50 Shades of Banking

I wrote about Irrational Loyalty in banking before but a conversation at Money2020 in Vegas last week prompted me to revisit it, this time with the thesis that we as consumers have abnormally high pain thresholds when it comes to what we expect of banking as a service and its technology as the manifestation of it. While I’m the first to glare, point and shake a bank, on this topic it’s not them, it’s us.

“If my bank completely pissed me off I’d leave!” a friend proclaimed and it made me wonder what does that “completely” mean to each of us. With the rise of the 50 Shades phenomenon in popular culture, we all know there have to be agreed limits even in a borderline abusive relationship, what are ours when it comes to being flogged by our bank?

Shall we agree that money and data being safe is a hard limit? I think we should, or we’d be left with no core services we need out of banking.

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Outside of that – would we leave if we were unable to open a new account for days? What if the interest rates were clearly lower than the market? What if the mortgages became suddenly perceivably higher? Are these then soft limits, do we negotiate with ourselves whether the pain is bearable as compared to the perceived hustle of changing banks and end up staying?

When else do we entertain it? Do we even think about leaving when we are left on hold for hours? When we need to enter our password for the 20th time and half our day was spent trying to log in to make a transfer online only to find no evident way to do it and no evidence of what it costs to do so?

Do we ever wonder why when you call a telecom company there’s a “press 4 if you are thinking of leaving us” but when you call a bank there’s never that option?

Do we flirt with the idea of leaving every time we catch a glimpse of a challenger bank flaunting features we’ve never seen in our bank or are they so far removed from our day-to-day digital banking experience we mentally categorise them as SciFi?

If our bank’s mobile app is just another icon on a busy smart phone’s home screen why is it we patiently allow it to load in twice as long and crush twice as much as every other app we use? What makes us accept we have to have ridiculous work-arounds for the most basic of actions – spouses setting up direct debits, friends using PayPal to repay us, ATM withdrawals only to load them back in the needed current account and our dead aunt’s maiden name tattooed on our wrist?

Maybe it’s time we take some responsibility as consumers and admit that we’re enabling banks to mistreat us with no limits in place. Maybe it’s time we ask ourselves when enough is really enough and why is it that we’d allow this much abuse in poor service and subpar technology, we sure don’t enjoy it. Let’s make it an early new year’s eve resolution that as of now we’ll go to our bank with a mental list of what our limits are and be prepared to break up if they don’t respect them.

They may learn to love us more that way.

Why Blockchain Doesn’t Matter

Blockchain is not the magic bullet banking needs. There, I said it. We can stop pretending it is now.

In fact, Blockchain doesn’t matter. Neither does Hadoop, Watson, AI or robot advisory or any other of the buzz words depicting technology that investors swoon over these days. They all have the *potential* to be transformative (if Blockchain more than others as it represents a shift in understanding of the model of repository and opens up minds).

Technology in itself does not matter. We need cultural transformation for any of the bank’s problems to start to dissipate, to shake their famed inertia.

The truth is that while banks will not disappear, it is undoubtedly crunch time. Banks will either wake up and see technology for what it is – a relationship enabler if one is smart enough to use it correctly by allowing new business models, or miss this moment in time and with accidental exceptions, be transformed into pipes.

But to “see” they need to “geddit”. Forgo the wooden language, stop hiding behind numbers as mandate and accept their houses are not in order, more than their backends need a refurbish, their backyards need a serious cultural spring cleaning.

We say it’s about culture a lot but not with aplomb because let’s face it, which one of us likes the hippie flower power connotation coming with the label of being a culture change evangelist? Serious bankers and commentators alike talk about tangible stuff like digital strategies, P&Ls and regulation not the touchy feely topics of how a bank is made out of people and when those people are too  many, too disconnected and too lacking in motivation then no amount of labs, incubators, ideas and new technologies count.

It makes us all uncomfortable. This chat about “the people”. We like the good satire articles labelling what’s wrong with bankers but the fun stops there, fixing it is a monumental task few people -if anyone- is willing to undertake.

I am no exception. When I started on the crusade to have banks think of their consumers’ feelings and eventually connected that to how they first need to want to have a brand to get there, I rolled my eyes and scoffed at every suggestion that I should go back to my organisational psychology books and “look at culture change”. The task of getting banks to think of their consumers was borderline fluffy enough, surely mechanisms existed to allow banks to do so intently without bringing up yet more esotherical, intangible and unpalatable topics such as “culture”.

Coming from an environment where we thought of nothing but of hard metrics and the ROI of a very core piece of a bank’s digital strategy and seeing even that even with those numbers in hand it’s an uphill road, the idea of having to tell banks they need to change their DNA and revamp their entire mammoth organisation was too much of a Don Quixote proposition even for valiant me, so I chose to hope that surely UX guys can push, innovation and digital guys can lobby and IT can use reasoning instead. Technology will be presented, ideas paraded, common sense will prevail, no need to state without a shadow of a doubt that it’s high time the palace walls get a structural refurbishment.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew in my heart of heart it’s cultural. Who doesn’t? We all do. Startups. Vendors. Pundits and bankers alike. We all know that a handful of banks have real heroes, most banks have pockets of amazing individuals and all banks have old, inert, paralyzed and often ignorant boards desperate to keep their jobs in the name of preserving banking as it was.

We also know that while “it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people” is true, it’s not about the individual people, not even about those much commented-upon boards or the abhorrent bonuses, but about the monstrous giant the organisation as a whole has become.  A giant that gets ideas and can do nothing about them. A giant that buys startups and cans them. One that gets the technology and has no way to apply any of it because it would need honest, courageous new business models no one is willing to consider. A giant watching all the tiny nimble challengers pass it by because they are allowed to use common sense and learn and care about their consumer deeply enough to do so.

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Are banks then doomed? How do we change the course of these gigantic structures that seem to be implacably headed for the end of the world where they will fall off into an ocean of oblivion while the Uber’s, the Mondo’s and the Google’s roar with belly laughter seeing them fall.

I propose it’s about building heroes and language. Blockchain can’t help us but this can.

I’ll write about how I think we can build Bank Supermen in another article and dedicate another one to Language in Banking but let me just say, as a teaser, that I asked one of my Bank Supermen the other day if language matters at the end of an impassionate speech he gave that was sadly delivered in consultancy speak. I was being facetious. Of course it matters. I knew that and I knew he knew that as well, I had heard him deliver the same message minutes before over a coffee in very clear words, but he must have made a conscious choice given his audience and decided they are too entrenched and too fragile to withstand “real talk”.

He must have. Why else would he not give it to them straight and coat it in banking jargon to where one would have to dig to find meaning. He must have also had a twisted sense of trust in bankers. In their intellect, decency and humanity to think that they would even care enough to strip his speech of buzz words and acronyms and hear his deeply invested meaning – that after 20 years in banking it occurred to him it’s not about the technology but the people.

So what’s the Blockchain of Banking Culture Change? – Please send answers and suggestions fragmented, to multiple recipients.