Brett King

Transparency, Broken Risk and the Loss of Physicality

In Bank Innovation, Customer Experience, Economics, Engagement Banking, Future of Banking, Strategy on October 19, 2011 at 12:33

Recently I’ve been discussing with bankers, economists, strategists and futurists the future of the banking industry. At a time when we’ve got the likes of the “Occupation of Wall St” (#OWS) through to discussions in various camps about the very survival of banking as we know it, a question you might ask is how did we get here so quickly? 10 years ago, discussing the collapse of the modern day banking system and widespread loss of trust in bankers, might have been ludicrous, unthinkable – but today it is happening.

The New Normal is inherently unstable
As bankers most of us would have preferred if things had just stayed the same as they were, or at least returned to the ‘good ole days’ once the dust from the global financial crisis had settled. Instead we’re faced with talk of a “New Normal”, of increased volatility and of sustained uncertainty. There’s now a growing concern that a Greek default will trigger a crisis in the Eurozone, which in turn will bring on a new ‘great depression’. It is not lost on the public at large that this is a financial crisis we probably didn’t need to have. It is a financial crisis that was bought on by the ultimate in speculative investment behavior, the creation of financial instruments designed to create wealth and trading momentum from underlying, sub-prime debt that really should never have been readjusted as collateralized ‘AAA’ rated securities. So here we are today with so called blue-chip or developed economies which have higher volatility and risk, than so-called emerging markets. Since when did China and Brazil become better bets than the US as investments?

The perfect storm for a financial system in crisis is not just the failure of the banking system to self-regulate, or the default of sovereign nations in respect to servicing their national debt. The perfect storm is driven by three primary mechanisms that aren’t normally discussed as macro-economic factors, but are critical as part of a discussion around reforming the banking industry. They are:

1. Increased Transparency and Visibility
2. The Reassessment of the role of Risk and Regulation, and
3. The Loss of Physicality

Adjusting to a Transparent World
The response to bailouts, banker bonuses, new rates and fees structures, and to the financial crisis itself is indicative of the fact that bankers can no longer just assume that the public at large will trust that banks know what they are doing. How has the industry at large responded to this increased transparency? At first with incredulity, then with a defense of the indefensible, and finally with begrudging acceptance.

There are still many banks today, for example, who not only prohibit the use of social media in the bank workplace, but refuse to engage with end consumers in any really useful way through social media. In a world where dictators can be overturned, where public opinion is expressed in mentions, tweets, likes and fan pages, and where consumers can be as loud and effective as your most expensive marketing initiative – how do you adjust?

Understanding that you now answer to the public and you need to defend your positions with openness, logic and fair value, Brian Moynihan’s defense of BofA’s recent fee hikes shows a lack of nuance in this new, socially transparent world:

“I have an inherent duty as a CEO of a publicly owned company to get a return for my shareholders,” Moynihan said in an interview with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow at the Washington Ideas Forum… Customers and shareholders will “understand what we’re doing,”… “Understand we have a right to make a profit.”
Brian Moynihan, CEO – Bank of America

As a bank you do have the right to make a profit, but customers now understand more acutely than at anytime in history that they have rights too. It’s not that customers don’t want to pay for banking, it’s not that they are unreasonable; it’s that they now demand value and they are assessing that value, and exposing your shortcomings when you don’t meet up to their expectations.

In this way, what we need to do as an industry is better understand our value in the system. Right now we have trouble articulating that because we’ve become too historically focused on ‘banking’ as the system, rather than banking as a financial service to those that have the right to pay and choose. The balance has tipped in favor of the voice of the consumer.

There are bigger Risks than Risk
I was in a conference in Oslo earlier in the year and talking about the need for retail banks to adjust to serving their customers better, no matter when or where they needed banking, and a banker in the audience defended the need for a strict, traditional approach to physical KYC (Know-Your-Customer) because banking is first and foremost about ‘managing risk’ – at least that’s what he said. With our almost myopic focus as an industry on risk management and risk mitigation, we’ve perhaps missed the biggest risk of all – the fact that we are putting so much of the risk workload back onto the customer and the front-end of the business, that we’re starting to become a problem.

