Hint: It's not all about technology

Sometimes change is driven by a fundamental shift in the industry (think ATMs, internet banking, or today's pairing of cloud storage and mobile devices). Other times it is born from necessity, as banks fight to stay profitable in a persistent low-rate, high-regulation environment. The one certainty is change itself. The challenge for banks is to transform in a way that fits their identity rather than jump to extremes - so pump the brakes on buying that fintech startup. The best way to innovate without losing your identity is to foster a culture of innovation grounded in the bank's strategic goals, both with regard to internal processes and customer-facing technology.

Hone Internal Processes

Innovation, to have the greatest positive impact, must permeate the institution. That requires support from the top: the board of directors and CEO. "It starts with the CEO and the board including innovation discussions in their strategic planning," said David Peterson, CSO and Founder of i7Strategies. "Then, they can form a cross-functional group in the bank to work on specific innovative ideas." That cross-functional group should involve representatives from all areas of the bank. "Innovation, like serving customers, is really the job of all areas of the bank," explained Bob Giltner, Chairman, RCGILTNER Services, Inc. "Some banks establish committees or define a specific person to spearhead the effort as a way to build buy-in for the organization across functions." It's also a good strategy to look outside the bank for ideas. Jack Vonder Heide, president of Technology Briefing Centers, Inc. recommends designating a high-level bank employee as the primary researcher, and when they find an article about a bank in another state doing something innovative, to call that bank up. "They're happy to share that information as long as you're not a direct competitor," he pointed out. 

Whether an individual or a team is in charge of innovation at the institution, the first step is evaluating and updating the bank's processes. "Innovation should be directed to both customer-facing and internal operations," Peterson explained. This kind of procedural innovation involves identifying processes and procedures that occur simply because they've always occurred and streamlining them as much as possible. Giltner recommends constructing a process map for each of the bank's service processes for products and deliver channels. That typically involves placing the delivery of the product on one end of a whiteboard and the need for the product on the other end, and then filling in all of the execution steps in the middle. For example, on one side you have a customer using their checking account, and on the other a customer requesting information about the types of checking accounts the bank offers. "Innovation looks at the entire process and asks where improvements can happen," Giltner said. "Look for areas of greatest friction." Procedural innovation should be an enterprise-wide effort, too. "Banks should start encouraging innovation internally," Peterson advised. "Ask your employees to be innovative, no matter what their role is."

"Innovation does not have to use new technology," Giltner said. "Innovation can be accomplished simply by defining new processes or organizational structure." For example, before the mid-1980s, the idea of "giving away" checking accounts was anathema in banking. Later, free checking became one of the most popular methods banks use to begin relationships with new customers. "That was a huge delivery and customer service innovation that was not technologically driven at all," Giltner explained.

Team Up for Technology

When it comes to the more visible side of innovation (technology), banks have more of an upper hand in the market than many think. "If you step back for a minute and look at the data banks have, they know where and when people spend their money," said David Furnace, CEO of Haberfeld Associates. "That's an incredibly valuable data asset." That data, combined with the pre-established trusted relationship with customers, means banks are in a good position to partner with technology vendors. "The key thing banks need to see is that they have competitive advantages in fintech with a lower cost of funds and established customer relationships in comparison to non-banks," said Giltner. In other words, banks have already developed the client networks and compliance processes that lie beneath the technology and allow the industry to function.

On the other hand, fintech companies and technology vendors have the expertise and products to unlock bank data and leverage it to deepen customer relationships. "This will be an area where banks can partner with technology vendors in the future in order to leverage all of that data and make it actionable," said Furnace. If management determines that adding or updating technology to the bank's offerings is the right strategic direction to move in, partnering is a viable option. "What fintechs do is create 'shiny objects' for consumers, but because they themselves are not banks, they still have to work with banks in order to facilitate transactions," Peterson explained. "So banks can effectively compete by educating their customers on the types of services they offer, and then partnering to offer customers those shiny bits while still keeping their accounts with the bank." 

There are a wide range of benefits for banks that choose to partner with fintech companies rather than go it alone. "The rewards for community banks to focus on this and partner are very substantial," Vonder Heide explained. "You're making it possible for very small or new businesses to do business with your bank in a profitable way." Furnace says lending is also an area of opportunity for these partnerships. "Scale is difficult to achieve for some community banks, and deploying technology can allow for that scale." 

Of course, banks must weigh the risks with the rewards of all potential partnerships, particularly regulatory risk. "You have to put it together in a way that passes regulatory muster," Vonder Heide cautioned. "You also need to have a process for vetting your partners, especially considering most of them are very new." For most Wisconsin banks, however, the benefits of establishing a partnership with a fintech company outweigh the risks because of the sheer volume of resources required to initiate technological innovation solo. "Many community banks don't have the resources to go out and invent new technologies," said Furnace. "What they have is a trusted relationship with their customers." 

Take a Focused Approach

Those established customer relationships are the bedrock of community banking, and true innovation requires an approach focused on that identity. The first step in determining your bank's unique innovation ID is to define your appetite for change. "The first thing that the board of directors needs to do is decide what kind of a bank they want to be in terms of innovation," Vonder Heide advised. That means identifying where on the spectrum of innovation and implementation the bank should be. Do you want to be the first institution in town with every new product or feature? Do you want to be a fast follower, learning from other institutions' mistakes? Or do you want to hold off on change until your customers demand it? "Once you decide what type of bank you want to be, that will drive everything else," said Vonder Heide.

Next, management must determine which potential innovations to implement, because in today's banking environment no one has a lot of room to experiment. "It's tough for community banks in a time of zero interest rates, always increasing regulatory pressure and expenses," said Furnace. "It's important to choose wisely, but there are absolutely innovations that can make community banks more profitable." Winnowing down the list of possibilities should revolve around the bank's stakeholders. "Innovation should be focused on where it can make the biggest impact on the bank's stakeholders: customers, employees and shareholders," Giltner said. "Ideas should be prioritized based on the ratings of value for these stakeholders." 

To maximize value for shareholders, return on the investment must be part of the decision-making process when selecting ideas to implement. "It's trite but it's true: it has to be ROI," said Furnace. "The world of innovation is so broad, at the end of the day it has to contribute to your bottom line." To incorporate the customer perspective, Vonder Heide recommends forming an advisory group consisting of customers to help vet new ideas. "A lot of community banks make the mistake of introducing technology initiatives based on what they hear or observe from other banks," he said. "Your customer base is where you should go for technology initiatives."

Finally, don't assume cost when you're narrowing down your list of ideas to implement. Many impactful changes are also cost-effective. "The biggest fallacy right now is that innovation is a high-cost effort," said Peterson. "Particularly with branch transformation, innovation doesn't have to be expensive." It can be as simple as redecorating a branch office or removing a duplicative step from a back-office process. The most critical component of identity-centric innovation is to remember you probably won't get it 100 percent right on the first try. "You can't just decide you're going to innovate and suddenly be good at it," said Peterson. "In order to have perfected innovation in the coming years, you need to start now."