Blog

When FinTech Dreams of Electric Sheep

Recently I’ve had to turn down a couple of interviews and requests to be involved in write-ups or speak because the theme started to severely irk me – the “future of banking”.

It’s not even close to Christmas and everyone wants a run down of the trends, of what we think is coming next, of the next shinny ETH. It’s like picking a new fondant from the box while placing a half-eaten one back in.

Here’s a trend evolution analysis if we must have one. Last year at this time it seemed our world was finally waking up to design. There was lots of buzz over what it can do so that it helps banks quickly take hold of a crucial part of the defense against being obsolete – the relationship with the consumer. That of course involved looking at the proposition and at least sketching a new one. I hear less and less about that. We moved on to the next thing. That is a trend and it’s not a good one.

Now, I’m as much of a SciFi fan as the rest of us and I get it’s infinitely more fun to spend 3 hours imagining in detail what the battle between humans and machines will be like than 30 minutes describing what a current account today.

Our collective imagination in the industry can’t help but shiver with the anticipation of an imaginary future where a chatbot will read our mind and extend our wealth while we build or implement one for the sole purpose of firing the 236 people who only ever tell a client what their balance is over the phone.

I’ve said this many times – ours is an industry like no other. We need to know a lot but can do little. We need to run at the dizzifying speed of technology in theory while crawling at the frustrating speed of banking systems and culture in practice. It creates vast amounts of tension in all of us involved whether we think of it or not.

In a way, this obsession with trends we seem to have as of late, this appetite for completely new propositions coming into the market are a form of escapism from this tension. As long as we keep thinking about the next best thing we can’t be accused of being stuck in the difficult now.

electricsheep801_large-1

This doesn’t apply to bankers only. While they have painful and real constraints that shackle them to the art of the immediate possible, on the other side of the equation, in start-up world valuations sore every day on futuristic approaches to a business proposition. No one sells a business model anymore, everyone turned into Phillip K. Dick and paints a picture of how electric sheep will access the blockchained banking matrix.

It’s tempting to explain this by referring to how society is moving at the speed of light in every aspect but the difference there, is the gap between status quo and the next best thing is being bridged with every sizeable change science or technology brings in all other industries, whereas in FinTech the gap only grows wider.

Ours is an industry where the gap between what the consumer wants and what the consumer gets is so wide, it doesn’t bear thinking about what they are forced to make do with “now”, so we take refuge into thinking what we could give them “later”. Except, unless we stop wasting time escaping reality and become brutally honest about what is there “today”, what systems or mentalities need to change, that “later” won’t be “tomorrow” but “too late”.

Blockchain yourself to emotions

***WARNING: Monday mood post ahead***

The other day I published an infographic on what banks can do to have their customers fall in love with them by becoming true brands and while most of the response was great a couple of comments managed to infuriate me.

They weren’t much in the way of a structured discourse but seeing how they came via Twitter, one could argue the author only wanted a bit of attention and being contrarian with an off-the-cuff remark seemed to be the route to get it. Just general FinTechTrolling of the sort we see too often these days. The gist was to “forget about emotions, let’s just do blockchain” and it really made my blood boil.

Here’s a person – regardless how new and clueless- who believes that we are stepping away from the value of important technology by thinking of such frivolous topics as emotions. Someone who genuinely thinks that’s straying from the core of the issue and that to change banking and give consumers the experience they deserve all we need to do is adopt blockchain at scale.

Is this person new? Likely. Do they matter in the grand scheme of things – will they influence bankers, the community, change the course of financial services history? Unlikely, even in today’s overinflated environment knowledge is starting to emerge so most people in the industry would see how “green” and naïve a statement this is. Is this person wrong? Hell yes!

The only universe in which adopting blockchain would be the magical cure for banking is one so AI-driven no human is involved in any of the running of a bank. Machines would have taken over, rebuilt the back-end (on his beloved blockchain) and are now offering optimal experience tailored to the tiniest details of the customer’s most inner needs. So pretty much a universe where machines too have had to not “forget about emotions” but build an algorithm around them.

