Brett King

Archive for the ‘Customer Experience’ Category

Can you do banking without a banking license?

In Bank Innovation, Customer Experience, Future of Banking, Retail Banking, Strategy on June 4, 2012 at 08:59

Clearly, to be a deposit taking bank and offer products like Mortgages, loans, savings accounts and so forth, it would be easier to have a bank charter. However, today the lines between banks and non-banks offering financial services is blurring faster than speculative investors dumping shares for Facebook.

There are many types of ‘banks’ or organizations that use the word ‘bank’ to describe their business activities such as Photo Banks, Seed banks, Sperm Bank, DNA bank, Blood Bank. There are also organizations that use the word bank in their name for other reasons like the “Bank Restaurant” in Minneapolis, JoS. A. Bank Clothiers and others. JoS. A. Bank offers a Pre-paid Gift Card program for individuals and corporates that has the name “Bank” in it’s offering, but isn’t regulated by industry. Bank Freedom, from Irvine California, offers a pre-paid Mastercard Debit Card but isn’t regulated as a bank.

Despite some claims to the contrary, it isn’t actually illegal to call yourself a ‘bank’ or have ‘bank’ in a tradename. In some states in the US, you might have difficulty incorporating yourself as a “Bank” if you have bank in the name of your company and you’re intending on offering financial services. But then again CIticorp, JP Morgan Chase, HSBC and others don’t actually have “Bank” in their holding company name. You don’t need the name ‘bank’ in your name to be licensed as a bank, and having the name ‘bank’ doesn’t force you to be a chartered bank either.

Then there are the likes of iTunes, PayPal, Dwolla, Venmo, Walmart, Oyster card in the UK, Octopus in Hong Kong, and the myriad of telecoms companys who offer pre-paid contracts, who regularly take deposits without the requirement of a banking license. In some markets, this has resulted in a subsidiary ‘e-Money’ or basic deposit taking licensing structure, but these organizations do not have the restrictions, regulations or requirements faced by a chartered bank. For more than 7 million Americans, 11 million Chinese and many others, their basic day-to-day method of payment in the retail environment is a pre-paid Debit Card (sometimes called a “general purpose reloadable” card). The pre-paid market is expect to reach an incredible $791 billion in the US alone by 2014.

When a bank account is not offered by a bank
What’s the difference between a prep-paid debit card account in the US and a demand deposit account from a chartered bank? Both can be used online commerce and at the point-of-sale. Both can be used to withdraw cash from an ATM machine. Both allow cash deposits to be made at physical locations. Both can receive direct deposit payments like a salary payment from your employer. Often pre-paid debit cards can offer interest on savings also. So what can’t a pre-paid card do that a typical deposit account can?

Most prepaid cards don’t allow you to write cheques (or checks), deposit more than a few times a month, keep a balance in excess of $10,000, make transfers/payments that exceed $5,000 per day, and/or going into the red with an overdraft facility.

For many customers who use pre-paid debit cards, these are not restrictions at all – and thus the card represents an alternative to a typical bank account from a chartered bank. Behind the program managers of pre-paid cards there is an issuing bank with an FDIC license in the US, but the program manager is not regulated as a bank. That nuance may be lost on some, but for the customer they are generally completely unaware that there is a “bank” behind the card – they simply see the program manager as the ‘bank’ or the card as a ‘bank account’ based on the utility provided by the product.

Bank Freedom offers an alternative to a checking account, although not technically a bank

Today PayPal, Dwolla, Venmo and others offer the ability to transfer money via P2P technologies that mimic the likes of the ACH and Giro networks. I think it is fair to say that no one considers these organizations to be ‘banks’, but until recently (certainly prior to the Internet) we would have considered the activity of these businesses to be “banking”. Now you could argue that PayPal is more like a WesternUnion than a Bank of America, but the point is that these organizations are increasingly attacking traditional ‘bank’ functionality.

Then you have P2P lenders who in the US have offered more than $1 billion in loans since 2006, despite not having banking licenses.

If only ‘banks’ did banking…
Today banking is not restricted to those with banking licenses. Banks no longer have an exclusive on the business of banking. If they did PayPal, iTunes, Dwolla, and the myriad of prepaid debit cards would be illegal. They are not. If they did, you couldn’t deposit money on your prepaid telephone contract without visiting a bank branch. If they did, you couldn’t send money to a friend without a bank BSB, sort code or routing number.

