Historically, for most Americans (and Canadians), the local bank branch has always been where you go not just to deposit and withdraw cash, but to manage your retirement or savings account, apply for a credit card and secure a home, car or small business loan. Today, however, the bank’s ascendancy is being challenged by the rise of alternative institutions and other scrappy players who are trying to tap into areas that were formerly the exclusive domain of banks. This category of emerging fintech companies includes online-only banks, credit unions, retirement planning apps, online lending marketplaces, peer-to-peer payment platforms and others too numerous to mention. And while banks may have the size advantage, nothing in business lasts forever. Do these Davids have a chance to slay Goliath? And what do the banks need to do to protect themselves from upstart challengers?
Studies indicate these new entities are giving banks a run for their money (no pun intended). The top five U.S. banks, for instance, accounted for only 21% of mortgage originations in 2019, compared to half of mortgages in 2011. Filling the gap are non-bank lenders, which not only offer a convenient, digital-first customer experience, but also tend to approve more applicants. Similar trends can be witnessed in small business loans and personal loans.
It’s not a stretch to say the traditional bank is facing an existential crisis. This has been partly brought on by a general lack of competition for so long. For example, at one point, towns had just one bank. This single bank didn’t have to innovate in the face of zero competition. That reality may have led to a decades-long attitude of complacency, which as a result, has led to a failure to innovate. Retail banks need to rethink pretty much everything. In short, they need to start thinking like a startup—more specifically, a tech startup. Silicon Valley is driven in large part by a philosophy of disruption, innovation and entrepreneurship. Many alternative lenders have been empowered by this philosophy, but that’s not to say that traditional banks can’t make use of it, too. Far from it, here are some ways that banks can start thinking more like tech companies so they can stay competitive against alternative providers.
Embrace lean methodology.
Startups, by definition, lack the resources of more established businesses, but they don’t let those limitations stifle innovation. In fact, those limitations actually serve to encourage innovation. Lean methodology is a way of designing and bringing new products to market specifically designed to fit the limited financial resources of startup organizations. First outlined by entrepreneur Eric Ries in “The Lean Startup,” this approach emphasizes building and testing iteratively to reduce waste and achieve a better market fit.
To become vehicles of innovation, banks should consider adopting similar methodologies. I’m not suggesting that they should create artificial obstructions or arbitrary constraints. But no matter the size of the institution, budgets are always going to feel too small—not least of all because product developers for massive institutions need to develop huge products to match. With tried-and-true methodologies for innovation like the Lean Startup out there, scarcity shouldn’t be an excuse for not innovating.
Fail fast, iterate often. Adopt Agile.
Startups know that rapid iteration cycles mean rapid innovation. It also means embracing a culture of failure. Failing to fail means failing to succeed. These are the lynchpins of agile or lean methodologies. Excellence is the enemy of success and progress. Get it done, get it out there in front of the market and then iterate improvements.
Identify opportunities with big data.
One of the reasons alternative lenders are able to offer such high rates of approval is that they employ state-of-the-art AI and machine learning techniques to get a better picture of their customer than a simple credit or background check can deliver. Well-trained AI algorithms can efficiently comb through a wide body of available data to uncover trends and make predictions about the risk of lending to a given individual with incredible accuracy.
Online-first lenders have such an advantage here because they’re in a better place to mine that data. What a lot of people forget about data analytics is that the greatest algorithms are only as good as the data you feed them. Businesses, and banks especially, generate millions of data points per day—data that could prove valuable for data mining and other similar uses. However, the majority of this data is unstructured and heterogeneous, and often time, siloed and difficult to access. Many successful online-first lenders have carefully structured their digital loan applications to be useful for data analytics purposes from the ground up. When nearly 40% of the work of data analytics is gathering and cleaning data, this represents a huge advantage to the fintech startup.
But traditional banks can take advantage of this, too. Developing online and mobile banking applications to replace old-fashioned paper forms for most activities would set banks up to make better use of that data by ingesting it in a cleaner format. Add in the fact that customers are demanding mobile banking features anyway, and there’s no excuse for not offering customers a more robust set of mobile banking features.
Shrink bloated bureaucracy with cross-functional organizations.
Think about all the startups you’ve visited. Did teams operate in silos, constantly blaming other teams for their inability to make progress? Or did they adapt to situations, never believing their roles to be fixed or immutable?
To become the latter kind of organization, traditional banks need to break the cycle of bureaucratic apathy. One way to do that is to have disparate teams work together on projects. Working on shared projects not only helps develop a sense of shared purpose, but it also empowers employees to solve problems in areas that are not considered in their traditional wheelhouse. That, in turn, reduces the inefficiency of teams passing the baton to another division until it’s been weeks or months until the customer’s concern has even been truly considered. Moreover, bringing together different kinds of minds and thinkers encourages the kind of fertile ground in which innovation is known to thrive.
Reports of the bank’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Ultimately, banks have numerous advantages that they can leverage over most fintech startups. They have their brick-and-mortar retail locations, allowing them to make personal connections with customers that drive loyalty. They’re considered more trustworthy to the average consumer (for the most part). And a lot of people just want to do all their banking at a single bank branch rather than shop around for various piecemeal banking solutions. If banks can innovate their information technology and organizational structures to meet the changing needs of today’s customers, they can continue to dominate the financial market.