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Balancing Connection & Technology in Retail

By Shelly Loftin, SVP, Retail Banking, American Bankers Association

Shelly Loftin, SVP, Retail Banking, American Bankers Association

There is no shortage of retail innovation & technology trends. Everywhere you turn, innovations are being revealed to transform, revolutionize, spice-up, simplify, add value, create efficiencies, and discover never-before fathomed potential. It is incredible and overwhelming. The rapid pace of innovation and change is an incredible opportunity for the banking industry. For an institution to properly position itself for the future, it must first take a look in the mirror and strengthen its core foundation before getting carried away with buzzwords.

"Future-proofing an organization from changing customer expectations starts with organizational alignment and transformative talent"

Some of the current retail trends and buzzwords in innovation include:

• Big data
• Artificial Intelligence (AI)
• Digital transformation
• Blockchain
• Omnichannel
• Chatbots
• Branch transformation
• Real-Time Payments
• Fintech
• Interactive Teller Machines
• Open API’s

Banks often have complex strategic goals that drive their interest in implementing any combination of new technologies. There are endless possibilities to choose from on the road to transforming your financial institution from traditional to innovative, from sleepy to forward-thinking or from reactive to proactive. There is no glaring wrong turn or massive sign from above to show you which solution will best help you reach your goal. Each one of these ideas and solutions involves complicated technology infrastructures and innovations. All of which cannot reach revolutionary potential without being led and powered by people.

People are the key. Future-proofing an organization from changing customer expectations starts with organizational alignment and transformative talent. Before you stop reading, let me immediately clarify that this isn’t a directive to hire all new people with new, fresh or fascinating credentials or that your team isn’t capable. Your team is likely incredibly capable. However, organizations often aren’t optimally structured or equipped for paradigm shifts on this scale to succeed. No amount of bottom-up empowerment can survive a misaligned leadership team or a key project player not having a seat at the table. The retail trends listed above expand throughout the entire organization and require communication, mobilization, and collaboration from several areas. Leaders in all these key areas need to have mutual respect, trust, and confidence in each other to do the job.

First, it’s imperative to make sure you have the right people on your leadership team and that they understand the importance of information sharing and teamwork. Connecting the dots within multiple departments will make a massive difference in the successful execution and the result of any project. For example, if the CIO or CTO is working on digital projects, both retail, operations, compliance, risk, human resources, and marketing should be included from the beginning to determine how to design the experience better, how it impacts the customer and how that should be communicated internally and externally. More and more banks are seeing the value of making sure the people-centric executives are always at the table and incredibly intertwined. However, you are structured; there should be a seamless connection between your human resources, marketing, and retail functions. For experiences to be aligned physically (both physically & digitally) for customers, you must strive for the same connection alignment internally.

Reliable, innovative organizations understand the empathic connection between employee/customer engagement and experience. If you trust your cross-departmental teams to work well together, so you aren’t involved in the project “weeds,” that is great, but please take the time to do a politics check beforehand to understand team dynamics and anticipate potential problems. Processes can be perfect and documented beautifully while results remain subpar. This is because no one understands the complicated relationships between the team members and the social factors hindering progress. Leaders often feel that team members are adults and should be able to do a job regardless of his or her feelings. Underestimating emotional connections and how they impact ones work environment is a preventable mistake. While functioning adequately in a job role can be done without consideration of social relationships, implementing game-changing technology, and encouraging culture-shifting behavior cannot occur without considering the emotions involved. Project technical problems can be solved, processes can be amended, and risks can be continuously assessed, whereas social issues are the silent killer of masterful idea execution and even better people.

Once a clear picture of the leadership team connectivity is established, the second action item should be developing a comprehensive plan to transform your talent. We often hear of the desire for bankers to change from “order takers” to “trusted advisors,” or some version of that phrasing. The trouble is how to do we do that? Where do we start? It is important to note that whatever choices made to accomplish this will scarce be effective if leaders are not only connected to the purpose but have a healthy appreciation for the magnitude of the skill shift need. Advising is complicated and emotional, whereas order-taking is robotic and clearly defined. It won’t happen overnight or with the adoption of one or two additional training techniques.

Banks are asking customer-facing team members to be responsible for more rule and regulation enforcement than ever before, to understand complicated product offerings paired with channel preferences, while also demanding they genuinely connect with customers and anticipate customer needs before they have them. Understanding the weight and skill requirements of these expectations on your teams should instigate a healthy emotional discussion amongst the leadership. Competence and connection are not mutually exclusive, so how do we consider, train, and coach for both when viewing and communicating change. Or better still, how can we restructure to keep customer-facing team members focused on creating and sustaining valuable customer connections and shift technical or procedural work elsewhere.

What worked well for traditional retail structures within banks followed a consistent, well-defined path for leaders and team members. The model would work even better if teamwork were rewarded, over-communication incentivized and employee engagement amplified. Shifting the local culture to accommodate changing consumer preferences and technology requires a wholesale look at the entire organization and removing barriers between business lines that have existed within banks forever. This requires a level of trust and mutual respect between departments and leaders who have scarcely connected or communicated before.

In summary, if revolutionizing retail at the bank is your goal – make sure someone who speaks for the people, both customers and employees, is at the table for every discussion and decision. Follow up by ensuring the consideration of cultural, emotional, and social factors are normalized internally, mapped out, evaluated, and communicated adequately with stakeholders. The term culture is often overused, oversimplified, and immediately dismissed as something “fluffy.” The truth is that organizational cultures exist whether we choose to harness them or not. Organizations are enhanced by technology yet powered by people. As leaders, we should give the people a portion of our projects the same care and concern, if not more, as we provide for the technology. Effectively acknowledging and managing culture, social connectivity in tandem with technology will give the most significant bottom-line result.

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