For any community-based financial institution, whether bank or credit union, the relationship with the larger community is central to your mission and values. It has always been a good practice to revisit a credit union or bank mission statement periodically, to assess whether your mission and core values still align with your on-the-ground operations and the needs of your community.
The COVID-19 crisis has upgraded that exercise from a “best practice” to a vital necessity. The market for banking services was already in a transition period, and the virus has accelerated many of those existing trends while simultaneously changing the economy and your community. A thoughtful re-evaluation of your core values should underpin your strategy for the next several years.
Re-Evaluate Your Relationship With the Community
In April, Martin Wolf — chief economics commentator at the Financial Times — wrote in that publication that COVID-19 marked “the biggest crisis […] since the second world war and the biggest economic disaster since the Depression of the 1930s.” Those events caused deep and far-reaching changes in the communities you serve, and COVID-19 has done so as well. As a community-based institution, gauging the nature and extent of those changes has (and must) become an urgent priority. You’ll need to understand what your community’s needs are now.
Part of the information you need will be delivered through the nightly news, as the virus’s impact fluctuates and local businesses adapt or close. Your digital banking platform contains more granular information about your end-users and their specific needs, if you have the ability to extract and analyze it. Who’s behind on bills? Who needs to refinance a loan, or is on the verge of maximizing all of their available credit? Another option is to simply ask your users what they need, and what challenges they’re facing. You can push out those messages through email or physical mail, your banking platform or social media.
Once you’ve garnered enough data to form a coherent picture—bearing in mind that it’s an ongoing exercise, not a one-and-done—it’s time to review what you’ve learned through the filter of your existing mission statement and core values. How will you adapt to support your community and meet its needs as it recovers? Are your existing values and mission statement still applicable, or do they need to be refined to meet the demands of the “next normal”? Your answers to those questions will define your institution over the coming years.
What Differentiates Your Institution?
Another crucial question to ask is “what differentiates your institution from every other provider of banking services?” This was already becoming an issue with rise of digital-only banking platforms, a sea change that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis with its emphasis on distancing and contact-free transactions. Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz—admittedly self-interested, as an investor in fintech startups—recently looked forward to a world in which “every company will be a fintech company.”
It’s an existential question for financial institutions. When any business, online or storefront, can partner with a fintech to offer financial services, how do you differentiate yourself? What can (or will) you do to set yourself apart? To answer that question, you’ll need to think hard about your core competencies as an institution—the things you do especially well. If you haven’t already done so, a related exercise is defining your “core user,” the user whose needs you serve best.
Fine-tuning your business model to center in on your competencies and your core user’s needs is what Harvard Business School professor Dennis Campbell refers to as member compatibility. It’s at the core of work he’s done on member experience and service excellence for the Filene Research Institute. He argues that a tight focus on core competencies, rather than a well-meaning attempt to be all things to everyone, is the way forward for community-based institutions.
On a related note, it’s also a good practice to check what you think your core strengths are against your users’ perceptions. Solicit input regularly, formally or informally, to establish what your users—especially those core users—consider to be the strongest and weakest parts of your game. Any discrepancies between your assumptions and your users’ perceptions should be addressed in your planning and decision-making. You may need to make operational changes, or it might simply be better to communicate what your strengths are.
Re-Evaluate Your Institutional Culture
The most uncomfortable step in your self-evaluation—and for that very reason, a crucial one—is evaluating your own institutional culture, and determining whether it’s consistent with your mission and values; or if aspects of your culture may hinder your ability to remake yourself for this new era in banking services. Put another way, do the realities on the ground correspond to the lofty sentiments of your banking mission statement?
You’ll need to review your culture through two lenses, that of your employees and your users. Your institutional culture will color how your users perceive their interactions with your institution, and how your staff feels about you as an employer and workplace. If your administrative structure or policies create unnecessary friction, customers are more likely to take their business to a competitor and staff is likely to be less satisfied in their work.
In April, analysts at Bain & Company defined an organization’s culture as “its behaviors at scale—basically, what it says and does.” How well do those behaviors coincide with your stated mission? Will they help or hinder you as you attempt to meet the new needs you’ve identified within your community? Institutionally those are difficult questions to ask, and more difficult to address and correct, but without facing them you’ll be ill-prepared to make the kinds of hard decisions that lie ahead.
Make the Tough Decisions
For community-based financial institutions, significant financial downturns like the one sparked by the COVID-19 crisis create a dilemma. On one hand, like any business, you face an imperative to remain in business by making a profit. On the other hand, you also have an obligation to meet your users’ needs, which may, at times, fly in the face of your need to maintain a sound balance sheet. Those two priorities aren’t necessarily opposed, but at the very least they are in tension.