The assumption that only banks can do banking is a dangerous one, why? Because often, like any other industry suffering from competitive disruption, the only thing that forces positive change on an industry mired in regulation and tradition are competitive forces. Sometimes those forces result in the complete disruption of the industry (see Telegraph versus Telecoms), other times it results in fragmentation.

Are there banks who don’t have banking licenses? There are hundreds of organizations today that are doing banking activities that don’t have bank charters or licenses. Can they call themselves a bank? Some do, but they obviously don’t need to in order to offer banking-type products and services, and those that do generally have a regulated bank charter behind them through a partner. Like Post Offices around the world that offer a place to pay your bills or deposit money on behalf of a regulated bank, this activity is not illegal, nor does it require regulation. Why? Because the partner bank who has a charter is responsible for ensuring their agents and partners stay compliant within the legal framework

The activity of ‘banking’ is going to become a lot less defined, owned or identifiable in the next few years as many non-banks start infringing on the traditional activities of banking, and as banks are forced to collaborate more and more to get their products and services into the hands of consumers. While we still have banks doing the heavy lifting, much of the basic day-to-day activities of banking will become purely functional and will be measured by consumers on the utility of that functionality, rather than the underlying regulation of the company or institution that provides it. Thus, customers won’t really care if a bank is at the front end or what it’s called; just that they can get access to banking safely, conveniently and securely.

What will regulators have to say about this? Well that’s an entirely different matter.

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How to reduce your branch footprint in an orderly manner

In Branch Strategy, Customer Experience, Future of Banking on May 4, 2012 at 00:50

I guess with a title like Branch Today, Gone Tomorrow it’s no surprise that a lot of people think I’m anti-branch. I’m not anti-branch, I just don’t drink from the branch kool-aid fountain that goes something like “if only we could find the right formula we’d reverse this trend of not visiting the branch and customers would flock back to our physical space”. I think most Bankers and Credit Union executives, instinctively feel there is a change in the importance of the ‘channel mix’, but as often as I hear questions about how quickly this is going to occur, I hear executives talking about how customers used to behave. “But don’t customers need to come into a branch for lending products; to talk to a loan officer about more complex products?” This is a legitimate question in the old world, but it’s light on today in respect to the facts, which don’t actually indicate the branch is central to lending.

The fastest growing lending institutions in the country right now aren’t the big banks, community banks or even credit unions. The fastest growing lenders certainly aren’t mortgage brokers. The fastest growing lenders in the United States at the moment are actually peer-to-peer social networks, namely Prosper and Lending Club (thanks to @netbanker for this gem). In terms of percentage growth of loan book, you’ll be hard pressed to find any FDIC insured institution doing better. In fact, I’d wager that a 375% increase in Loan Originations in the last 18 months, coming off the back of the Great Recession as the global financial crisis is being called, is one of the most impressive new FI growth stories you’re likely to hear globally.

Lending Club growth thru April 2012

Last time I checked, neither Prosper, Lending Club or Zopa had any branches…

Why customers think they want branches
Now my point here is not to argue that P2P Lending is better, it is to argue that the perception that to sell a complex product you require bricks and mortar, just isn’t supported by the data. To be fair, however, there is actually some valid behavioral data at work here that comes out through qualitative research supporting the role of the branch for legacy customers. That is, that there are still plenty of customers who say they want a branch – that doesn’t mean they will visit it, but they like to have them around. In Branch Today I examined the data and reasons for the recent rapid decline in branch activity, both from a visitation and transactional measure, but the question is why some customers still say they want to visit a branch?

There’s really only three things that drive a customer to a physical branch:

  1. I need a physical distribution point to deposit cash (primarily for small retail businesses)
  2. I need advice or a recommendation for a product or need I don’t fully understand, or
  3. I have a humdinger of a problem that I couldn’t solve offline, so I’m coming into the branch to get relief.

Branch bankers hang on to #2 for dear life, hoping that this will somehow keep customers coming back, helping justify those massive budget line items dedicated to real-estate; sadly it just isn’t happening that way. And yet, when you ask customers what determines their choice of ‘bank’ relationship, often the convenience or availability of a local branch, remains a stalwart factor.

Since the mid-80s, branches the world over have generally been transformed into streamlined cost/profit centres. The industry has attempted to reduce cost and improve efficiency to optimum levels and in this light customers have been forced to trade off between either big bank efficiency and utility, or the personalized service of a high street, community banker interaction without all the bells and whistles.

