As part of a rebranding campaign last year, Grove Bank & Trust in Miami considered how it might upgrade its mobile banking app to be more relevant to its customers.

The $656 million-asset Grove, previously known as Coconut Grove Bank, primarily serves commercial clients and the wealthy, and it wanted to offer functions not found in generic mobile banking tools. It wanted to make it easy for customers to more easily search for individual transactions and statements. It sought its small-business customers to find the transfer of money between accounts to be simple. And it wanted to provide its wealth management clients with an aggregated look at their money in one screen. The bank’s executives felt that those types of functions could make it a standout.

“We are not competing with a TD Bank that is open until 8 at night and on Saturday and Sunday; you can’t out-retail a TD Bank,” said Rick Kuci, Grove's CEO. “Our customers are looking for different things” than general retail customers.

So, the bank ditched its existing mobile vendor, which Kuci declined to name, hired someone dedicated to digital services and worked with its core systems provider Jack Henry to rebuild its app.

“You don’t want to have a dinosaur product” when it comes to mobile, Kuci said. “You have to adapt to the times and give clients what they want.”

The hard work paid off. The number of clients using the mobile app has increased 40% since its debut in February 2016.

Chart showing common traits of highly rated mobile banking apps.

Kuci said homing in on the customer’s specific needs is the key to its success with the app.

Although Grove is a community bank specializing in commercial lending, its success is echoed by the findings of a recent Forrester benchmarking study examining mobile offerings for retail customers from 53 global banks. Essentially, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. Banks that are taking a methodical approach to mobile banking, where they constantly update and refine their offerings, are experiencing higher usage rates and customer satisfaction than those that see it as a channel that can be upgraded every three years.

“It’s not just that some banks are investing more, but they’re investing more wisely,” said Peter Wannemacher, a senior analyst with Forrester.

Forrester found many banks’ mobile apps lacked functions that would not require a large investment to implement, for example the ability to search for things within an app or sort transactions. These are minor functions, but many banks lack them and not having them can hinder an entire user experience, Wannemacher said.

For community banks, which don’t have the overall budget to use on digital as their larger counterparts, Wannemacher’s advice to spend wisely is especially important. Such banks can’t throw a ton of money at digital services, but can spend what they do have in a way that they remain competitive in mobile.

Other industry observers gave similar guidance.

“Identify the most widely and frequently used [functions] and then try and eliminate pain points around those,” said Stephen Greer, an analyst in Celent’s banking group.

While smaller banks may not be able to keep up with large, global institutions in digital, too many have remained stagnant, Greer said.

“A few years ago, everyone started to realize how important mobile was, and everyone had to offer a mobile app with the basic functionality,” he said. “But beyond that, for many banks nothing more has really been done. When we talk to smaller institutions, they often bring up the cost aspect to adding new functionality, and how much will it add to the bottom line. With margins that are razor-thin, they usually are less inclined” to invest in digital.

Wannemacher returned to his point that small upgrades can keep banks relevant in digital. Not every project has to bring about a large change in how the bank operates.

“You don’t have to reinvent your whole culture to improve mobile banking,” he said.

Simply making the user experience better can lead to customers engaging with a bank’s mobile app more often and with better results.

“It’s not just about spending money on new features; you can have all the features in the world and it won’t help you if your mobile app is inconvenient to use,” Wannemacher said.

Wannemacher added that the banks that do mobile best are ones that perform “constant reassessment; they’ve moved away from prebudgeted, three-year road maps.”

That’s a strategy Grove Bank & Trust has recently began to adopt; while it does have road maps and budgets set aside in advance, it also has built in the capacity to change those on the fly, Kuci said. And it is looking for things it can add along the way. For instance, it is exploring the feasibility of enabling small-business clients apply for a loan solely on the mobile app.

“What’s cutting-edge technology now can be out of date in a year,” Kuci said. “You can do a three-year [tech] road map and some of it can be out of date in six months. We need to be agile and flexible to stay current and provide our clients with the technology they want.”

Bryan Yurcan

Bryan Yurcan

Bryan Yurcan is a senior writer with American Banker, with a focus on financial technology.