I’ve talked at length previously about the huge amount of time the front-end staff and customers spend in an attempt to reduce the potential legal or regulatory enforcement risk. When I, as a customer, am spending 50%, 60% or perhaps 90% longer doing a simple task like opening an account or applying for a loan than I did 20 years ago – do I see that as progress, or do I feel it a burden? Do I see such moves as a reduction of risk, or do I merely see it as an increase in complexity? In such a risk adverse environment, the bank is no longer serving the customer, the customer is serving the bank – and the customer is increasingly getting intimidated by the thought of having to navigate this complexity before he can get to the actual product or service he wants.

If you look at the biggest consumer shifts in the last 15-20 years, the biggest shifts have been driven around change in process or distribution that makes life simpler and easier. Here’s a few examples:

  • Mobile phone versus Landline
  • Google Search versus Catalog
  • Online Trading/Travel versus Broker/Agent
  • Multi-touch screen versus stylus/keyboard
  • iPad/Tablet versus PC
  • Kindle/eBook versus Paperbook
  • Online News/Streams versus Newspaper
  • Email/SMS/Facebook versus Mail/Telephone

The threat here is complexity, and invariably as we try to manage risk, we’re actually making customer facing processes more complex. This is bucking the trend of almost every other core customer interaction we’re seeing today.

The Loss of Physicality
I recently posted on American Banker | BankThink about my views around branches, checks/cheques and all things physical in banking. I suggest you read that separately, but a key consideration or thought in that article is as follows:

“The bank is no longer a place you go. Banking has becoming something you do. It is now contextual, and measured in terms of utility – how easily someone can use bank products or services to accomplish a task like shopping, traveling or buying a car or a home. The more a bank insists on physicality, the more it risks becoming irrelevant to customers who no longer cherish the traditional processes and artifacts. In just four years, that will be the vast majority of your customer base – not a marginal demographic, as some would prefer to believe.”

Conclusions
In this environment, retail banking is ripe for disruption. Why? Because instead of understanding the shifts around us, we’re digging in – levying fees, increasing complexity, and arguing that customers are just going to have to suck it up. After all, where else are they going to go?

Increasingly customers have a choice. Whether it is pre-paid debit cards, mobile wallets, PayPal, or other challenges to day to day financial interactions, the concept that as a regulated industry we’re protected from having to make the hard decisions and actually reform the way we work, is foolhardy.

We need to start working very differently…

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. In my current role, I am a sales manager within the wholesale group of a banking institution. My ‘dream’: I want to be genuinely easy to do business with!

    For sure, a lot of my work is outward facing but over 50% of my time is focused on internal ‘negotiations’ with compliance, legal and operations. We all want to make profitable and sound transactions and deals, in that sense, we are truly a team. But it can sometimes feel that making this a painless – or even enjoyable – process for the customer is not on everybody’s agenda and it is a shame.

    If this is the case for a division (and I know for a fact that we are not alone in this) that is responsible for serving sophisticated and powerful clients – mostly large institutions and corporations – who can exert great bargaining power, I can only imagine how easy it is to forget that retail clients also have choices! Our major risk is not risk management and regulation, it is our own complexity.

  2. What banks haven’t seen is the systemic flaw in chasing next quarters profits. They believe fundamentally their masters are the shareholders (they are shareholders themselves too). It’s a system that sucks value up to the few, and has a very flawed view of risk.

    Entrepreneurial risk is avoided because good ideas tend to very rarely have a clear business case. Financial risk is taken on all too easily. This is Maths, the money men are familiar with this, and can see the impact on their top and bottom line.

    Bankers do worry a bit about square, and virtual currencies and Durbin… but these conversations are clipped. Bankers will pay lip service to what needs to be done in banking in public. However, like school kids getting a visit from the police, as soon as class is over, the kids go back to being naughty.

    It is an accepted normal in banking, that profitability comes from serving the maximum volume at the lowest cost, the only difference is brand and product rates… Besides, nobody switches bank account because its so difficult.

    Until the likes of Santander and First Direct come along, and offer a switching service.

    It’s a fact that bankers are the worlds best self serving excuse artists, who don’t understand the opportunity not being evil would give them and society because it’s not what got them massive profits last quarter.

    There are green shoots of hope in some of the start ups and even the likes of Citi investing in product but as a consumer I believe bankers need to wake up to the opportunity they are missing. The fundamental flaws in “business as usual” has made the world economy less stable and threatens future profitability.

    One day the bail out money will run out. The way out of this is to focus on service. Living for next quarter is like spending your whole life looking at your feet and wondering why you never saw the Axe murderer running towards you.

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