Despite this drive for efficiency there’s still a lingering psychology of safety in physical banking place and density, which stem from long memories over epidemic ‘runs’ on the banking system during the great depression. So what remains are two core psychologies that play to the need for physical places which reinforces the safety of a “bank” where they’re going to entrust their cash :

  1. I recognize that I visit the branch less and less for banking, but I’d like it to be there just in case I need to speak to someone face-to-face about my money or I have a problem, OR
  2. The more branches you have, the less likely you’ll go under in the case of a ‘run’ on the bank

But who is going to pay for the space?
The big problem with this, of course, is that as customers more commonly neglect the branch in favor of internet, mobile, ATM and the phone (call centre), the economics of the real estate and branch staff is no longer sustainable. So how do you have a space that still ensures the confidence of those customers that require the psychological ‘crutch’ of a space they might need to go to, but who aren’t willing to pay more for the privilege and won’t change their day-to-day banking habits back to the branch because the web and mobile are just so much more convenient?

The answer is two-fold.

The Flagship Store
If you need to instill confidence in the brand, then the best way is to build a new, large square footage space that screams new-age, tech-savvy branch banking with coffee and comfy chairs! Think the opulent Airline loyalty lounges that started to emerge in the late 80s. Think Virgin Megastores or the “Gold Class” cinemas of the 90s. Think Apple Stores today.

Brand spaces that inspire confidence. Enable a connection with your customers. Spaces that tell customers you’re all about service, advice and solving their banking problems – not about tellers and transactions.

Jeff Pilcher at FinancialBrand.com regularly covers the best of these new Flagship and Concept Stores, so head over there if you want some examples to work from. However, this is not exactly going to lower your bottom line around distribution. If anything it’s going the other way. Knowing that you’re going to have to downsize, the average FI will only be able to support a handful of Flagship stores in key, high-traffic, high-visibility location. So how do you equalize the ledger?

The Satellite Service Space
Supporting the Flagship stores at your secondary locations (i.e. anywhere that is not your best, most densely populated geography) will be very simple, cash-less brand presence stations. These will be small spaces in prime traffic locations like shopping malls, without any teller space, but the space to service the pants of a customer who needs that advice or help with a sticky problem. If they want cash, there will be an ATM. If they want to deposit notes or checks, the ATM can do that too, or you might incorporate a dedicated check deposit machine in the space too. In fact, the bank representative in the space could just use his iPad for that – although it’s better to move them to the ATM and go no transaction in the service space.

A good example of this sort of space would be the likes of smaller UPS franchise stores, or the BankShops of the TESCO variety in the UK. Small footprint of no more than 300-500 square feet, but enough space to represent your brand and tell customers they can still come and see if you if they need a solution.

UPS Franchise Stores

Spaces don't need to be big to provide service

The ratio of flagship store to satellite spaces will probably be at least 10 to 1, if not greater. You don’t need every branch to be “big” in the new reality; to give your customers a level of comfort that you are safe enough to put your money with them. In fact, as the likes of UBank, ING Direct and Fidor show, for some customers you don’t need any spaces. But for those that still want a space ‘just-in-case’ then this strategy is a great transitional approach.

One day soon, within the next decade, we’ll need less than half the branches we have today. But as we make that transition, the need for a space to be an available component of service and support remains a key component of what we call financial SERVICES. It just doesn’t have to cost us the earth.

Lessons from Apple – Great Branches don’t bring customers back

In Branch Strategy, Customer Experience, Retail Banking on March 8, 2012 at 13:22

The new iPad just launched to the usual hype, anticipation and fanfare. Every time a new Apple product comes off the assembly line, it gets put under the biggest magnifying glass imaginable as crowds of onlookers parse the announcement with scholarly intensity, hoping to piece together a picture of what might emerge and what the implications for the world at large will be.

Apple calls their latest release “Resolutionary” in reference to the retina display capabilities of the screen embedded in the new iPad. The New iPad’s “Retina Display” has 1,000,000 More Pixels than a HDTV, and its resolution is so dense that it is beyond the capability of the human eye to recognize individual pixels. We’re reaching the theoretical limit of display resolution – higher resolutions won’t matter if we can’t see the detail.

But that’s not the interesting observance. Apple is the most valued company in the world right now, and it is in that position because it inherently understands consumer behavior in respect to product, brand interaction and purchasing behavior. There’s a lot of banks that would like to think if we turn all our branches into “Apple Stores” that customers will flock back to the branch. But that’s not what the Apple story is telling us.

Will “Apple Store” Branches Save us?

