At the end of my book Bank 4.0: Banking Everywhere, Never at a Bank sits a graph with two axes. ‘Digital distribution’ is at one end of the Y-axis and ‘physical distribution’ at the other. The X-axis runs from ‘high friction’ — loads of paperwork and signatures required — to ‘low friction’.
Digital transformations’ impact on financial services, including banking and insurance, is charted from the physical distribution, high friction corner — traditional banks and their branches — to somewhere around the middle as a result of self-service banking, ATMs and call centres, and on towards the opposite corner with internet banking.
That was the journey through banking 1.0 and banking 2.0, through to banking 3.0. Banking 4.0, however, involves the integration of much more, including AI, smart glasses and smart speakers, and the connection to the utility of banking is much stronger than the connection to the brand or products.
The incumbents are still languishing at banking 1.0 and 2.0. They’ve been relying on acceptance of friction and a middling level of digitisation, incentivising spending with airline points or cash-back because it was a stronger revenue driver, as opposed to taking a customer-centric approach that would help people achieve their overall financial goals. Change has been slow.
But COVID has pushed the pedal to the metal. Customers who already wanted help building incremental savings rather than rewards for spending now have much greater motivation to save amid uncertainty. Those incumbents that previously prioritised the ‘need’ to sign physical slips of paper in a face-to-face interaction have seen digital distribution and engagement become a mainstay. And financial services companies have stood up remote call centres, full self-service portals and more.
Why are incumbents stuck in the past?
Pre-COVID, a significant percentage of bank branches were unprofitable. Last year the Guardian reported that a third of UK branches had closed since 2015, with the decline driven by the big four banks. The two challenger banks that had opened a branch had restored less than 2% of the total branch count that had already been closed — for the vast majority of challengers, branches simply aren’t even a consideration.
That decline in the UK is mirrored here in Australia. When we look in the rear-view mirror a couple of years from now, we’ll see the pandemic correlating with an already steepening of the decline in branch usage.
Research shows us that about 45 percent of transactions and interactions in branches come from customers being told they have to go in to sign a piece of paper. But online banks have shown people that this is no longer true — COVID has accelerated consumers’ expectations around digital enablement as challengers demonstrate more aggressive commitments to innovation and customer experience.
Most traditional banks have siloed digital engagement as either transactional or self-service, and relied on face-to-face interactions to build ‘relationships’. Challengers, however, have proven adept at building superior engagement, relationships and loyalty through real-time digital customer interaction.
Even amid COVID, most traditional banks don’t even have a department responsible for digital customer engagement, beyond customer acquisition and self-service. If a team in a traditional bank is tasked with improving ROI and customer lifetime value (LTV), and invests in strong digital engagement and relationship management, people simply won’t need the branch — branch ROI will drop even further.
As a result, there are very low incentives within retail financial services today to develop strong digital relationship and engagement metrics. We see this demonstrated in traditional banking apps that aren’t designed for daily engagement. They’re designed predominantly for transactions.
Now though, COVID-19 has pushed us further and faster than we expected towards experiential design of banking. How can we create compelling experiences for customers? We do it by knowing what, when and where they need banking — not just their transactional requirements but their financial needs and intentions.
We can see how often people go into a grocery store, which merchants they prefer and what they spend. We can see where and when they are likely to use their savings opposed to credit cards.
But what data points could not only enable a bank or insurer to be there for customers when they need the utility, but to anticipate their needs and get ahead of them?
What is the trigger for a customers’ use of a credit card? What data points indicate that someone is thinking about buying a property? How can a bank show it’s not just responsive, but that it can maintain core processes while being of great value?
Good examples of future finserv
Some of the most successful finance products in the world are shaped around behavioural saving.
Ant Technology’s Yue Bao, which sits atop AliPay, was brilliant in that it recognised that many people left positive balances in their AliPay digital wallets (just as people do with PayPal), and offered to do something productive with that balance.
Users with positive balances were contacted, educated about how a money market fund works, and invited to join and invest in any Ant Fortune fund. What did it cost? Just one yuan, or about AU$0.21! Yue Bao, which translates to ‘leftover treasures’, is now the largest money market fund in the world.
So how does a bank in Australia help customers save, to get back on their feet after the COVID-19 crisis? In reality, most don’t currently have the capability beyond offering a fixed deposit.
There have been one or two Australian successes. When UBank launched, the team who built it operated outside of the traditional bank org chart. It had a separate office in a different building, separate tech infrastructure — a licence to do its own thing. But once it became a great success, surpassing the branch network for deposits, NAB resolved to pull it back in-house, and innovation at UBank once again slowed.
Here in the US where I live, I was recently blocked from opening an account with a new “challenger app” launched by an incumbent bank. I live within reach of the existing branch network and the app told me I didn’t qualify to use the new online bank because I had access to the incumbent’s branches.
Whenever banks try to have their cake and eat it, too — if they produce a digital experience consumers demand but then only allow it to operate in a way that doesn’t cannibalise the existing business — they’re bound to fail spectacularly. Instead, they need an unyielding customer-facing ethos.
Banking and insurance: What the future holds
Technology offers fascinating opportunities in banking and insurance. We’ve spoken a lot about banking already, but much of the discussion could equally apply to insurance.
Imagine that I can go online and insure myself as a driver. That doesn’t cost too much, because I’m always driving in local areas that I know very well. Then, if I go on an extended trip, maybe I’ll need extra coverage. Perhaps once I’m 50km from my home, my phone will beep and ask if I want to be insured for driving outside my ‘home zone’. That will cost an extra five dollars per day, similar to global roaming on my phone.
Perhaps I step on a treadmill or use my bike for the first time in months, and my insurer gives me a target for the month that will lower my health-related premiums.
Such exploitation of new technology could transform health insurance, travel insurance and numerous other products.
These are the sorts of ideas coming to the market from emerging tech businesses, and that’s where pressure is being placed on incumbents. It’s in the customer-centric functionality and the reduction of friction. It’s in the fact that what’s being offered is a compelling experience for the customer.
But being told you have to travel to a branch and stand in a queue to sign a bunch of forms for access to an inflexible product? That’s the opposite of compelling, and COVID tells us that soon it will be mostly relegated to history.
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