I am a fintech nerd. This is neither new nor surprising to anyone who knows me. I have always been one. I have always been captivated by the art of the recently possible and all the wonders we could achieve with it. Technology has consistently given me food for thought and fuel to reimagine the human experience at large, and the banking industry specifically. The challenges are immense: personalities, value chain readjustments, legacy infrastructure and the sheer vertigo of the unknown. For a couple of decades, my view has been that this will be hard, but it will be worth it as technology allows us to rewrite what we do.
I am also a banker. This isn’t new, yet remains surprising to both me and those who know me well. The young me never thought I would be a banker, but I am, and by choice, length of service and taxonomy. Banking is what I do. It’s also something I ‘get’ in all its glory and occasional utter madness. As a fintech nerdy banker, I’ve worked in functions called transformation, innovation, BMP, digital (you name it) as a startup, consultant and employee. I’ve designed and implemented really cool things that went live, that worked, and that made money and headlines. And every day, good or bad (and believe me you get plenty of both), my biggest emotional hijacking didn’t come from my ExCo, the compliance team, legal, or the database team (OK, sometimes it did, to be fair). The most jarring moments came when I left my desk to interact with my bank as a private citizen.
After a lot of heartache, fraud and incompetence across three of the UK’s high street banks, I switched again a few years ago. I wasn’t alone in this: the feeling of “the best of a bad situation” is the baseline of most folks’ high street banking experience and it sets the tone within which the banks set SLAs and manage service.
Raise the alarm!
This bank – which can remain unnamed, yet claims to be the “world’s local bank”, since you asked – has massive transformation budgets. In my professional life, I know, like and respect the professionals who run their experiments and investments, building truly exciting pathways to the future. As a user and customer, however, I’m either indifferent to those things or, given my own proclivities, taunted and tortured by them because they don’t make my life better; they don’t touch the basics; they don’t tackle the core of the business or my engagement with it.
So here’s your anecdote: my online banking login stopped working during the second week of January, and because of the UX genius that developed this bank’s authentication system, there’s no way of knowing whether you’re getting your password wrong or whether there’s a glitch in the system, creating an infinite loop of madness for a customer who feels stupid for constantly resetting passwords that never work. Sadly for them, I’m not easily deterred. Sadly for me, the challenge wasn’t my memory but something as yet undefined. So since the second week of January, I’m waiting for “the online team” to call me back. I follow up 1-2 times a week through my personal banker and now have a complaint being looked into by yet another team. “I understand, Dr Glyptis, but that’s a different team. Nothing I can do. I will raise a ticket.”
No, don’t raise a ticket – raise the alarm! Call the head of innovation! Email your MD for transformation! Get the blockchain guys! Not because my login is that important to the fate of a multibillion dollar behemoth, but because:
- Digital organisations are interconnected and responsive. “This isn’t my team, I don’t know them” is the sound of a species going extinct. And banks (not just you, unnamed banking giant) are transforming the edges focusing on contained experiments and PR exposure that target their fellow banks rather than the customer. Because they have loads of customers and can spare some, including me. Meanwhile, I got my sister-in-law to sign up for Monzo. Something didn’t work. “Email the help desk,” I told her. It took me longer to persuade her that they will respond in minutes and fix whatever the issue is within a few hours, than it did for the issue to be resolved.
- The customer increasingly knows that ‘better’ is possible. The best-of-a-bad-bunch survival mechanism will stop working very soon because alternatives will start appearing, and because people know what’s possible and expect it. The bank in question sends weekly ‘personalised’ emails whereby my name in bold is followed by detailed updates for products I don’t have or need, and couldn’t access anyway because … well, see the login problem above. So the algorithm needs work – better not try this customised service at all; because your customers are on Facebook and they may freak out at Facebook’s uncanny recommendations, but know as a result that the algorithm can work. So get to work, boys and girls in red.
- I’ve said this before and I will say it again: banking is a “so that” business. Don’t make it cool. Instead, make it secure and easy and customers will stick around. Solve problems and provide service. The customer doesn’t want to engage with you. A good banking experience isn’t one where the UX was slick – it’s one where you had minimal contact with your bank. Here’s an example: I recently moved to the GCC region. Cheques are still widely used here for a lot of sizeable transactions, including rent payments. So my bank here offers cheque-book-printing ATMs. No application, no cashier interaction, no help centre. You, your card and a hole in the wall. Done. Helpful. Not leveraging amazing new tech, no. Not celebrating the art of the possible, no. But solving a problem and winning at the art of the useful.
Traceability and hierarchy
Meanwhile, back to the Red Giant of a bank who, nine weeks in, is struggling to find the right channel to resolve the most banal of customer problems: a login glitch.
And I am observing. What do I see, do you ask? I see an organisation not geared towards resolution, but rather towards traceability and hierarchy. The priority is to not let down bosses with feudal sensibilities around silo divisions. The customer is an irritation, and dealing with me isn’t a core part of anyone’s job. I’m the customer, yet I’m an externality to their process, which is designed and measured for internal stakeholders. Meanwhile, while this little drama is unfolding, they’ve been in the news at least three times with PR-worthy digital plays that are real, live and really engaging with the art of the possible. So what?
Let me spell it out. We as banks have played on the edges long enough. I have played on the edges long enough. As individual change agents, we have fought the good fight, the essential fight of proving that agile working delivers without breaking the bank, of proving each new tech proposition works without breaking the bank, of trying new ideas in contained spaces so that we don’t break the bank. And all that is as it should be because when you are dealing with people’s pensions and college funds, this is the degree of care and responsibility you should demonstrate each and every day.
Yet, somewhere between the discomfort of the pace of change and building cool labs for experimentation, we as bankers discovered the PR circus. We discovered that experiments get headlines, startup events create goodwill with other banks and regulators, conference appearances and thought leadership actually get noticed and matter to your peers. Fine. But when did this translate to forgetting to build the bridge between what we say and create on the fringes to the beating heart of our organisation?
Getting the hard work done
I know the objections: it’s hard, you don’t understand. But here’s the catch: I do understand. I’m a fintech nerd, so I know what’s possible and what it takes to build it. I know exactly how hard, how frustrating and how possible it all is. I’m a banker and have been for a long time. I know our silos and organisational ethos, I know the rigidity of our policies and default behaviours of a lot of our teams across the industry. I know the driving factors behind policies, compliance concerns and operating models. I know how we make money and understand the challenges this new world presents. I know all that and also know it’s man-made and can change, hard as that may be.
It’s time to get the hard work done, because customer-me is telling banker-me that the more PR I see while I wait for the basics to be addressed, all I see is a proof point that, whatever this bank is looking to do in its future, serving my needs isn’t on the agenda.
As a customer, I don’t care about how hard change is. I don’t care about thought leadership. I care only about the art of the useful. If you manage to deliver that while leveraging the art of the recently possible, my inner banking nerd will applaud. But as the customer, I will simply get on with my life, not caring how you did what I consider your job to do. And that, my fellow bankers, is exactly how things should be.
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