That universe doesn’t need to consider how to navigate organizational culture in banks in a way that allows them to become passionate and agile and lets them use technology –such as blockchain- to enable them to build an amazing customer experience to become a brand.

Until that universe exists to make it work in this one, we have to consider plenty of emotions. Those of the consumers of the banking products and those of the makers of those products alike.

I’ve said this time and again – thinking about emotions in general in a context as numbers driven as banking is not easy. It’s uncomfortable and it’s frustrating and we would all collectively much rather keep talking about technology with its wonderfully tangible, measurable benefits. That stuff is easy.

Those of us who choose to look at the bigger picture and try to change culture (shout-out to one of the greatest bankers and technologists of all time having recently swapped P&L for thinking of this “fluffy” stuff) didn’t choose this because it’s the easy rainbows and unicorns part, on the contrary, it’s the hard, heavy-lifting change part, but we did so because we’ve lost our illusion that it’s about “just going to blockchain”.

Am I advocating we “forget about blockchain, just do emotions”? Of course not, that wouldn’t work either but let’s not fool ourselves that any technology is the silver bullet the industry needs to change to finally give the consumer what they need and deserve – we have to do both and we have to do it fast.

 

Why I believe Banks may still win

Some of you may have seen a bit about my leap back in the provider world so I wanted to write and tell you about my reasoning. While this mentions Temenos, Marketplace and my book, it’s honestly not intended as a plug fest so I have tried to keep them to a minimum and focus on the overall picture of the industry and why I believe this to be game changing.

The “Why now?”

When I left the “doing” world of FinTech a couple of years ago it was to focus on the concept of Emotional Banking – design methods that work to help banks succeed and write the book.

Having accomplished that – the methods that work to cause profound cultural change are defined and ready for a bigger consultancy to implement, the book is nearly complete-, and having finally arrived at the title I believed in – “Emotional Banking ™: How to Fix Culture and Use FinTech to Make Banks into Brands” it was clearly time to go back to the “use FinTech” bit.

I knew I wanted to stay at the intersection of CX, UX, Tech and Finance and that I needed to be sure I’ll be using my “a-ha” cultural and industry moments while seeing rapid change at scale as banks are running out of time.

I also knew I couldn’t have dealt with the cognitive dissonance of being an actual banker and having to be patient about change, and anyhow, the offers from them were few and far between, I’m not exactly an evident, politically correct and culturally comfortable hire for any bank.

Lastly, I knew that having been very lucky thus far in my career, I’m forever spoiled and couldn’t work for any company I don’t believe in and respect, which ruled out a lot of the offers from some big names.

The “Why them?”

And then the idea of Temenos came along and it all made perfect sense. First of all it’s a product company – that automatically makes them “doers” (a highly IQed bunch of them at that!)

Then their main offering is so pivotal and core to any bank’s DNA that courage to tackle big themes like new business models, real transformation, etc is built into every interaction Temenos has.

It’s a FinTech success story in its own right – no need to quote numbers but it’s a relatively young company that did nothing but software for banks and absolutely won at every imaginable KPI while staying focused on still being start-uppy in culture and fanatic about brand.

It’s honest and ready to admit it can’t do all the things so they let other providers focus on some of the stuff they won’t build themselves on the middle and front-end.

The “Why it rocks”

Cool as Temenos is, I jumped on board because Marketplace is a game changer. It’s more than a cool idea 1-2 amazingly smart people came up with, it’s an execution path to give their banks a fighting chance to react incredibly fast and still compete.

The premise is clear: there’s no more time to waste – between PSD2 opening the opportunity to all kinds of challengers new and old, and the big brand giants muscling in on financial services, banks need a solid, modern back-end and on the front-end a way to grab at the relationship with the consumer by redesigning the experience if they are to remain in the B2C game.

