Why banks should pay attention to “Assistant as an App”

Why banks should pay attention to “Assistant as an App”
Last week I had the pleasure of going to Finovate, a biannual event (at least in NA) where startups and established vendors show off their newest creations. My colleague Dan Latimore wrote an in-depth piece about it last week. It’s usually a good temperature read of where the market is and what banks are thinking about. PFM used to be hot, now it barely makes an appearance. Mobile account opening and on-boarding was massive. Each year you can count on a few presentations tackling customer communication, whether it´s customer service applications or advisory tools. While this year was no different, I didn´t see any presentations representing an emerging trend in mobile: assistant as an app. What is assistant as an app? Basically, it puts a thin UI between two humans: the customer and the service provider (e.g. retailer or bank). The UI layer enhances the interaction by allowing each party to push information back and forth, whether its text, pictures, data visualization, etc. There are a wide range of possibilities. Apps are already starting to incorporate this idea. For a monthly fee, Pana offerings a human personal travel assistant who will take care of any travel related need. The concierge books restaurants, hotels, rental cars, and flights, all via in-app communication. Pana Vida Health allows users to push dietary information to a health coach that can then send back health plans, ideas to diagnose health issues, or create a weight loss regimen. The dating app Grouper uses a concierge to coordinate group dates. EasilyDo is a personal assistant that can manage your contacts, check traffic, schedule flights, etc. The app Fetch uses SMS to let users ask the concierge to buy just about anything. For a small fee (sometimes free, subsidized by business or premium services) these companies provide value-added premium services to customers through a mobile device. The applicability for banks is obvious. Finances can be complicated; most people aren´t good at managing money, and according to Celent research, consumers still prefer to speak to a human for important money matters. Assistant as an app would offer institutions a clear path towards monetising the mobile channel, moving interactions away from the branch, and capturing a growing base of digitally-directed consumers. I predict this will be a major trend in financial services in the future. What do you think? Feel free to comment below.

Unbundling, Fidor, and the model for approaching financial startups

Unbundling, Fidor, and the model for approaching financial startups
I´ve recently had multiple conversations with financial institutions about the trend of unbundling financial services by FinTech startups. In fact, it’s hard to discuss the future of the industry without touching on it. Articles from Tanay Jaipuria, Tech Crunch, and CBInsights speak openly about inexorable disruption. They all tell a fairly similar story. Unbundled products and services disintermediate financial institutions by improving on traditional offerings. Banks lose that value chain. Banks become a utility on the back end, essentially forced by the market to provide the necessary regulatory requirements and accounts for nonbank disruptors. With images like this (see below), it’s hard to argue that it isn’t happening—at least at some level. Unbundling-of-a-bank-V2 There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the hype surrounding disruption by FinTech players (shallow revenue, small customer base, etc.), but even if only a few manage to become sizable competitors, that still represents a significant threat to banks´ existing revenue streams. There’s also data pointing to higher adoption in the future. A study from Ipsos MediaCT and LinkedIn showed that 55% of millennials and 67% of affluent millennials are open to using non-FS offerings for financial services. This number is surprisingly high, and the largest banks in the world are paying attention. The threat of losing the customer-facing side of the business is a legitimate risk that banks face over the next 5-10 years. But there´s a possible solution that could enable banks to remain relevant even as they begin to see some of their legacy products or services fall to new entrants: be more like Fidor Bank. Fidor Bank is a privately held neobank launched in Germany. It has a banking license and wants to transform the way financial institutions interact with their customers by creating a sense of community and openness. The bank views its platform, fidorOS, as a key differentiator that allows it to offer customers services from start-ups or new financial instruments. For example, it offers its customers Currency Cloud for foreign exchange as well as the ability to view Bitcoin through its platform. Going forward, it may make more sense for financial institutions to take this approach. Banks can´t be everything to their customers, and there´s a healthy stream of market entrants trying to chip away at the banking value chain. A middle way is that banks become an aggregator for popular nonbank FinTech offerings as they become popular. This would preserve the benefits of traditional bundling by aggregating offerings and re-bundling them alongside its home grown services. Some benefits include:
  • Maintain the consumer facing side of the business by letting customers access these service through your platform
  • Increase cross-selling and marketing opportunities
  • Preserve a convenient and frictionless experience by reducing the fragmentation of unbundling
These benefits would provide value to both the FI and the FinTech partner, and it´s not a new concept. Netflix is effectively an aggregator of content from a variety of production companies (along with creating great content of their own). The music industry has been offering bundled services for more than a decade. Banks are loath to forfeit parts of the business, but as other industries have seen, the longer they wait the more disruptive the change will be.

