Banks tore up digital scripts once pandemic hit

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When U.S. Bancorp realized this spring that some customers were going to struggle to pay their mortgages, it moved quickly to design and deploy an online forbearance tool. Within a week of launching, the tool was used by more than 50% of customers seeking a temporary halt on payments.

How did the Minneapolis bank move so fast? Chief Digital Officer Derek White said it was “well down the path” of its current technology strategy when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“The investments we’ve made in technology positioned us” to be able to react quickly to the situation, White said. “If anything was accelerated, it was the recognition that we need to design the experience around the end human user and understand what they want to be able to do with their money.”

Industry experts say that banks with robust technology strategies are well ahead of the competition in the age of the coronavirus. For starters, many were able to transition large swaths of their workforce to remote setups in a matter of weeks, if not days. Then they moved quickly to install online application portals for small-business owners seeking emergency Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Now, several — from the megabank Wells Fargo to the community bank WSFS Financial in Wilmington, Del. — are referring back to their technology road maps, ramping up or refining services such as digital account openings, mobile check deposits and online mortgage deferment tools. Others are introducing digital treasury solutions and expanding onboarding capabilities for new and existing customers.

Brad Smith, managing director of the technology solutions team at Cornerstone Advisors Group, said technology projects with “low or questionable” returns on investments may be put on the back burner, but by most accounts banks are moving forward with — and in some cases expanding — their technology initiatives.

“Banks that have already invested in and transformed their digital channels are just killing it right now,” Smith said. “Folks who were really smart to make big bets on digital and contact centers and already had those things in play have seen very little disruption” as a result of the pandemic and economic fallout.

For years, banks have been heavily investing in information technology. According to a June 2019 report from Accenture, the world’s retail and commercial banks collectively spent about $1 trillion a year between 2015 and 2018 to reshape their IT capabilities.

Research from Cornerstone, a consulting firm for financial institutions, shows that banks spend roughly $2 million to $3 million on technology per billion dollars in assets, Smith said. That is up 2% since 2017, he said.

The end goal: to create better and faster products and services for customers, which in turn would drive customer growth and, ultimately, revenue growth. There are mixed feelings about whether these efforts are having a big top-line impact, but banks nonetheless continue to “digitize” all kinds of business lines.

In fact, going into 2020, the bulk of the technology spending was centered on digitization, including online account openings, Smith said. In general, banks were either replacing first-generation online account-opening models or adding that capability to their lineup for the very first time, he said.

Now, with so many people staying home and businesses shut down, it has become a critical service.

“That’s just going gangbusters,” Smith said. “And the vendors are now dealing with a backlog.”

At the $12.3 billion-asset WSFS, online account openings are just one part of the bank’s technology strategy, according to Chief Technology Officer Lisa Brubaker. The bank initially laid out a five-year, $32 million tech plan, but last year decided to speed up the pace and delivery of the project to three years.

It then spent much of 2019 laying the foundation for its digital overhaul. Today the bank is improving its online and mobile presence, building a digital toolset for employees to better serve clients and opening up its technology infrastructure to partner with fintech and other firms.

Those items were always part of the bank’s plans, but now there is a new sense of urgency, Brubaker said.

“I think, if anything, the [crisis] underscores our need to stay the course” on technology, she said. “If we see a need to accelerate in some area, we will because we think it’s important to stay ahead.”

Wells Fargo, the third-largest bank in the nation, with assets of nearly $2 trillion, recently raised the limits for mobile deposits and wires, launched a new digital mortgage deferment tool and expanded its e-signature capabilities. In an email, Saul Van Beurden, the bank’s head of technology, said more than 340,000 Wells customers have enrolled in digital banking in recent weeks, at the same time as there have been significant year-over-year increases in mobile deposits, online sessions and online wires.

Van Beurden said the bank will “keep on investing” in its digital initiatives.

The American Bankers Association, which represents banks of all sizes, could not say how much the banking industry spends on technology. But the organization does not expect a near-term reduction.

“I think technology spending will be an increasing priority at banks across the board,” said Rob Morgan, the ABA’s senior vice president of innovation and strategy. “That was the case before, and I think it will be the case even more so after. As the economy digitizes, banks will do the same.”

At Citizens Financial Group, a “digital transformation” that has been underway for the better part of a year gave the Providence, R.I., company the ability to pivot quickly, Chief Information Officer Michael Ruttledge said. First it focused on transitioning about 70% of its employee base to a work-at-home model in three weeks and then it moved on to building out a PPP loan-processing portal, which it accomplished in just 48 hours.

Now it is turning its attention back to its technology guidebook and asking some key questions: What investments should it be making in technology, and what can it do to accelerate the process?

“I do think it’s forcing us to step back and look at our investments and say, ‘Are we making investments in the right places?’ ” Ruttledge said. “We’re definitely asking, ‘What should we be doing in the digital space?’ particularly when you think about managing through a recession and taking care of our clients.”

Brian Klock, a managing director who covers midsize banks at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said he does not expect banks in general to pull back on their technology budgets this year. Instead, like Citizens, they are likely to think hard about where those investments will be directed.

“I just think they want to make sure the dollars they’ve investing are working and funneled toward where demand is the highest right now,” he said.

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