as banks would love to acquire more customers digitally, most aren’t well prepared to do so. Unlike most every other retailer on the planet, most banks initially invested in digital banking for transaction migration, not sales. That is changing, but not quickly. The mobile realm needs the most work. In a December 2016 survey of North American financial institutions, Celent found that large banks, those with assets of >US$50b, had made noteworthy progress in mobile customer acquisition capability since the previous survey two years ago. Smaller institutions lag considerably. For these reasons, branch channels are getting a make-over at a growing number of financial institutions, with the objective of improving channel efficiency and effectiveness – effectiveness with engagement, not just transactions. Celent is pleased to offer a Celent Model Bank award in 2017 for Branch Transformation. We’ll present the award on April 4 at our 2017 Innovation & Insight Day in Boston. In addition to presenting the award trophies to the winners, Celent analysts will be discussing broader trends we’ve seen across all nominations and will share our perspectives why we chose those particular initiatives as winners. Make sure you reserve your slot here while there are still spaces available!

Three Common Mistakes Banks Make

In my work as a research analyst, I run into three particularly common mistakes. Banks aren’t the only ones that make these mistakes. I make them too and have to be vigilant to avoid them.
1. Failure to appreciate diversity of needs or preferences
2. Failure to appreciate the shrinking half-life of facts
3. Failure to skate to where the puck is going
Let’s look at each one briefly…

Failure to appreciate diversity of needs or preferences This is utterly common. You see it in headlines all the time. “Millennials this…”, “Small businesses that…”, Community banks are…”. The trap involves extrapolating limited data to an entire population. Two current examples illustrate: The Use of AI in Banking is About to Explode. Apart from confusing AI with predictive analytics (which is more broadly used), the article asserts “explosive” future adoption of AI right around the corner. I’ll just say that this assertion vastly overstates planned adoption of AI among North American banks based on recent Celent research. Bank on Changes. Among other things, this pleasant article states “Smaller community banks like Edison, which emphasize personal service, said they have no plans to scale back drive-through or other services at brick-and-mortar locations.” While referring to a small number of community banks interviewed for the article, it projects those results on the entire community bank population.

So, are community banks planning on maintaining their current brick-and-mortar services in their entirety – despite the growth in mobile banking utilization? Some are and some aren’t. the figure below displays results a very question posed in a December 2016 Celent survey of North American financial institutions. “Compared to your current branch count, how many branches do you expect your institution will operate five years from now?” The report is not yet published. The idea is simple: banks serve diverse markets and make a diversity of decisions as well. The diversity of expected response is glaring in this data! So as not to give away too much of the report’s contents, I refrain from graphing the results of that question by asset tier. Failure to Appreciate the Shrinking Half-Life of Facts Assertions abound about customers, what they do, want and value. Some data points supporting these assertions are dated. This is increasingly dangerous. Samuel Arbesman argues for a shrinking half-life of facts in his book, The Half-Life of Facts. Most substantive change takes a while to accomplish – particularly among large organizations. I think many banks are at risk by assuming the facts as they knew them at the beginning of a protracted initiative will remain after the initiative is finished. When it comes to mobile, for example, six months is a long time and a year is eternity.

Failure to Skate to Where the Puck is Going Even those of us who aren’t hockey fans are familiar with the famed Wayne Gretzky quote about skating to where the puck is going instead of where it has been. I saw this up close and personal as part of a research effort exploring the current and likely evolution of retail delivery channel technology. Omnichannel delivery clearly remains aspirational at most institutions (I’ll defend that assertion thoroughly in the upcoming report). Yet, even as most surveyed institutions concede the importance of omnichannel delivery, the significant majority are not yet meaningfully engaged in bringing it about. How could that be? Many banks – particularly those with below industry average mobile banking customer utilization – aren’t feeling the pain yet. They are skating to where the puck has been. When they do feel the pain, it will likely be the result of much damage already inflicted.