Banks are asking the wrong customer engagement question

Banks are asking the wrong customer engagement question
I have heard banks ask, “How to we use digital channels to bring traffic into the branch?” The rational is straightforward. After years of promoting self-service channels, branch foot traffic is declining – along with the sales opportunities that foot traffic represents. It’s a logical question, but the wrong question. A better question would be, “How do we enable effective customer engagement on their terms regardless of the channels involved? Rather than seeking to influence customer channel preferences, banks should be all about maximizing the effectiveness of each and every engagement opportunity, regardless of channel. They don’t seem to be. One no-brainer example is digital appointment booking – the ability for customers to book an appointment with a banker at a time and place of their convenience – using the bank’s online or mobile platform. Doing so represents convenience for the customer, a logical indicated action as part of online product research and an opportunity to improve branch channel capacity planning (because of the added visibility the mechanism provides). But, the most compelling reason to offer digital appointment booking in my opinion is because doing so maximizes the effectiveness of branch engagement. How so? Done well, frontline staff know who is coming and for what purpose. Consequently, they’re better prepared for the conversation. Banks that have implemented digital appointment booking are seeing significant improvements in sales results. Digital appointment booking should be commonplace – but isn’t. In a October 2014 survey of NA financial institutions, just 8% of respondents offered this capability. Most were large banks. OAB adoptionSource: Celent survey of North American financial institutions, October 2014, n=156 Even better would be to extend the appointment booking option to digital channels, as a phone or telepresence conversation. Engagement doesn’t have to be limited to face-to-face interactions – but is, in all but the largest banks. In the same survey referenced earlier, just 20% offered text based chat online, 12% offered click-to-call and 2% offered video chat. Online Channel Engagement CapabilitySource: Celent survey of North American financial institutions, October 2014, n=156 So, while banks offer abundant digital transactional capabilities, engagement remains largely something only offered at the branch. That dog won’t hunt for long!

Is the branch the newest digital channel?

Is the branch the newest digital channel?
The branch is an important channel is every bank, but the rise of digital raises two questions: what’s its role in with a digital engagement model, and how should banks think about its value? First, consider some of the challenges of the traditional branch for the modern, digital consumer:
  • Branches suffer from lack of talent availability. The best person for the job is not always going to be in the right location at right time. Yet mobile is driving “right time, right place, instant” contextual interactions, and consumers are increasingly expecting this level of service.
  • Many of the frontline staff are underpaid and undertrained, yet are the face of the institution. They often aren´t trained properly or paid enough to care about delivering the kind of customer service banks are trying to deliver through digital.
  • It’s difficult to distribute foot traffic across locations. Some branches suffer from massive queues, while employees at other locations are killing time on Facebook. This adds cost, lowers efficiency, and is incompatible with demand for instant service from consumers as well as modern IT delivery.
Digital has allowed industries to overcome some of the barriers facing other customer experiences. The challenges facing branches are no different. Virtualizing the workforce, aggregating talent, and allowing customers to access them remotely, either in a branch environment or from a personal device, is at least one path forward. Banks need to start thinking about the branch as a digital channel. Some institutions like Garanti Bank in Turkey, ICICI in India, and Umpqua Bank in the US are already starting to think in terms of remote delivery. As video service becomes more mature (i.e. video advisory through tablets), user experiences across devices will begin to blur, and the branch of the future will look even more like a digital experience. In the new environment, the branch becomes another presentation layer. Vendors like Cisco are already starting to move in this direction, combining telepresence, remote signature, displays, and other infrastructure to allow banks to facilitate remote interactions using context information. Others in the market are beginning to follow suite. The branch of the future has been a topic of discussion since the advent of online banking and mobile. While some meaningful progress has been made in branch transformation, some large institutions have launched numerous pilot ideas and concept branches that have amounted to little more than PR stunts. The role of the branch is changing, but it’s obvious that many aren’t exactly clear what that role is going to be. By talking about the branch as a digital channel, institutions may be better able to craft a true omnichannel strategy for customer experience.