On the eve of 16th December, 2010, Citi opened a glamorous, high-tech branch in New York City’s Union Square. The 9,700 square foot branch was designed by Eight, Inc., the same firm of architects responsible for the unique design of the iconic Apple store. Although Citi actually launched their store concept in Singapore first, the New York store was almost positioned as the saviour of branch banking itself and the “Apple store” moniker was applied repeatedly to indicate it’s revolutionary nature. If you read some of the reports and commentary on Citi’s branch it was clear that many bankers believed that if you just got the branch format right, made the space more attractive for customers, that they’d storm the branch and all would be made right with the world.

But that’s not what happened. While Citi’s “store” was certainly innovative, there’s no evidence that there’s been any net gain in retail activity because of the evolution in branch design. However, some brands like Umpqua, Jyske (Danish) and Che Banca (Italy), playing on the same premise, have claimed some increased branch activity as a result of their evolved spaces. So what is the reality? Are innovative new branch layouts going to change behavior when it comes to banking?

You only need to look at Apple to answer that question.

Store First?

For many Apple newbies their first interaction with Apple products is through an Apple Store or a Apple retailer, but not always. The new iPad that was released yesterday is not yet available in-store, but already there are tens of thousands stacking up to buy the product through their online store. Pre-order activity for the iPad has already had an effect on the online store for Apple.

Checks by Computerworld through 4:15 p.m. ET from multiple locations in the U.S. found the Apple e-store either still sporting a “We’ll be back soon” banner, or if it did load in a browser, becoming unresponsive during the purchase process – Computerworld Article March 7th, 2012


What we know of Apple is that they don’t insist on you coming into a store to make a purchase, or start your relationship with their brand dependent on some process that requires a face-to-face registration for their first product. For the release of the iPad Apple had to actually restrict online customers to buying only two of the devices, due to overwhelming demand through the online store.

The argument often heard by bankers is that regulation forces physical face-to-face compliance processes on us, but even regulations don’t force chartered banks to insist on a face-to-face interaction to onboard or identify a customer. Like Apple, today’s behavior of consumers means we should be ambivalent to the channel a customer chooses.

For the sake of the argument though, let’s assume that the first interaction is in an Apple Store or in-branch. How do customers behave in their interactions with the Apple brand once they have purchased their first iPad, iPhone or Mac computer? Does the most excellent ‘store’ experience drive them back to the store repeatedly over time? No

Great "Stores" don't bring customers back

Let’s look at the revenue story.

Show me the Money!

The average Apple Store makes approximately $34m in revenue annually, with $8.3m in operating income. However, if you examine the 10-K filing for Apple, revenue is split almost 50/50 between online (& device-based store) sales and their retail presence.

Since the Apple “App store” opened on July 10, 2008 Apple has booked close to $6 billion in revenue just on “Apps”. CyberMonday is used as the benchmark for US online and mobile retail sales, and figures show that iPhones and iPads account for a staggering 7-10% of all US online sales activity on those days.

What we know from all the data is this. Customer’s might start their relationship with Apple in-store, but they don’t have to, increasingly they’re choosing not to. Even if they do, 70-75% of the lifetime revenue from the average customer comes from sales online and that is increasing over time.

Customers simple won’t ever go back to the store to buy an App after they’ve bought an iPad or iPhone in-store.

There’s a lot about banking that are like Apps in our financial relationship. Credit limit upgrades, wire transfers, bill payment, CDs/Fixed Deposits, etc. In fact, once we’ve started our relationship with a bank as a customer, pretty much every product we engage with could be purchased just like an App through a better ‘store’ interface online.

Banks don’t sell well online because unlike Apple, we think that the primary store customers want to shop at is our ‘branch’ and when they come to internet banking, we often don’t even integrate sales into that ‘transactional’ platform. But the behavior of Apple customers shows that even with the best benchmark retail presence in the world, customers don’t come back time and time again to your store or even chose the store first. Once they are connected with your brand, they buy your product and utility wherever is most convenient, and that isn’t at the store or branch.

The big question is, how many branches can you afford to support if customers only visit them the first time out and do the rest online?

Mobile Banking versus the Mobile Wallet?

In Customer Experience, Mobile Banking, Mobile Payments, Retail Banking on February 23, 2012 at 06:16

With recent news that Barclays Pin-git (or is it Ping-it) has had 120,000 downloads in 5 days, that Square has 1m merchants on their payments platform (1/8th of all US card merchants/retailers) and Starbucks is doing 25% of it’s North American payments via a cardless App – it seems like Mobile Payments are taking off like the H1N1 virus. The interesting thing is that many bankers are looking at all of this activity as if it has little meaning or impact on their business at this point in time. I think part of that may be that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mobile can be utilized in the banking and payments space.