Megavendors and transaction banking: reinvesting in digital corporate banking

Earlier this month, Fiserv announced that it is acquiring Online Banking Solutions (OBS), a privately held provider of niche treasury management capabilities. OBS has seen a great deal of success in enabling community banks, credit unions and some regional banks with the digital capabilities needed to meet the emerging needs of more sophisticated business and corporate clients for treasury management services.  As a long-time observer and participant in this space, I think it is fair to say that most of the largest providers of financial services technology (megavendors) have underinvested in corporate banking, especially in modern, digital treasury solutions.  From a back-office processing perspective, Fiserv has a key collection of assets (e.g. PEP+, ARP/SMS) on which large banks in the US heavily depend to deliver their treasury management services.  The acquisition brings a suite of first-class front-office digital channel solutions to Fiserv that should allow it to be competitive in offering omnichannel solutions specifically designed for corporate treasury users and that consider the multitude of ways that corporates consume bank information and generate transactions. Celent believes that the winners in this space will have a broad transaction banking strategy that includes international services (cross border payments, foreign exchange, trade finance) bringing all commercial banking assets into a coherent go-forward strategy, if not a single organizational unit.  Partnerships to extend transaction banking functionality is a great step toward that end but they need to be well-defined and well-executed to benefit the providers’ clients.  In 2017, we think that other technology providers will follow suit and broaden their transaction banking solutions.  FIS has certainly made a mark with its 2015 acquisitions of SunGard and Clear2Pay.  Bringing these assets together and delivering on a next generation digital platform will be critical for FIS to meet the growing needs of corporate clients for global banking services.  Other providers of digital channel solutions such as ACI Worldwide, Bottomline Technologies, D+H, Q2 Software and others will be looking at these developments closely to understand the impact on their competitive positions. With the acquisition of OBS, there are no more niche providers of corporate digital channels left in North America.  Almost ten years after the great financial crisis when income from fee-based solutions was the salvation of the industry, reinvestment in the transaction banking business is finally happening.  

Chat Bots: Savior or Disintermediator?

AI is becoming increasingly interesting to bankers.  Last year I wrote a blog about “Assistant as an App”, looking at how concierge apps like MaiKai and Penny are offering up AI-driven financial management services.  My colleague Dan Latimore also recently posted a blog on  AI and its impact.

The emergence of chat bots within popular messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Slack, Kik, and WeChat similarly has the potential to shift how customers interact with financial institutions. Chat bots offer incredible scale at a pretty cheap price, making adoption potentially explosive. Facebook messenger, for example, has almost one billion active users per month. WhatsApp (soon to launch chat bots) has about the same.  These apps offer some extremely high engagement, and with app downloads decreasing, users are spending more time on fewer apps. According to Tech Crunch, 80% of the time spent on a mobile device is typically split between 3 to 5 apps

Chat bots give the bank the ability to automatically appear in almost all of the most used apps in the world.  The opportunity with digital assistants is immense, and given the nature of bank transactions, it’s not hard to imagine chat bots becoming a widely used engagement method.  Most of banking is heavily rules-based, so the processes are often standard.  Frequent banking requests are pretty straightforward (e.g. ‘send this person X amount of money’ or ‘transfer x amount from savings to checking’).  Bank-owned chat bots are also more built for purpose than some of the multi-purpose third-party products on the market, making the functional scope targetted. While chat bots are still very early days, it won't be long before these kinds of interactions are accessible and the norm. Bank of America already has one; many others have plans or pilots.

This video (skip to 7:30) shows what an advanced chat bot might be able to accomplish. The image below from the Chat Bot Magazine is another conceptual banking use case.  The possibilities are compelling. 

 

 

 

 

But while the opportunity with digital assistants is enormous, banks must be aware of how this affects their current ongoing digital strategy. For example, if chat bots overcome the hype and become a long lasting method for accessing financial services, then what effect will that have on traditional banking apps?  Will chat bots make it foolish to invest large sums of money in dedicated mobile apps? 

For all the promise this technology brings, banks need to be aware that this could be a step towards front-end disintermediation. The threat of tech companies (or other large retailers) stepping in to grab banking licenses and compete directly with incumbents was short lived.  The more realistic scenario was always relegating core banking functions to a utility on the backend of a slickly designed user interface created by a fintech startup.  The incumbents lose the engagement, even if they are facilitating the transactions.

Are chat bots a step towards front-end disintermediation, or are they an extension of the bank’s main app?  If you believe that chat bots are a stepping stone (or companion product) towards a world where the best UI is no UI, and where AI evolves to the point of offering significant functional value, then banks could be at risk.

This isn’t a call to hysteria by any means, nor am I calling chat bots wolves in sheep’s clothing, but banks need to be aware of the potential impact. As voice or message-based interactions become the norm, they will have an effect on a bank’s dedicated mobile app.  In this environment, the mobile app will need to evolve to become something different; non-transactional.