Pushing beyond apps

Pushing beyond apps
It struck me while I was driving this morning: First-gen mobile apps are fine, but virtually everyone is missing high-volume opportunities to engage with their customers. Allow me to back up a step. I was stuck in traffic. Not surprisingly, that gave me some time to ponder my driving experience. I found myself thinking: Why can’t I give my car’s navigation system deep personalizations to help it think the way I do? And how do I get around its singular focus on getting from Point A to Point B? I explored the system while at a red light. It had jammed me onto yet another “Fastest Route,” disguised as a parking lot. My tweaks to the system didn’t seem to help. I decided what I’d really like is a Creativity slider so I could tell my nav how far out there to be in determining my route. Suburban side streets, public transportation, going north to eventually head south, and even well-connected parking lots are all nominally on the table when I’m at the helm. So why can’t I tell my nav to think like me? I’d also like a more personal, periodic verbal update on my likely arrival time, which over the course of my trip this morning went from 38 minutes to almost twice that due to traffic. The time element is important, of course. But maybe my nav system should sense when I’m agitated (a combination of wearables and telematics would be a strong indicator) and do something to keep me from going off the deep end. Jokes? Soothing music? Directions to highly-rated nearby bakeries? Words of serenity? More configurability is required, obviously, or some really clever automated customization. Then an even more radical thought struck. Why couldn’t my nav help me navigate not only my trip but my morning as well? “Mr. Weber, you will be in heavy traffic for the next 20 minutes. Shall I read through your unopened emails for you while you wait?” Or, “Your calendar indicates that you have an appointment before your anticipated arrival time. Shall I email the participants to let them know you’re running late?” Or (perhaps if I’m not that agitated), “While you have a few minutes would you like to check your bank balances, or talk to someone about your auto insurance renewal which is due in 10 days?” What I’m describing here is a level of engagement between me and my mobile devices which is difficult to foster, for both technical and psychological reasons. And it doesn’t work if a nav system is simply a nav system that doesn’t have contextual information about the user. But imagine the benefits if the navigation company, a financial institution, and other consumer-focused firms thought through the consumer experience more holistically. By sensibly injecting themselves into consumers’ daily routines—even when those routines are stressful—companies will have a powerful connection to their customers that will be almost impossible to dislodge. Firms like Google have started down this path, but financial institutions need to push their way into the conversation as well.

