It’s a common complaint of business owners: As consumers they can open bank accounts quickly and have immediate access to their financial information on their mobile devices, but when it comes to doing their business banking, they feel stuck in 1995.

That is finally starting to change, though, as banks invest more heavily in digital upgrades geared toward corporate, middle-market and small-business customers.

In a recent survey of commercial bankers at 34 large and midsize banks conducted by Aite Group, 82% of respondents said that improving the user experience for commercial clients is a top priority at their institutions. Specifically, they are looking to develop digital services that could improve the onboarding process and give clients faster access and greater insight into their cash flow information are seen as the key initiatives.

“Many of these clients see a perceived gap between the digital capabilities they have as a retail customer and as a business banking customer,” said Gavin Geraci, the chief operating officer for business banking at the $361 billion-asset PNC Financial Services Group. “As a consumer, they’re accustomed to having slick apps and immediate access to information.”

PNC has rolled out several online cash management services, such as visual charts that track current and projected spending and analyze spending trends, that can quickly provide business clients the information they need “to make prudent business decisions,” Geraci said.

Further, Pittsburgh-based PNC is working on streamlining the onboarding process so that new clients can open an account and have access to it in the same day. Previously that process could take seven to 10 days, Geraci said.

“They would come into the branch to open an account, then they’d get a welcome letter, then they’d get a mailer with instructions and another mailer with more instructions. It was almost like giving the customer homework,” he said.

Onboarding commercial customers is something many banks could be doing better, said Christine Barry, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

“Often, the customer is asked for the same information over and over again. When that happens you risk abandonment and clients looking elsewhere,” she said.

A big issue for banks is that the systems that run cash management and transaction services were built decades ago and prioritized functionality over user experience, Barry added.

“They weren’t thinking about" the experience, she said. "It was more about keeping information safe.” Banks "offered a clunky experience for years, and hid behind the excuse that they couldn’t offer the same [services] they do on the consumer side, because commercial banking is more complex than retail banking. But business clients are no longer accepting that excuse. They’re saying, Why can’t you give me the same experience I get with Amazon?"

In general, banks need to start designing their cash management products for those who are “digital natives,” said Sayantan Chakraborty, the head of product management, global treasury management at Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp.

“Banks need to look at the commercial banking user experience … from the perspective of those who have grown up in the digital age, rather than those who became familiar with digital systems as adults,” he said. “Today, people are used to and expect to digitally manage an entire transaction life cycle, from doing research on a problem to evaluating options to buying a product to paying for it to installing the service and getting support from the service provider. Banks have to meet this same threshold expectation or they will lose market relevance.”

Chakraborty also said banks should not offer digital services to these clients just for the sake of it, but provide tools that offer meaningful insight. User experience “is not just about the screens and workflow,” but also about guiding the customers and giving them necessary tools to manage risk, he said.

PNC’s Geraci agreed.

“Many small-business owners do a lot digitally, so we want to provide useful digital services,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re putting everything but the kitchen sink onto a [mobile device] screen. We look at, 'What are the reasons they log in? What is the data they want most often?’ Then deliver that first.”

When it comes to designing useful digital cash management services, it is the customers who know best, Chakraborty said.

“They are coming to their banks and saying, ‘You know my business — present information in a way that can help me make the best decisions,’ ” he said. “ ’And while you’re at it, give me a simple digital interface that doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher.’ ”

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Bryan Yurcan

Bryan Yurcan

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