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SXSW Interactive: Banks -- Innovate or Die!

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South-by-Southwest's Interactive sessions in Austin, TX are a major creative and customer-focused experience. The amount of networking that is taking place, the amount of active innovation and discussion on taking it to the next level is awesome and mind blowing. There's only one thing...

If there was a game on at SXSW to find 20 bankers (not geeks who work at banks) -- It is highly doubtful that anyone could win that one.

There's innovation discussions occurring around mobile, gaming, social media, user experience, geo location, but it appears SXSW only has 4 sessions that are connected with banking, which is indicative of the level of engagement. There are payments and retail engagement discussions, there are gaming and social discussions, there are startup and venture discussions, health and work discussions, but not so many on banking.

In our session today where we attempted to discuss innovation in the banking arena, we had spirited discussion around who are the innovators, but the reality is we didn't get into really sexy innovations. We didn't get into how mobile payments would change the world, the emergence of new digital currencies, virtual banking models that cross borders, distributed and pervasive banking content embedded into the retail experience, Infographics style PFMs transforming customer engagement, new banking models leveraging off the likes of P2P, social or community enablement, reinventing the credit score or improving financial inclusion through cheaper smartphone platforms. The reason we didn't get into any of the really sexy stuff is that the problems of innovating the banking sector are much more fundamental today.

Some of the Twitter feedback based on the #BankInnovation hashtag from the session "Banks: Innovate or Die!" indicated frustration at not diving into more deeper matters of innovation.

One blog response from Oscar Llarena (aka @softwaremono) asked the question "Does Customer Service = Innovation?". In many ways, this very question and the amount of time that was spent talking about customer behavior and the ability of banks to match customer expectations is very telling when it comes to what innovation is needed in the banking arena.

Organizational Inertia
One of the key issues and the reason expectations are low in the financial services space is that most banks don't even classify these things as innovation. When you ask a die-hard banker about innovation you are more likely to hear about Collateralized Debt Obligations, Derivatives, Barbwire Hedge Contracts or Swaptions than technology integration or customer experience improvement. This is because fundamentally banking has really never had to rapidly innovate the basic model of engagement of customers; branches, cheques (checks), credit cards and other such mechanisms are innovations that occurred over the space of decades or centuries.

The other issue is that risk aversion, philosophical marriage to traditional distribution models and embedded metrics around products sold through branches, mean that organizationally the bank has to first start thinking about changing the way the performance of the business is measured, and structured, before serious innovation can take place. This will take time.

In the meantime the easiest way to create innovation (that goes against the grain of long-embedded business practices and performance structures) is to simply circumvent the traditional bank organization. It could be argued this is why UBank, Jibun Bank, First Direct and ING Direct have been so successful at doing banking better - because they didn't have to solve the organizational problem first. However, when we see more fundamental business model innovations like P2P lending and new payments systems like M-PESA, these have circumvented banks all together.

Banks will eventually get their act into gear and either replicate alot of this stuff, or acquire it to get the innovations, but such an approach would be like Blockbuster putting up a website that looks like NetFlix. Unless you fundamentally redress the organizational reliance on a very traditional business model and structure, then it's never quite going to work.

Why innovation has to start with the customer...
In retail banking or financial services, one of the reasons we get so hung up on just some simple elements around customer service, the user interface between the bank and the customer, transparency and the way a bank assesses the risk of an individual consumer is simply that these are the areas that are now so glaringly obvious that they need a more rapid solution. Why? Because they are the very areas where the gap between customer behavior and expectations is growing rapidly with the delivery capability of the average retail bank. Before you can really start with breakout innovation you need to be able to meet customer needs.

Can you do that if you are trying to convince customers to buy irrelevant products because they are higher margin, or if you are trying to force customers into a branch because you've got a substantial investment in real estate? No.

So is customer service innovative? Transforming the customer experience and engaging customers in new ways, is a massive leap forward in banking - it may not be sexy innovation, but it is transformational for a sector who thinks they make profits despite their customers.

Why SXSW still matters for banks
In this environment, there are massive opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators to create bridges between the customer and the institution. This will be through start-ups, new apps or UIs, new user experience models, gaming, and all the sexy stuff that SXSW at large is discussing. But it likely won't be through traditional banks (sorry @annaobrien). Why?

Probably because you will never see a traditional banker at SXSW because they don't get the imperative for customer innovation. They send along the geeks, who they expect to build the apps and to maintain the social media presence, but those resources won't be sitting in the boardrooms talking about new organizational structures, different performance metrics and how to transform the business wholesale.

In the end, the success of start-ups and innovators like SmartyPig, LendingClub, BankSimple and MovenBank will be initiatives that banks feel compelled to follow because customers feel affinity with these new brands. But don't expect them to rush into it...

In the end customers will win and I guess that is all that matters.

Retail Banking Innovation Infographic


Product Innovation is not enough - customer rule!