On the margins

On the margins
Celent recently released the report On the Margins: A Comparison of Banks and Credit Unions by Asset Tier, where community institutions of the same size are compared across a number of performance metrics, mainly efficiency ratio. One of the most interesting findings is that credit unions are becoming less efficient at a faster rate than banks of the same size. Efficiency ratios measure how much it costs an institution to create one dollar of revenue. Looking at the data in previous sections, credit unions are increasingly spending more money to generate as much revenue as banks of the same size. Efficiency ratio can be dependent on a number of factors, but as a way to look at simple margins, it´s one of the more useful industry metrics. At a glance it seems counter-intuitive. Credit unions are generally more customer-centric and have higher technology adoption. They use real-time systems, simpler product lines, invest in labor saving technology, and leverage community involvement like CUSOs and shared services to drive down prices. But there are obviously distinct business model differences, where credit unions, being member-owned, generally run thinner margins, returning more benefit back to the customer in the form of better interest rates and/or lower fees. Although this is an intentional business decision reinforced by member-centric charters, it leaves the institution with fewer resources than similarly sized banks that may take a more profit-driven approach. So what’s the issue here? It comes down to the effects of digitalization. Celent sees three challenges that may affect the credit union market going forward:
  1. As the complexity of business demands in financial services grows (e.g., technology), the resource requirements may present a challenge for credit unions (and all community institutions) running thin margins. Since raising capital is limited to retained earnings, non-profits need to be more intentional about how they prioritize tech investment.
  2. Banks in recent years have seen a significant shift in how they view customer service. Once a key point of differentiation for the CU market, banks are now coming on board to make customer centricity the new operating model, increasingly driven by the digital experience. While customer centricity is healthy for the industry as a whole, it’s unclear to what extent it indicates an erosion of credit unions’ key value proposition.
  3. As technology breaks down geographical barriers of financial services, customers are given more options, and the competitive landscape widens based on the availability of channels. Switching financial services providers is no longer a high-friction process, and the selection is wider than ever. Digital is also redefining what it means to be a part of a community, and it’s increasingly being decoupled from physical proximity. This puts pressure on institutions that have previously enjoyed relative isolation in well-defined localities.
To be clear, these challenges aren’t all specific to credit unions. Financial services are increasingly becoming a game a sufficient scale, and community institutions of all size are feeling the pinch. Yet credit unions, given are the average institution size and business models, are disproportionately affected. With the complexity and demands of financial services putting more pressure on the bottom line, will this difference adversely affect credit unions’ (and community institutions) ability to stay competitive?

Spring musings on UK banking innovations

Spring musings on UK banking innovations
One of the great advantages of being a Celent analyst is that we’re able to look at banking advances around the world and share what we learn with our clients and readers. This week I’d like to focus on a few interesting developments in the United Kingdom. The unifying theme this time around is innovation linked only by geography.
  • Barclays’ Blue Rewards
  • Nationwide NOW: remote video advisers
  • Lloyds’ plain English terms and conditions

Barclays Blue Rewards

The headline attraction of Blue Rewards is that customers can earn £180 back from Barclays. The catch? Consumers have to pay £3 each month to participate. This isn’t bad, per se: it insures that customers actually have some skin in the game, some incentive to participate so that they don’t frivolously sign up. To save you some math, the net benefit to the consumer can be up to £144, or about $215. If you pay in at least £800 each month into your current account, process at least two direct debits, and are enrolled in online banking, you’ll receive £7 off the top as a “loyalty reward.” A mortgage through Barclays gets you another £5 each month, and if you insure your home through the bank, that’s another £3. Naysayers snipe that consumers can get better deals elsewhere, and that you have to have a lot of products at Barclays to reap the full benefit, but isn’t that the point? Barclays is explicitly tying rewards to the behavior it’s trying to incent, something that other banks should consider. Barclays, incidentally, is the only bank that I know of with behavioral economists on staff – who am I missing? Betterment has a behavioral economist who’s a Barclays alum, according to LinkedIn, but it’s not a bank.

Nationwide NOW

The UK’s Nationwide Building Society launched a high definition video link service called Nationwide NOW in April 2014. Initially piloted to link remote mortgage advisers to customers in 61 branches, it helped more than 3,200 people with mortgage, banking and financial planning. Waiting times, particularly for rural customers, have been reduced from weeks to days. In a press release dated April 20th the institution announced that it was introducing the scheme to 100 more branches, with plans to roll the service out to a total of 400 branches by November of this year. Nationwide proclaims that it is the largest offering of this service of any FS company in the world, based on the number of terminals. It’s also been willing to tweak the service delivery: the remote specialist will offer the customer a cup of tea at the beginning of the conversation, and a local employee will bring it in, making the whole interaction seem much more personal.