120,00 downloads in 5-day for Barclay’s PingIt

When showing glimpses of Movenbank’s Mobile App I often get asked by bankers whether it is a mobile wallet or a mobile banking app? It’s as if the two worlds of cards/payments and banking are destined never to meet when it comes to a conventional view of the banking world. In banks today, we even institutionalize this by having cards as a separate division or business unit, separate from the retail banking function. The only time they ever seem to meet is in the form of a debit card or within internet banking. But the cards business, while being a strong revenue earner generally for banks because of credit card fees and interest margin, philosophically is not really considered banking per se by most die-hard bankers.

In fact, I’ve known banks where if you walk into a branch, the teller needs to call the call centre to find out any information about your credit card, even your balance. With many of the banks I work with, in-branch or in the contact centre, CSRs/Tellers need to navigate between separate screens to see your credit card details and activity versus transactions in your checking account.

For a long time these two worlds have remained largely operationally separate. The popularization of the smartphone is destined to destroy that division of labor.

The world of Two Channels

Today retail banking is emerging out of the hyperconnected, digital transformation age as not much more than a collection of channels and utility. In the past, you had branches which were THE distribution channel, but that has rapidly fragmented. You also had cheques and cards which provided you a mechanism, or utility, for moving your money around. Historically banking was really about two primary things – storing or protecting assets, and helping in the conduct of trade and commerce. Rudimentary cheques (or bills of exchange) were around almost 800 years before physical currency, and prior to bank branches ‘assets’ were often stored in temples and palaces. At the core of banking was assets that you either kept safe, or moved around to effect trade. In many ways, that’s still at the core of the bank value proposition.

As some of you may have noted in BANK 2.0 I call out bankers for calling digital channels ‘alternative’ or e-channels because of the psychology internally within banks that tends to put these channels in a subordinate role to the branch. Recently I was approached by a recruiter looking at placing a global head of ‘E-Channels’ into one of the big global brands and asking me for my input into how could take on the role. I told the recruiter that any digital guy worth his salt would immediately stay away from this major banking brand, largely because the decision to classify the role as a head of ‘E-Channels’ already told me everything I needed to know about the brand – that they still thought of digital as ‘E’ rather than mainstream, everyday banking. That told me that anyone taking on this role would still be faced with massive inertia around branch networks and would be fighting everyday to justify budget, investment and mindshare in the total channel experience – and that is why I said this brand was not ready.

With Internet Banking being the primary day-to-day channel for banking in the developed world, and branch frequency/visitation off 90% from it’s peak in the mid-90s, the branch is really ‘alternative’ banking today, rather than pride of place at the core of banking behavior. So the pendulum has shifted.

So what are the two emerging channels?

If you characterize banking today from a day-to-day perspective, you’ve really got two core classes of activity. Payments AND day-to-day banking based on your assets, including applying for new products, wealth management engagement, etc. If you look at either customer engagement, transactional activity or the role of an advisor in respect to your assets, you’d be hard pressed to identify activities that aren’t done through either Payments Channels or Delivery Channels (credit to Terence Roche @Gonzobanker for this insight).

Given the way retail banking is structured today, this means that many banks look at a mobile wallet as an instantiation of payments – the ultimate, downloadable payment channel ‘function’ or utility.  However, they look at Mobile Banking as a mobile-enabled version of the Internet banking platform, which is ultimately just channel migration of transaction activity from branch to digital – hence, a delivery utility. Some progressive banks are even looking at onboarding customers entirely electronically through the web, mobile, ATM or call centre – without a signature. More delivery channels. The branch is the premier delivery channel still, and more so as transactions shift out of the branch, and it becomes about high touch sales and service (delivery of revenue and service).

When two worlds collide

The problem philosophically for retail banks is that the mobile device is collapsing this view of the world. Payments and traditional day-to-day banking utility will be packaged into one portable, handheld ‘channel’. It doesn’t make sense to have one app for ‘banking’ and one app for ‘payments’ or the wallet, you must have the utility of both the bank and payments capability in one.

That presents an organizational shift because it merges the two disparate parts of retail banking, but it also presents massive opportunities.

What is possible is that my day-to-day connection with my money is far tighter than it is in a traditional banking relationship. Whether it is simply the fact that I can see my balance before and after I make a payment (not possible with plastic, cheques or cash) or whether you can start to advise me day-to-day on how to utilize my money better – the opportunity for mobile is not the wallet, and not mobile banking. It is re-imagining the utility of banking from a mobile perspective.