Temenos’ specialty is of course the solid, modern, back-end while there are hundreds of smaller FinTech providers that have built products for the relationship building front-end. Each of these elements is as urgent as each other and there simply is no more time for banks to be half-pregnant with the idea of innovation and the appetite for checking what FinTech providers fits into their vision through half baked POCs at the end of an accelerator cohort or on the back of an innovation-lab-ran RFP.

Marketplace gives Temenos banks this crucially needed speed (at the click of a button they can see precisely what that respective provider does and how it would fit and that same day they could be playing with it in their own sandbox and it would be days of painless plug-and-play integration away from having that functionality live to their consumers should it be desired!) but also gives them the legal, procurement or technical confidence that this provider was tested, certified and integrated by Temenos.

The beauty of Marketplace is that it’s not only a game changer for the banks but for the FinTech providers (aka the obnoxiously grammatically incorrect “the FinTechs”). Over the past few years, I met hundreds of providers whether at Finovate or while I mentored for StartUpBootCamp, Techstars and others and with a handful I got very much stuck in either as a founder, an employee or an investor so I’ve “been there” when it comes to finding partners to help small start-ups with exceptional products get to scale fast and it’s not an easy ask.

Interestingly, in true FinTech poetic justice fashion, I was once one of these vey providers trying to become a Temenos partner years ago when I was running Meniga’s sales. Let me tell you I would have killed for the opportunity as it is today – become integrated to the back-end, get in front of their 2000 banks and have all the legal, technical and commercial ducks in a row within weeks in lieu of the heavy lifting of a near-endorsement that didn’t end with much in the way of sales.

So I’m beyond excited and I believe this to be revolutionary. Temenos and Marketplace won’t be the only ones smart and brave enough to clearly spell out the time crunch banks are in and offer a clear path to fix that and so realize on the promise of partnership in FinTech, many others will do the same and this is therefore the beginning of the end for the chaos of the FinTech inflation.

The consolidation around value in the industry that I’ve long been speaking about starts here and with it, banks that now have the appetite to become a brand, the methods to culturally adapt around accepting that change has to be profound and fast and an execution path to make that change stand a fighting chance.

The Banker and the Sour Grapes

*Warning – the following may cause your knickers to knot. If it does so, please re-read as it is meant as compassionate analysis not mindless bashing.*

Cognitive-Dissonance-1

Today’s story will be about bankers’ cognitive dissonance when it comes to consumers’ needs.

We are all “grown” here so I’m sure everyone is familiar with what “cognitive dissonance” stands for but a refresher may be in order to help us along:

In short, it’s the feeling of really uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

The most well known example of cognitive dissonance can be found in Aesop’s “The Fox and Grapes” fable where a fox is really keen on having some grapes but can’t reach to eat them so decides to end its internal turmoil by concluding they weren’t going to be tasty as they were not ripe yet, originating the “sour grapes” expression.

Let’s replace the Fox with our Banker.

The fox’s thought is “I believe I fancy some grapes and I think I will reach and jump and generally do what is necessary to reach them and consume them which would make me happy“. Our banker’s equivalent is “I believe I am a good at my job, surrounded by good people and knowledgeable enough about FinTech that I accept fast changes need to occur in our digital proposition so I am working hard to ensure we make them fast enough to keep our customers happy.

The dissonant thought on the part of the fox is “I know can’t reach the grapes” whereas the banker may think “I know that I am part of a nearly paralysed monolithic structure that is slow to come up with newness and implement it, that all the agile new challengers will bypass us on the race to the consumer no matter what I do.

After having decided he can’t do it despite its better efforts, the fox thinks “‘They’re sharp and hardly worth my while!” while after seeing his first thought being uncomfortably challenged by the pace with which others are moving, the banker said no further than last week “Seen that there Tandem losing its license? Challenger -schallengers, no danger there, they won’t even make it to consumers, no need to hurry anyone, business as usual!