Lloyd’s video terms and conditions

In a two minute and fifteen second video on YouTube (which some are calling an animated infographic), Lloyd’s simplifies the terms and conditions that the vast majority of customers ignore, sometimes at their peril. While still not riveting, it’s a whole lot more accessible than pages of legalese. Unfortunately, a month and a half after its original posting on March 11, it has had only 371 views (one of those was mine – I’m not used to skewing a sample!). It also makes the obligatory plea to read the entire T&C document. Nevertheless, becoming more human and highlighting some of the key points is a step in the right direction, even if it’s not yet perfect. You can watch it for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKRtKt9cOpw What other concrete innovations are you seeing that bankers should be aware of?

Thoughts from American Banker Retail Banking Conference 2015

Thoughts from American Banker Retail Banking Conference 2015
This last week the American Banker Retail Banking Conference 2015 was going on in Austin, TX. As expected, it was a great way to read the temperature of the banking industry. The conference was well attended, with broad representation from all institution sizes and markets. There were a couple of overarching themes throughout the event. Competitive pressures on smaller institutions were top of many bankers´ minds. The conference was full of community bankers discussing evolving business models and the pressures its placing on their ability to gather deposits. Customer centricity is forcing a convergence of traditionally segregated value propositions. Large banks are now trying to compete on serving the customer and they´re positioning themselves to look and feel like a community experience. New entrants and delivery models are also opening up the competitive landscape. Consumers are no longer limited by geography when choosing a bank, and they have a growing number of alternative financial options from which to choose. Smaller institutions are finding it hard to overcome some of the barriers of resources and marketing that arise as the competitive landscape broadens. Many presenters discussed developing non-traditional revenue streams. With interest rates low and new regulations following the financial crisis, banks are running incredibly thin margins, and traditional revenue sources are no longer viable. Presentations focused on targeted marketing for “moneyhawks”, new P2P models (e.g. P2P lending), and new payment schemes. A few thoughts on some of the talking points:
  • Breaking down omnichannel applications for financial services: Omnichannel within banking was a popular talking point between attendees and among presenters, and it´s obvious there´s still more than enough ambiguity around its application in the context of banking. One of the presentations used non-FI examples to look at how banks can approach integrating omnichannel into customer interactions. Home Depot was an interesting case study. The retailer combines the in-store and app experience to enhance the customer buying process. Customers can browse the app and make a list of the materials they need. The app shows only what´s in stock at the nearest physical location, and each item is given a corresponding aisle number for easy location on arrival. While in the store, customers can scan QR codes on each product to bring up specific measurements and statistics. This is the essence of an omnichannel experience. It´s not about doing everything from every channel—it´s about optimizing the customer experience across the variety of methods used to interact with the retailer (or bank).
  • Community banks differentiating from large institutions: This was a common thread running throughout the presentations. How do community banks grow deposits in a climate of shrinking deposit share? Presenters proposed some solutions. One spoke of the need to market correctly. A recent study found that despite problems with megabank perception, 73% of those asked said a recognizable brand was important in choosing a financial institution. A regional bank poll of millennials found that not one could name a community institution in their area. These institutions find it hard to inform consumers about the value they provide, and often lacking the resources and experience to do so. A few small institutions spoke about shifting towards serving small businesses. Despite only having 20% of deposits, community banks are responsible for 60% of small business loans. Focusing on small businesses could be a way for small institutions to remain viable, without having to drastically alter their businesses.
  • eCommerce and Merchant Funded Rewards (MFR) through mobile banking to help consumers save:  During one of the sessions, a banker made a good point: consumers don´t need help spending, they need help saving.  The comment reflected a number of discussions about the role financial institutions can play in helping consumers save money, but was echoed across a handful of presentations on digital commerce. US Bank discussed Peri, its eCommerce app developed in cooperation with Monitise, while other presenters spoke about card-linked and MFR propositions.  These initiatives are definitely innovative, but is conflating the ideas of saving and driving commerce shaping the conversation around a fundamentally misaligned approach?  First, will a bank´s eCommerce app be able to compete with the likes of Amazon and Google?  Banks often do not have the customers, data, or pricing competitiveness to match big online retailers, and they seldom win on brand favourability. Second, even when these initiatives are successful, do they really help people save?  For many, the data isn´t targeted enough for banks to offer deals on purchases a consumer was going to make anyway.  For example, based on one bank´s demo, a customer would go to make a purchase at a retailer and the bank app would push out a geo-located card-linked offer for a nearby restaurant. This requires additional spending.  Without the right data, these programs are mostly playing off impulse purchasing, not saving.
Do these themes resonate with your experience? Feel free to leave comments about how your institution is tackling these challenges.