Chatbots will only further fragment the customer journey, requiring an even clearer understanding of how consumers are choosing to handle their finances and make transactions. Banks need to start thinking about how chat bots and AI fit into a long-term digital channels strategy, one that doesn’t handcuff the institution into a no-win proposition of competitive disadvantage versus wilful disruption.

Will Banks Eventually Lead in Retail Digital Sales Growth?

I subscribe to Marcus & Milichap’s research blog. Getting my head out of banking from time to time is refreshing and provides useful perspective. A recent blog post commented on the changing make up of commercial property construction as a result of the continued growth in digital commerce. The completion rate of new construction (measured in millions of square feet) has been roughly a third of its pre-2008 boom. Dramatic indeed!

No big mystery, however. As retailers close stores (Macy’s is a recent example), property developers must re-adjust their development to sustain revenue growth. As large merchants exit, they’re being replaced with smaller service providers – restaurants, medical practices, financial planners and grocery stores – mostly services that are less likely to migrate online. Digital plays a role in my healthcare, for example, but I’m still going to see the doctor next week for an annual physical. It helps to do that indoors.

That got me thinking. Three years ago, Celent predicted a steep decline in US branch density based on an analysis of branch dynamics in other developed markets and changes in store densities in other retail categories. In part, we argued that reductions in store densities have been non-uniform across retail categories for a reason. In the final analysis, as commerce becomes more digital, fewer brick and mortar stores will be needed to fulfill the same level of demand. We argued that two variables play an important role: the susceptibility to digital self-service and the degree of product differentiation. Arguably, retail banking is highly susceptible. Loan rates are easily compared online, but you may want to try on a new pair of pants before buying.

Danger Zone for RetailSo, why is the reduction in US branch density occurring more slowly than other retail categories? In part, because industrywide retail banking sales mix lags other retail categories in its migration to digital. How do we know this? Through June 2016, digital commerce accounted for 13% of all US core retail sales. How does that compare to retail banking? According to a survey of Celent’s Branch Transformation and Digital Banking research panels, US banks and credit unions lag considerably, with roughly 90% of sales occurring in the branch or contact center.

sales channel mix

Here’s one reason I think this is so (see below).

shopbuyuse

Banks have invested heavily in migrating transactions to self-service (the “use” part of financial services) with polished transactional capabilities in the digital channel, but have paid comparatively less attention to making shopping for and buying financial services digitally frictionless. That’s now a high priority for a rapidly growing number of institutions at present. Good thing!

As banks do so, they will be rewarded with rapidly growing digital sales. In the past 12-months ending in June, total non-store retailer sales grew 14.2% YOY according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Marcus & Millichap Research Services.  Over the same time period Bank of America’s digital sales grew 12% YOY, representing 18% of total sales according to its July financial results presentation.

So, will banks eventually lead in retail digital sales growth? Absolutely – Bank of America is already there!

Taking the ‘Madness’ out of Customer Onboarding

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on the topic of omnichannel customer onboarding sponsored by Kofax. It was a heavyweight panel, including:

  • Jim Marous, Co-Publisher/Author, The Financial Brand
  • JP Nicols, Director, Next Bank
  • Brant Clark, Sr. Director, Mobile Solutions, Kofax, Inc.

March Madness

Kofax is making a recording of this informative panel here.

It’s worth a listen. Why?

Customer acquisition is obviously important because it is a prerequisite to top line sales growth. Offering a low-friction digital capability is increasingly important because customers are becoming increasingly digitally-driven. Omnichannel customer acquisition matters because multiple channels – digital channels in particular – are influencing consumer’s choice of banking relationship. Banks therefore need to close the deal whenever and wherever customers make the decision to onboard. To do otherwise is inconvenient for potentially profitable prospects, and disadvantageous for institutions wanting them as customers.

The problem is, omnichannel customer acquisition remains largely aspirational for most North American financial institutions.

I’m looking forward to sharing two forthcoming research reports devoted to this important topic in the coming weeks.

Citi’s geolocation move

American Banker just ran an interesting article about Citi’s foray into the use of geolocation (beacons) as it pilots several use cases in its “smart branches.” Several thoughts immediately came to mind as I read Tanaya Macheel’s well-written article:

  • The use of beacons for cardless access to branch ATMs after business hours was the lead use case cited in the article. But, that’s just one of a growing number of potentially very useful applications for beacons in retail financial services.
  • Banks have barely scratched the surface in more usefully integrating digital and physical channels as they seek to maximize customer engagement.
  • Geolocation, in particular, is under-utilized by retailers (especially banks) and remains largely experimental.