Having personally heard variations of the “sour grapes” thought above from the mouth of a few different bankers, I was aghast. These are uber smart, uber hard working, very knowledgeable bankers, surely they can’t truly believe that.

Surely, I thought, they know that’s generally untrue and that examples such as Tandem’s story or Monzo’s tech issues or even the delays in Starling and Atom they use to make the same point, are not true illustrations of their license to relax as the customer will get better nowhere else, yet they say it. And momentarily believe it.

Furthermore, surely they know that the real threat and why they should not start leaving the office at 5 pm again and cancel their innovation labs, is not the challengers but the huge technology giants and what they are cooking in the background in digital money experience and yet they say that.

cognitive_dissonance (1).jpg

Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact bankers are aware that there’s threat in the immediate propositions too – after all no one contests that the challengers and the experience-layer-banks will serve to wet consumers’ appetite for impeccable UX and really contextual functionality and once wetted it may be impossible to keep critical dissatisfaction at bay, but when you add to that same CX magic the mass that the giants have – it should keep every incumbent banker awake at night.

Here’s the kicker though – they are human beings, they can’t keep being awake every night, they work double hard without the luxuries the other FinTechers have – the freedom of expression, the speed to see results, the feeling of being part of change at a suitably innovative, fast paced rhythm so they need the momentary relief.

I’ve said this many times before – no other industry behaves quite like ours or has been affected by the sharp advent of technology and its effects on customer experience in quite the same fashion so we’re experiencing unprecedented levels of discomfort in many ways irrespective what part of the industry we are in. All of us – bankers new and old, technology makers and commentators, we are all impacted by this spectacular time in the growth of digital and the money retail business. There’s no time to complacently relax into anything, deep conceptual thinking is nearly banned if we wanted to keep up, there is definite uncertainty to accompany ever growing demands and it feels like the more we learn, and the more we try, the harder it is.

FinTech these days has become like an immensely fast paced game with absurd levels of difficulty thrown in for ever-diminishing (or at least largely unclear) pots of gold. No one has to bare the stress more than those working in large incumbent banks. Spare a thought (and occasionally a pint of beer) for their painful bouts of cognitive dissonance, look them straight in the eyes and remind them “Forget Tandem, they’re not sour, keep trying to reach.”

Everyone is FinTech, get over it

Ok, I will admit: I’m highly OCD about terms AND I have a very low tolerance for what can only be called BS, which leaves me with having to get something off my chest about the term “FinTech/s”.

I wrote about this before and that was ages ago in FinTech years -2015!- and at the time I was mildly annoyed not highly irritated as I am now.

Let me be blunt: our industry is brimming with neophytes -and let’s just say that is not the first term that came to mind-. One can tell we’re in the middle of peak FinTech by how London cabbies nonchalantly go “ah ok, that’s big these days” when you tell them you’re “in FinTech”.

This wave of neophytes comes with a sleuth of opinions which is intrinsically good and necessary in a “new blood”sort of way, but some are majorly dogmatic and shockingly loud when it comes to who can call themselves “FinTech”, and even more infuriating, who definitely can not.

Now here’s my take as not the FinTech-est around but surely someone who is FinTech-er than the neophytes (see what I did there? made it an adjective, neer neer!):

FinTech is a very broad term that refers to all Financial Technology and you can not go on and on about how it can only ever describe small, nimble, innovative StartUps, get over it.

To be fair, this is a selfless PSA for the industry and it will work against my newly found guilty pleasure that allowed me, over the past few months, to be at various industry events whether a conference, a posh dinner or an awards gala and revel in the indignation of various parties when I calmly rejected their arguments to support the above.

Most conversations would go like this:

“But you must agree Duena, not every company in the industry is FinTech, only the startups are, they need to stop using this term!”

“Nope, not the apanage of start-ups. All Financial Technology”

“Oh come on, not like the big, big ones!”

