Our financial data conveys a lot of personal information about us — how much we make, how much we spend, how much we save, how much we invest — but is by itself just a lot of impersonal numbers. And as convenient as online and mobile options are for dealing with financial services providers, these interactions are impersonal too, notwithstanding the welcome message on screen addressing us by name and the targeted ads.
Even in a digital era, human connections still matter. That is one big disadvantage for all those fintech startups that operate only online, and increasingly for banks as customers stop making regular visits to their favorite teller (or, perhaps more common now, ever speaking to a teller at all).
So it is instructive to hear what kind of creative thinking is going on about this challenge at some of the feisty competitors that aim to make banks irrelevant.
Take SoFi, for example.
Would you attend a singles mixer set up by a bank? How about use a dating app from a financial services provider? The San Francisco-based online lender Social Finance, better known as SoFi, is making both of these tactics part of its strategy to attract and retain millennial customers.
"We throw happy hours every week in New York and all across the country," said Shaunda Brown, senior director of business development for SoFi. "We've taken people singles skydiving over Valentine's Day."
The company has organized 400 events in the past year. At least three couples have met at the events, and one is now engaged. SoFi intends to pay for the wedding.
Brown was part of a fintech panel discussion on the topic of "humanizing data" that the Alliance for Downtown New York hosted in November. She talked about the importance of finding new ways to understand the people behind the data, to create a meaningful connection and ultimately to provide better products and services.
SoFi started out with a focus on refinancing student loan debt — "a $1.3 trillion crisis in this country," she said — but now has expanded into mortgages, personal loans, wealth advisory services and insurance products. Brown refers to SoFi's millennial targets as "early career professionals." They are a highly desirable group the industry often calls "high earners, not rich yet," or HENRYs for short.
Though a lender with a dating app and singles mixers might be radical, SoFi is essentially creating a community with a common bond — they are all college graduates at the same life stage. "You come to these events and you're like-minded individuals, you're highly educated, you have careers, and you're meeting other people who are interested in similar things, and you're connecting naturally," Brown said.
SoFi's attitude on FICO scores is just as radical. The data points that most lenders rely on to make their decisions have remained the same for decades and are no longer relevant, Brown said. "We've eliminated FICO from our underwriting criteria, which is different than any other lender," she said. "That's a backward look at what you were doing in the past. It doesn't impact what you are going to be doing in the future."
SoFi believes a better gauge for loan prospects is their cash flow and future earning potential. "If you have a degree, you've worked hard, you've graduated, now you're making income, you're much less of a credit risk than when you were 18 years old and perhaps took out a student loan, for example. And so you'll be much less likely to default," Brown said.
That thinking is borne out by the results. Of the 200,000 loans SoFi has issued so far, only 15 have reached default — half of those due to untimely death.
Part of SoFi's "humanistic approach" also involves career services. "The No. 1 reason someone wouldn't be able to pay back their loan is because they lost their job," Brown said. "So what SoFi is able to do is pause their loan and help them find a new job through our networks."
SoFi is seeking to make student loan contributions part of employee benefits as well. It has a SoFi at Work program to target employers, and Brown said it has worked on a bill in Congress that would make a company's contributions toward repaying employees' student loans tax exempt, much like 401(k) contributions.
In Brown's view, banking needs a lot more radical thinking like the kind that goes on at SoFi and other fintech challengers. "Banking issues can't be solved by traditional bankers. It needs a fresh view and it's not just tech. You actually need new strategies, you need new ways of engaging, new customer experiences," she said.
"I would love to see a new generation of people that can come in and think differently about the customer experience and a product set that is much more in line with a long-term view of financial health, versus a short-term view of, 'I'm going to get paid my fee today.' "
Bonnie McGeer is Executive Editor of American Banker Magazine.