History shows that a spike in unemployment usually results in increased deposits and asset growth, but with a corresponding potential negative impact on your loan portfolio and fee income. The sheer number of people affected by reduced employment and lost income means many of your users will look to you for interest relief, loan refinancing, waived or reduced fees and, perhaps, outright forgiveness. All of these have the potential to dampen your growth. The upside is that you have the potential to build trust and brand profile with those same users, by working with them to help them through the coming years of rebuilding.
That said, you will almost certainly need to cut costs. Analyzing your core functions, competencies and business model first enables you to make those hard decisions from a position of strength. You may end up needing to close some branches, for example, or reallocate some staff. Don’t cut too quickly, or too indiscriminately: in its 2010 review of outcomes from the three previous recessions, the Harvard Business Review found that companies who cut too aggressively usually underperformed after the recession. Instead of a purely defensive posture, balance those cuts with investments in areas such as marketing and new technology that can fuel your post-crisis recovery.
There is Opportunity in Upheaval
The chaos of a major crisis may be unsettling, but it’s not necessarily all bad. As an ambitious character in the TV drama Game of Thrones observed, “Chaos is not a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” For those institutions resolved not just to survive but to thrive, there is opportunity to capture market share from peer competitors who are less determined, less insightful, or simply less agile and responsive.
Many of your competitors will struggle to sift those new opportunities from the wreckage of “how we’ve always done things.” The crisis means that many of your users will need to rebuild their credit ratings over the next few years; helping them do that through coaching and new credit products is a potential growth area. You’ll need to revisit your loan underwriting processes, making them more flexible and better able to cope with the realities of the “gig” or “side hustle” economy.
Finding ways to support people who fell through the cracks previously, and more so since the crisis, is a crucial way to both support the community and lay the groundwork for your future growth. You may need to apply similar reasoning to the local business community. Closed or downsized branches could work as business incubators, for example, where you provide co-working facilities and financial support to new or rebounding entrepreneurs.
Much of that growth, and the agility and analytics that make it possible, will come from technology. Most institutions rely on a patchwork of legacy computer systems purchased at different times, from different vendors; extracting and maintaining that legacy code represents a significant cost. More crucially, extracting the user data you need to analyze your user base is a barrier to new initiatives. Arming your institution with an all-new, fully integrated platform with deep analytics capabilities might be the single most potent investment you can make.
Invest in What Matters
The Harvard Business Review’s analysis of the winners and losers in previous recessions found that the winners established a difficult balance between offense and defense. They cut costs primarily through improved operational efficiencies, rather than a wholesale reduction in their workforce, and invested in areas—such as marketing, R&D or new infrastructure—that could fuel the renewed growth of their business.
Clearly those decisions are neither easy to make nor obvious except in retrospect, but it makes intuitive sense. In the case of marketing, your current and potential users won’t know what you can do for them, or how well you’re doing it, if you don’t tell them. Similarly, an investment in technology—the financial sector’s equivalent to new both new infrastructure and R&D, through improved analytics capability—can both improve operational efficiencies, and enable you to offer new products and services at previously impossible levels of scale and personalization.
Lumin Digital’s digital banking platform provides exactly that kind of power tool for community-based financial institutions, whether they are banks or credit unions. It’s a fast, cloud-native product unburdened by legacy code, delivering a consistent user experience across all digital platforms. It also has the data management and analytics tools you need to construct your new products and services, delivered through an easy-to-use portal that puts information into the hands of your board and C-suite in real time, with no waiting for IT staff to create reports or specialized queries.
Contact us today to request a demonstration, and learn how Lumin Digital’s powerful software and proven, rapid onboarding process can equip you to excel in the coming years.
- McKinsey & Company: From Surviving to Thriving: Reimagining the Post-COVID-19 Return
- Financial Times: The World Economy is Now Collapsing
- Andreessen Horowitz: Why Every Company Will Be a Fintech Company
- Filene Research Institute: Member Experience and Service Excellence, Part 3
- Bain & Company: COVID-19 Creates a Moment of Truth for Corporate Culture
- McKinsey & Company: Across the Chasm: Reimagining the Post-COVID-19 Organization
- Filene Research Institute: Credit Union Asset Growth: Long-Term Trends and Projections for the COVID-19 Crisis
- Harvard Business Review: Roaring Out of Recession
- Filene Research Institute: Credit Unions and the Coronavirus: Notes on the Impacts and Implications of the COVID-19 Crisis (Part 2)
- The Financial Brand: Differentiate or Die—Financial Institutions Must Rethink Brand Mission