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Danielle Sheerin

Banks: Engage or Die!

Yes, this is a blog about banking and finance innovation, but bear with me here.  Progress in this sector is actually pretty interesting.  Aside from affecting us all in our day-to-day lives as we try to manage our finances in pretty grim times, it also has  resonance for the way that other sectors will see their business models evolve over the next decade.

The background

The banking and financial service sector is currently undergoing a period of reinvention (whether they realise it or not).  There are several reasons for this:

Firstly, the rise of social media has provided customers with a means by which they can voice their needs and also connect with their fellow customers, for example, online communities such as The Consumer Action Group and MoneySavingExpert are now very powerful and have a strong influence on consumer behaviour.  This peer-to-peer communication means that the influence banks have over their customers is now reduced.

Secondly, banks are under pressure to provide additional value to their customers in response to the damage done to their reputation by the banking crisis.

According to recent (March 2011) research from Ernst & Young, the UK has seen the largest drop in consumer trust [in banks] (63%) within Europe and more than three quarters of UK respondents (80%) identified the banks’ bonus culture as the source of their dissatisfaction.

There is clearly a job to do here to improve public perception of banks.

Additionally, there is a range of new disruptive technologies being introduced in financial services.  These include; alternative payment provision from big guns such as Paypal, Google and Facebook, the development of mobile payments services and the rise of micro-finance initiatives and peer-to-peer lending operations (social networks where customers lend and borrow from each other).

These indicate that a paradigm shift in service provision is occurring and traditional banking models will need to change radically to reflect these developments.

How are traditional banks meant to respond to these threats and what should they focus on?

The majority of industry commentary I am tracking seems to suggest that improving customer experience is key.

For example, at the recent Finovate Europe conference (where 35 start-up companies have 7 minutes each to demo their products to a panel of industry influencers), personal finance management (also known as PFM systems – that is, applications and websites that enable consumers to track and manage their money) dominated, with 8 different companies presenting variations on this theme.


Well, PFM systems (especially those that aggregate a customer’s financial data) are a key means by which banks can use the information that they hold to offer real value back to the customer, by providing them with offers, advice and services that are relevant to their actual spending behaviour.

In fact, a recent collaboration between SapientNitro (business and IT consultancy), Geezeo (PFM provider) and Brett King (key financial blogger and author of BANK 2.0) takes this a step further and suggests that the entire banking infrastructure needs to be remodelled.

They say that banks need to close “the “client experience gap” between where customers’ needs and expectations are and where technology and multi-channel experiences are headed versus your average retail banking client engagement model”

They call their initiative ‘Engagement Banking’ and say that the new customer experience is headed “Towards rich and personal online experiences, a mobile wallet, social media, “branches of the future,” touch-screen ATMs, personalized digital marketing, and more.”

(reading between the lines, I’d say expect to see Sapient, Geezeo and Brett King launch a white label PFM system very soon…)

Now, this is pretty interesting, as this suggest that banking innovation actually boils down to improving customer service.

In fact, at the SXSW session ‘Banks: Innovate or Die!’ session last month, blogger Oscar LLarena described how “we never got to that conversation. It quickly detoured to be about customer service and how good or bad corporations and/or start-ups do in that space”.

Oscar cites that at one point, the ex-VP of Citibank declared that the number one question directed at their call centre is ‘What’s my balance?’.

Given this disconnect, it is not hard to see why this drive towards innovation hinges on changing banks’ relationships with their customers.

What this means

Innovation in banking is not about technology. It is about the application of technology.

Steve, our head of Applied Technology, has a diagram that explains this beautifully.

Technology is wonderful and exciting but it is only when we apply to real world needs that we offer real goodness.

When people talk about banking innovation, they are talking about:

  • Technology solutions to improve customer service
  • Data solutions to improve customer service
  • Social Media solutions to improve customer service

Being able to speak to your bank on social media is great, PFM solutions are great, Mobile banking is going to be amazing but only if they are part of a wider initiative within the bank to improve the customer’s experience holistically.

Flip it like this and the actual technology looks pretty easy.  Making the customer the heart of your business is a damn sight harder.

This is why start-ups have the innovative edge.  Many are customer-centric and have social built into their business model.

Witness BankSimple, a new US bank due to launch this year.  BankSimple claims that it will be “a worry-free alternative to traditional personal banking” with, “no surprise fees plus the customer service you deserve”.  Their vision?  “Personal Banking from a company that respects you”.

It is much harder for large established banking institutions to offer this type of service.  Their legacy processes and enterprise systems are simply not currently set up to support this model of engagement.

Harder, but not impossible.  What banks must have is a desire to change and move towards a social ethos.  That is, to set-up the means to listen to their customers, to understand these needs and then to actually act on this understanding to develop their business strategy and products and services accordingly.

With this social ethos in place, legacy systems will, by necessity, change and develop over time in accordance with their customers’ needs.

Then they will be able to say that they have actually innovated and my guess is that their market share will reflect this!

This is why banking innovation is so important for other sectors – its themes reflect a challenge that is universal to all businesses, namely, how do you make your business truly customer-centric.

(Image courtesy of midnightglory –

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  1. Hi Danielle,

    Great stuff – grateful that someone cares about improving the banking sector’s UX.

    Personal bugbears FWIW:

    - lack of real-time connectivity as is possible in the US through services like Mint
    - STILL a lack of downloadable/exportable/connectable statement data in meaningful formats – e.g. Coop, TESCO credit cards only provide PDF downloads :S PDF!!!!
    - Many banks still not providing acceptable mobile banking access
    - How about offering a service whereby merchants can submit receipt/purchase data along with the transaction details? This would make physical receipts obsolete and allow for far more accurate and deep reconciliation and analysis

    Overall, banks need to help their customers to manage their finances – maybe some kind of joint contribution to open-source financial management software/services? If the UK’s individual and businesses can’t get their finances and debts in order, how will the country sort it’s finances out?

    Hope that’s not OT


    Posted 6th April 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  2. All great points Dave – the PDF thing in particular drives me nuts!

    Finance management is an obvious place for banks to add value but they are only really going to take off if they aggregate all of a customer’s financial activity. One I’m intrigued by at the moment is Meniga – its now used by 13% of the Icelandic population apparently. What differentiates it is the fact that it aggregates data but also that it builds a community around your data, so you can compare your activity with others. This seems to be the closest we have come in the UK to a Mint type service.

    Posted 8th April 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink