BANKTHINK

What Bankers Can Learn Walking in Underbanked's Shoes

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If you were to browse through our company's digital photo album, you would spot some interesting shots: A banker at a pawn shop, getting a quote on his Ivy League class ring. A payments executive in a check cashing outlet, trying (and ultimately failing) to cash a personal check. A financial technology senior business leader loading cash onto her prepaid mobile phone account.

Since our inception, the Center for Financial Services Innovation has convened financial services companies from across the entire supply chain for signature thought leadership programs designed to accelerate the development of profitable, high-quality products and services for the underserved. During the past year, as part of our roundtable programming, we have stepped out of the boardroom for some experiential learning. The "Underbanked Experience" module developed by CFSI allows us to step into the shoes of underserved individuals to understand firsthand the mechanics of managing money by patching together a variety of financial services providers.

Donning jeans and T-shirts, senior executives from large companies like Bank of America, Western Union, and Visa, and smaller financial institutions like Redstone Federal Credit Union and Community & Southern Bank joined us as teams ventured into low-to-moderate income neighborhoods in New York City and Chicago to complete a series of financial challenges. These included: cashing both personal and payroll checks, buying and loading a prepaid card, originating and receiving a money transfer and topping-up mobile minutes. Executives were charged with taking public transportation to visit and transact with payday lenders, check cashers, pawn shops, credit unions and traditional banks.

Similarly, earlier this month, CFSI was invited to participate in NetSpend's first-annual "Community Connect" event in Austin, Atlanta and San Mateo, Calif. More than 300 NetSpend employees spent a day walking in the shoes of its customers and giving back to these communities. Employee teams were granted a total of $16,000 to give to their communities by completing various tasks. For example, after taking public transportation to cash a check, teams bought and loaded the cash onto a NetSpend card, and used the NetSpend card to buy lunch for a stranger, pay someone's utility or cable bill or buy groceries for a family.

Teams encountered hurdles that many people face daily to accomplish basic life tasks, and the learning moments were eye-opening. Serving the financially underserved requires a worldview that most industry insiders don't have, but truly need, in order to innovate responsibly on behalf these consumers. Here are five of the many insights these companies have gleaned from spending a day in the shoes of the underserved:

Cash-flow management is paramount. A NetSpend team asked a man if they could fill up his gas tank and how much it would cost them. The man replied, "I have never had a full tank of gas in my car," so he had no idea how much money it would take to fill the tank. Because he has to manage his cash-flow very closely, his custom was to put $5-10 in the tank at a time. How can financial products promote accurate micro-budgeting and expense tracking?

Managing money is (literally) a waste of time. Underbanked customers have to spend a lot of time waiting – in line, for the bus or metro or for identity verification. And since there is no one-stop shop for all of their financial needs – storing value, paying bills, sending money, saving, borrowing – consumers find themselves waiting over and over again. Successful products will reduce the transaction cost of valuable time.

Simplicity and ease win the day. Our CFSI participants identified prepaid mobile top-up and money transfer as the hands-down winners for "Best Customer Experience." Both are simple, transparent, and instinctive, and they don't try to do too much at once. (They are also intuitive for the retail cashier, who is often the key to success for financial products in the checkout line.)

Repeated rejection is demoralizing. In New York City, our CFSI participants were turned away over and over again at a variety of locations when attempting to cash personal checks. The fraud risk on personal checks, coupled with New York's check cashing fee cap, make it highly undesirable for providers to cash personal checks. Executives were dejected by their inability to complete the challenge. But that disappointment can't compare to the dejection a customer might feel if that check held the payment just received for housekeeping services, especially when funds are needed immediately for milk and diapers.

Word of mouth is powerful. NetSpend teams in Austin arriving at a local grocery store's business center looking to complete the "pay a utility bill challenge" were greeted by people who had heard about random acts of kindness happening in their community. Word spread via excited calls from friends, neighbors or siblings, telling them: "Bills are getting paid over here – get here as fast as you can." Imagine creating a product powerful enough to activate that word of mouth network.

Developing high-quality financial products and services for the 68 million underserved adults in the U.S. can be daunting. It's even harder when that development takes place on the 17th floor of a high-rise office building, many stories removed from the day-to-day realities of people's busy, complicated lives. We have seen firsthand the transformative power of the professional and personal moments of insight, and thus believe that there is simply no substitute for getting out of the office and into the shoes of the underserved - even if only for one day.

Karen Andres and Romy Parzick are senior manager and consultant of advisory services and manager of insights & analytics, respectively at the Center for Financial Services Innovation.

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