My hat is off to Citi for its purposeful investment in developing expertise in this area and to American Banker for writing about Citi’s work. In my view, the most impressive aspect of this initiative isn’t so much Citi’s pushing the technology envelope; it’s the organizational effort that was likely required. Getting its branch operations, mobile product management, IT and LOB leadership aligned represents real commitment to innovation.

How far ahead of the industry is Citi?

Here’s one data point. In Celent’s inaugural Branch Transformation Research Panel survey in (June 2015), we sought to establish a benchmark on just how far and how fast NA institutions were pursuing branch channel transformation. Of course, several questions addressed planned technology usage. Out of a dozen examples of technology usage, geo-location ranked dead last in terms of the liklihood of usage in future branch designs – just 27% of surveyed institutions thought the use of beacons would be "somewhat likely" or "very likely".

Branch Tech Usage

Pretty far I'd say!

Getting to digital while missing the point

Digital banking is so hot right now – for good reason. The recently published research sponsored by the Federal Reserve, Consumers and Mobile Financial Services 2016, reported that 87% of the U.S. adult population has a mobile phone and 77% of them are smartphones, up from 71% in 2014 and 61% in 2013. Admittedly, it is getting hard to find a phone that’s not internet-enabled. But consumers are acquiring them for a reason – and it’s not telephony. The same report documented the rise of mobile banking: 43% of all mobile phone owners with a bank account had used mobile banking in the past 12 months, up from 39% in 2014 and 33% in 2013.

Digital Banking Not surprisingly then, the significant majority of US financial institutions now offer digital banking capabilities to their customers. But, most were designed to migrate transactions away from the more expensive branch channel to lower-cost self-service mechanisms. A worthy objective, but it misses the point (more on that later).

Celent has research in the field now designed to understand just how far US banks and credit unions have come in achieving digital channel adoption targets. The short (however preliminary) answer: not very far. It’s not for lack of trying, however. Two-thirds of responding institutions said they have specific, measurable digital channel adoption goals.

Digital adoption goals Mar 16
Source: Celent Managed Research Panel, March 2015, n=32

Beyond Transactions More recently, a growing number of banks and credit unions are thinking beyond transactions toward digital sales and service. Another worthy objective, particularly among the large number of institutions that are, frankly, desperate for revenue growth. A minority have specific , measurable goals to increase digital customer acquisition. We expect that to change as more banks embrace the imperative for omnichannel delivery. Institutions thinking beyond transactions are paying close attention to the state of digital customer acquisition – for good reason. About three-quarters of banks in Celent’s survey track completion rates, but far fewer systematically follow up on incomplete applications. This is a problem! The apparent disconnect seems to reflect a bias towards digital delivery. If cost reduction is the primary objective (it rarely is) than good. But if revenue growth and customer engagement are what banks are after (I believe that to be the case) then many are missing the point.

In my opinion, the objective of omnichannel banking shouldn’t be tied to migrating an arbitrary percentage of customer interactions to the digital realm – whether transactions or sales. Consumers are becoming increasingly digitally-driven without bank’s involvement! The point of omnichannel delivery is to offer customers consistent and convenient ways to engage with your bank whenever and wherever they so choose, not to achieve some arbitrary channel mix.

The fact is, most consumers don’t want to open accounts on their mobile devices, even though they are very likely to be researching banking products and services online. That’s why banks need to offer a variety of low-friction ways to engage with customers and prospects. Click-to-call and digital appointment booking are two examples. Digital appointment booking (DAB), in particular, has emerged as “low-hanging fruit” among banks seeking to better integrate digital and in-person engagement. Although impressive results can be obtained from relatively modest effort, few institutions have taken this step.

Digital Appointment Booking First and foremost, DAB is not about driving branch traffic or somehow prolonging its relevance as some have suggested. Rather, DAB is about improving omnichannel customer engagement. Best practices suggest it is not a silver bullet either, but one of many customer engagement mechanisms that leading financial institutions are learning how to orchestrate to better serve customers. DAB is also not simply about booking appointments. When integrated with lobby management systems, DAB solutions help customers efficiently and effectively accomplish what they want and when they want it. Done well, DAB is very much a win-win. This is the point, isn’t it?

I’ll be presenting on best practices in digital appointment booking at American Banker’s Retail Banking 2016 in Las Vegas on Wednesday afternoon April 6th. The presentation is part of Innovations for Credit Unions from 1:00 – 4:00 in the afternoon. If you’re planning to attend, feel free to stop by and say “hello”!

