The familiar face that is always available to help; the person you visit during life’s most exciting events (your first house, your business startup); the individual who generously gives back to the community. That was my perception of the community banker when I was growing up.
Bankers were trusted community leaders. If you attained such a label, you made your parents proud and found purpose in your calling. Today, however, some parents may be less eager for their children to grow up and become bankers. This is because the public perception of the banker has changed, especially in the last dozen years.
Many banker reputations were wrongly (and a very few rightly) dinged and battered during the Great Recession. Other bankers suffered image erosion by simply not keeping up with changes in customer preferences. The overhang of excessive regulation — or even the threat of it — simply took some of the wind out of their sails.
Banking is not the only industry that has had to undergo an image makeover. The concept is not new. However, the challenge is heightened in an industry that is innovating at the speed of light: The banker’s image must evolve before the public’s perception turns into complete indifference.
Luckily, rehabilitating community banking’s public profile can be achieved, as most bankers are still the hardworking community leaders they have always been. But we have hit a roadblock. In my meetings with great men and women of the banking industry, I have noticed that a large segment — mostly baby boomers — have lost some of their enthusiasm for the business.
Community banking is clearly at an inflection point. Change is hard — especially when you do not know what or how to change — but change is necessary.
To regain the passion and zeal for their occupation that they had years ago, bankers need a vision for the future along with a plan. When bankers understand how their organization and individual roles fit into the big picture of the future of banking, creative innovation and product differentiation can be realized, along with real growth.
The digitization of finance will continue to speed up the process of opening accounts, servicing requests and processing loan applications. Paper transactions will eventually reach nonexistence. But this just means community bankers need to shift focus. While consumers may no longer need bankers to assist with transactions, no amount of digitization will replace the friendly face offering knowledgeable advice. After all, we live in an age where self-help books on finance fly off the shelves and the internet is replete with questionable financial advice. Bankers, your customers still need you, but you must adapt to solving their problems and answering their questions — not selling them products.
In addition to consumers, today’s and tomorrow’s business owners will likely use digital financial services for their benefit. However, a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, driven banker, who is also supported by original marketing, will be able to sway them back to their office for creative deal structuring, cash management services, business advice, wealth management, and other forms of advisory services — even some that are yet to be developed. Gaining customers is dependent on service differentiation through real problem solving from cradle to grave.
Integral to fostering thinking that leads to distinctive offerings is bringing in new perspectives. Millennial and non-banker professionals are a great source of fresh ideas, nuanced methods and inventive thinking that will enable a culture of continuous improvement.
And, once the momentous change and re-invention of community banking brings tangible results, millennials who become parents will have no qualms dreaming of their babies growing up to become bankers — leading and serving their communities.