Something has got to give.
In recent months senior bank executives have repeatedly been telling me things aren't working: Investments that should be paying off, aren't. Significant spending on digital channels is failing to generate new revenue. And efforts to improve the depth and breadth of relationships between frontline staff and customers have occasionally resulted in staff feeling inappropriate pressure from banks to push products.
There's no magic bullet that can ensure the next investment will pay off. However, there is a single fundamental idea that explains why financial providers aren't getting the results they expect: Banks are investing too much in distribution channels and not enough in products. What matters is what the customer gets, not how they get it. Or, put into the industry's language, what matters is product, not channel.
Since the financial crisis banks have invested in making access to the bank easier — most often through providing digital ways to do everyday banking. But despite these investments, banks have not seen improvements in the measures of customer loyalty that are most important to the bank — those that lead to future revenue.
That doesn't mean those investments aren't important. At CEB, our research shows that banks that haven't invested in making access easier are more likely to see customers leave. The message customers are sending is clear: "Easy" is table stakes. Customers expect banking to be easy. Therefore financial institutions must invest in the basic technologies required to make accessing the bank easy, or else customers will get frustrated and switch providers. But the likelihood of any marginal return from those investments is unlikely.
So what investments do banks need to make for customers to do more business with them? According to our research, customers are one and a half times more loyal to providers that help them achieve key steps toward their goals.
Sure, this sounds like an obvious statement — of course customers want help — but it is the kind of help that makes this request interesting. Customers do not reward providers that help them make a plan to reach their goals. Instead, customers reward the institutions that help them stay on track toward achieving those goals, including by reminding them of the small daily things they can do to ensure their goals become reality. Consumers even want banks to go so far as to automate those tasks.
There's no way for a bank to do this kind of daily intervention in their customers' lives through traditional channels. Customers don't visit branches every day. Even if they did, the level of individual guidance required would prove difficult and costly to engineer through face-to-face interactions. Instead, intervening in customers' lives in a way that will generate shared value is going to require the use of digital technology in a way most banks have not begun to systematically consider.
While some banks have made investments in this kind of product, the most prominent examples come from nonbank entrants like Digit and Even — startups that have carefully focused on customers' financial problems.
Banks are going to need to build products that are engineered to reliably produce the right outcome for the customer. Their traditional products can't do that. For instance, adjusting the rate on a rewards checking account doesn't do anything to ensure the customer reaches his goal.
To start creating these products, banks need to change their thinking about what "banking" really is. Banking isn't just the things current products do. Banking is all of the steps the customer needs to complete in order to achieve his goals. Banks must provide help with those steps, and when they do, they will be rewarded by customers with increased loyalty.
John Fishback is a principal executive advisor at CEB, a best practice insight and technology company. His Twitter handle is @JTF_CEB.