“Yup, as long as they thought about and/or built, and/or implemented Financial Technology. It’s not about size.”

“No, I mean like FIS, or Temenos or such”

“Yup, FinTech companies”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not, in fact it’s not only FinTech but good stuff too these days, check out what most of these big guys have in their portfolio or what they show at Finovate, etc”

“Ok well nevermind, maybe they are catching up, maybe they are becoming FinTech now”

“Nope, been in FinTech all along. Long before most of anyone else”

“Fine, those are tech product companies what about the consultancies calling themselves FinTech?”

“Yup, them too”

“What?!?”

“I don’t like it any more than you do, they had a late start in “getting it” and I am not claiming they are necessarily selling valuable FinTech advice but it’s FinTech nonetheless”

“OK this is absurd, next you’ll claim banks are FinTech”

“The OGs of FinTech. Who do you think built the first back-end and front-end of any digital proposition?”

“What? I thought you hated banks!”

“You thought wrong. I love banks so much that I want them to do well. Which is why I cut the BS when I point out where they are currently failing.”

“What are *we* then?!?”

“FinTech providers.”

And on and on ad nausea. Now that I’ll publish this, I am likely going to get less entertainment and (even) more sideways looks, but it’s worth it to try and stop the “FinTech is start-ups only” dogma one side of the industry has.

Which brings me to another point. The “sides”. The “us” versus “them” mentality between providers and banks must be unique to Financial Services. Name me another industry where the innovation in technology that the customers expect, has happened mainly externally from the incumbents due to their sluggish response, and has created an ecosystem of start-ups and high-growth technology creators selling their solutions to the service provider by pointing out how horrible the latter is. We have such a divisive discourse in the industry that the “ecosystem” conversations sound more like the trendy word of the day than a meaningful shared impetus.

Whether you are a veteran or someone who Googled what FinTech was then started having an opinion this month, you can’t deny that -for now- we are in a unique market moment with a fascinating dynamic in our industry to say the least and it would serve us all to want to build bridges rather than point fingers.

Cornerstone of my Emotional Banking TM methodology is the “Keep it real” part. It’s a self explanatory concept and while banks have an arduous road ahead keeping it real in terms, in more ways than one, providers in turn, owe it to the industry to not develop meaningless jargon and fixed ideas of their own and turn into the very kind of beast they claim to be battling.

Lastly, to me, “being FinTech” is not about a label but about a burning need to keep building and bettering money services for the consumer and anyone with enough brains and passion is welcomed.

Dear Bank Marketing Department – a word

brand

Disclaimer: this will sound obnoxious to a greater extent than my articles usually do, so let this be a warning.

Incumbent banks are in a bind and need to undergo rapid change. I don’t think anyone who knows anything about the ways in which the financial industry is going to be challenged thanks to technology, who would argue otherwise.

I am not going to re-list the threats here – the list is not extensive but sufficiently powerful and compelling.

I am not even going to bemoan the pace with which banks react to these very serious enemy-at-the-gate signals, which is indeed, alarmingly dismal.

What I am going to do is break down who it is that is in charge of this change.

Banks are complex organisations with indescribably many (and occasionally highly nonsensical and useless) departments. At the core of them, like in any other company, you will have on the one hand, the business side and on the other, the technology/ “IT”/operational side.

For the purpose of this exercise we should leave the “IT side” out of it. While they certainly can help by sharing into the big ideas they are typically already further ahead in understanding what could be done but have little in the way of power to make it happen. The myth of the solution architect (or even the compliance guy for that matter) sat in the corner of the meeting rooms where exciting ideas fill the air only to shoot them all down at the end because “that’s not possible with our technology/regulatory framework” – has been dismantled by the past few years when he is often the guy suggesting big changes.