Corporate digital delivery channels and the customer experience

Celent feels (and others agree) that it’s important that banks deliver an omnichannel digital customer experience, but the term means different things to different people. Based on our own research, we believe that omnichannel is about delivering a customized but consistent financial institution brand experience to customers across all channels and points of interaction.

An omnichannel experience is even more critical when delivering services to corporate clients. Each client has a unique set of business and technology requirements based on their corporate treasury organizational structure, geographic footprint, and treasury technology sophistication. A consistent financial institution brand experience is important to corporate clients, but the experience needs to be tailored to each client segment’s unique needs. For the largest, most complex organizations, an even more bespoke and customized experience is critical.

With banks investing increasing amounts of capital in technology incubators and startup accelerators, the pace of innovation in digital channels continues to grow. But for corporate clients, innovation isn’t about incubators, accelerators, or hackathons. Innovation is about simplification — increasing usability, straight-through processing, and digitization. As outlined in the new Celent report, Tailoring the Customer Experience: External Forces Impacting Corporate Digital Channels, the competitive environment, regulatory climate, economic conditions, and technology impacts are shaping the evolution of corporate digital channels. But emerging technologies will have the largest impact. External Forces Corporate digital channels are just one component of a complex treasury technology landscape, but a critical one. Corporates maximizing the efficiency and transparency of digital channels today are enabling and preparing themselves for innovative technologies for the future.

Customer engagement: how little things make a big difference (one analyst’s experience)

Typically, analysts opine based on analysis of industry data, informed by product demonstrations, telephone interviews and occasional focus groups. This time, I simply share my own experience at a top-5 US retail bank to illustrate how even seemingly little things may have significant customer impact – both favorably or unfavorably. This past weekend, I had a document needing to be notarized. Both my spouse and I had to sign the document and we had a busy weekend agenda. Recalling that as an account holder at a top-5 US bank, notary public services would be free of charge, I planned to visit a convenient branch in-between Saturday morning events. What could be easier? Recalling this bank was one of the relatively few that offered digital appointment booking, I thought it brilliant to book an appointment, rather than taking my chances upon our arrival at the branch. Plus, I was looking forward to getting up-close and personal with the appointment booking workflow. The bank’s appointment booking application was marvelously easy to navigate, but to book an appointment; one had to select an area of interest. This is a reasonable and beneficial requirement, because selecting an interest area ensures the subsequent meeting occurs with someone with requisite knowledge. The problem was that notary services wasn’t listed in the drop-down menu of interest areas. No appointment for me! Without the ability to book an appointment, I sought to make sure the branch nearby to our other activities would be open when we were available. Back to the bank’s website. Easily done, except for the repeated “Make an Appointment” buttons staring at me upon nearly every mouse click, which at this point served as an irritant. It caused me to think. On one hand, well-done to the bank for making the ability abundantly obvious. On the other hand, why no appointments for notary services. Are such needs rare, or does the bank only invite appointments for direct revenue-generating activities? The closest branch was no longer offering Saturday hours, so we trekked to another branch that was a bit out of our way, arriving just past noon. Being a Saturday, I expected it to be busy, but was unprepared for what I saw. Three staffed teller positions were active. All offices were conducting meetings and there were four people waiting in the lobby – complete with restless children which we were happy to entertain. To “speed service”, I was invited to check-in. The process wasn’t exactly high-tech. It consisted of a clipboard resting on a small table with space to write my name and time of arrival. Most of the previous names were scratched out with a combination of black and blue ink, so I figured our wait time would be acceptable. User impressions aside, I was struck with the notion that this very large bank had no consistently gathered information about why customers visit their branch, if they were actually served or not, or what their wait times were – unless some poor soul transcribed all our scribbles into a database. Not likely. Maybe that’s why they don’t offer appointments for notary services. After about a 10-minute wait, we were greeted by a well-dressed young man offering to assist. He quickly affirmed his ability to perform notary services and asked what it was that we needed notarized. I presented him our 1-page quit claim deed, whereby he apologetically replied that, while he was a notary, the bank was not able to notarize deeds. If only we had another sort of document, he would have gladly helped us. At least, he offered an alternative for us – driving back to the UPS Store next to where we hadbeen. No wait + $2.00 and we were done. We didn’t even need an appointment. I learned an important lesson that day.