Upcoming Celent discussion at the American Banker Retail Banking conference

Upcoming Celent discussion at the American Banker Retail Banking conference
Next week I will be moderating a panel discussion at American Banker´s Retail Banking Conference in Austin about the competitive pressures of community institutions. It’s an important topic that Celent discussed in a report published last year: And Then There Were None: The Disappearance of Community Banks. The figures below outline the decline of banks in the US, going from 11,462 at the end of 1992 to 5,809 in 2014. Picture1Picture2 The challenge for many of these institutions has been organically growing their deposits despite shifting consumer demands and new alternatives to traditional financial services (e.g. prepaid services, P2P lending, etc.). The business model of banking is changing, and viability is increasingly dependent on tech investment. Consumers now expect a certain basic level of technological capabilities driven by their experiences across other industries. To accommodate, financial institutions are pressed to implement products such as customer analytics, mobile, CRM, etc. Yet these challenges come at a time of decreased interest margins and broadly defined regulations that require community banks to increase compliance spending and capital reserves at pace with large players. Online banking platforms are often basic, many have no mobile apps, and business platforms like treasury management are severely outdated. Even labor saving technology (e.g. video teller) often does not lead to short term cost savings, and new services typically run in tandem with other operations, adding operating expense to already thin margins. These conditions have made it difficult for community institutions to compete and have challenged the viability of many. Community institutions, however, operate in an extremely diverse landscape of micro-localities with varying competitive dynamics and local needs. This often carries with it a number of advantages over large multinationals with few local connections and an often impersonal understanding of the community. Small banks won´t be able to go head-to-head with large institutions on tech spending, but identifying the organization´s value proposition will enable a tighter strategic direction for meeting consumer demands while delivering a competitive community experience. In Celent´s upcoming panel, we´ll be exploring what community institutions are doing and some of the lessons that others can learn.

Industry Consolidation in Financial Services

Industry Consolidation in Financial Services
Celent recently released two reports looking at the state of banks and credit unions: And Then There Were None: The Disappearance of Community Banks and Catch CU: The Ongoing Evolution of the Credit Union Market. The analysis within each report shows a clear trend towards industry consolidation. The number of commercial banks in the US is declining rapidly, from 11,462 at the end of 1992 to 5,809 in 2014, while credit unions in the US went from 10,316 in 2000 to 6,491 in 2014. As the industry consolidates, the majority of institutions disappearing are disproportionately coming from the lower tiers. For banks, the point at which institutions see rapid decline is around $300 million in assets and below. For credit unions, that number is around $50 million and below. The figures below provide a broad summary view of what´s happening in each industry. For every asset tier, the CAGR for inflation-adjusted deposit and institution growth is charted along with the difference between the two. Asset tiers with a negative difference between the growth of deposits and institutions are declining on a per institution basis. This is an effective summary when assessing the health of a tier. Picture 1 Picture 2 Banking is obviously becoming more complex, and competing is no longer a matter of opening a branch, setting up an ATM, and accepting deposits. The past 10 years have seen the rise of internet banking, bill pay, know your customer (KYC), Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) compliance, mobile banking, consumer and business remote deposit capture, branch capture, and much more. Most small institutions don´t have the resources to stay on top of it all, and the requirements to “keep the lights on” leave pockets dry for modern customer facing applications and services that have become crucial to growing deposits. Is the consolidation good for the industry? What role will small banks and credit unions play in the future? Is further consolidation inexorable, or will the industry soon meet a healthy equilibrium? Feel free to comment.