Another side of the bank to leave out of this, is the BOD/Strategy/Big Wigs layer. Not because they should not be responsible for change obviously, but because the horse of how old, stuck and inflexible the board members of banks are, has been flogged to its unsavoury demise and it’s now a truism that brings nothing to the discourse. Do I believe the voices calling for new or at least improoved blood are wrong? Not necessarily – but I believe change can ripple towards our existing structures if it starts in the middle layer.

This leaves us with the following players who need to roll up their sleeves:

  1. Digital
  2. Innovation
  3. H.R.
  4. Marketing and Sales

When it comes to Digital whether it’s Product and Service design, Experience, Strategy or any other name of any other department and team that offers the consumer a bank product in any other way than by phone, ATM or branch, they have been shouldering the brunt of the need to change burden of every bank for the past 8-10 years and while yes, they are the future, and a bank’s best bet in winning any of this, theirs is a tough role too busy responding to rapid change while trying to balance sheets to ask them to do more in changing the culture of the organisation.

The Innovation teams – the Hubs, the Labs, the Funds and so on they have their sleeves rolled. Whether their efforts trickled down to consumers and their existence should continue in a bubble or be firmly woven within the fabric of the bank’s organisation is another story for another day but it’s undeniable that they have been trying hard to show that the ship is sailing straight for the iceberg of sudden, devastatingly powerful competition over the last few years. Sadly, when they now warn the powers-that-be, in even stronger terms, of the imminent nature of these changes and how banks will become pipes if they ignore the need, theirs sounds like a “Boy-who-cried-wolf” moment.

H.R. in my opinion firmly holds the key to meaningful and lasting change and to my delight, some banks now recognise this and are starting to make the moves to show that “it’s all about the people and the culture and not the technology” is more than just a nice slogan. Personally, little excites me more than my work with one of Europe’s leading banks who not only empowered H.R. to lead fundamental organisational change but allows them to explore topics that cut deep such as language, knowledge, courage and passion. As much as I love what they are doing and how I think it’s future proof work, it’s a long arduous road to seeing it aid the other players in immediate shake-ups.

Which brings me to Marketing. I’ll come right out and say it: the marketing departments of banks are the weakest link and they need to wake up now. While there are good explanations as to why they are de-facto stuck in 2002 in terms of practices and output and while we can blame the Big Wigs for confining them to a corner where they manage budgets and create ads while thinking of the colours- plenty and of the core of what they’re doing – none; we can not excuse it forever.

It’s no secret I am militant about the fact that Banks are the only consumer industry unconcerned about being a beloved brand and unless that radically changes it will be the reason for their demise.

A true brand creates powerful connections to the people who believe in it. A brand lives and breathes. It’s introspective and organically innovative. It spurs ideas and change and aims to ensnarl its customers with yet more expected awesomeness at every opportunity. A real brand is addictive.

Who should be the creators and guardians of the brand? You guessed it – the Marketing department. The gap between that fundamental job and the job they are performing today is staggering. The mere fact that Marketing departments of banks call a document which details what fonts and what shades of colours should be used when talking about their company “Brand Assets” is ironic no less because it shows the full contents of the notion of “brand” as they use it.

In other industries Marketing and Product are fusing. Customer Experience and Design have become the hub of strategy. Retail is recognising that surprising and delighting consumers is an every day imperative in this new reality of rapid innovation through technology, and they’ve long known that having an extremely strong brand is the only way to hold a relationship with the consumer enough to have the opportunity to continue to surprise and please them.

None of this is happening in banking and much of it is the Marketing’s department’s fault.

There are pockets of better where a bank has marketeers avidly inquisitive about their consumers and intensely interested in creating and upholding a brand but these banks are the mBanks, the CheBanca!s, the INGs and not the big heavy incumbents that need it the most.

So dear Marketing – you must know that your job as it is today, stripped of the human element, devoid of creation of lasting value, will be one of the first ones to go as soon as machines take over in the not to distant future. You must also know that you could be the key to this intensely needed change if only you imagined this was Ugg not RBS you work for, so please, for all our sakes’ – put down the Press Release and grab the Brand.