When I hear bankers talking about technology at conferences, one version of the conversation can sound something like this: "We know we need to be better at using technology, like fintechs are, but how?" Another version might be: "How do we act more like a startup?"
From experience, I know these conversations have been taking place in consumer banking for several years. But in small-business banking, where I'm currently focusing my efforts, those conversations are a few years behind.
Existing technology aimed at small businesses just isn't cutting it anymore. Business owners have become accustomed to great user experiences with the consumer technology they use daily. Now they're looking for the same level of quality in their business services. There is a definite opportunity for the industry to improve how it serves small-business customers.
When banks grapple with questions like how to "act like a startup," they tend to expect the answer will be primarily technical. They focus on how newer firms adopt paths to greater efficiency through automation (like support chatbots), hone data science and utilize more experimentation with the latest technologies. These are all important endeavors, but the core strategy employed by startups is decidedly nontechnical: build what your customers need by listening to what they want.
Fintech startups compete not just with technology, but by offering service in the spirit of community banks — being a responsive, trusted resource for their customers. It is this fusion of modern technology and great service at scale that differentiates startups, and the new generation of business owners will embrace banks that do the same.
Over the last few years, I've spoken to and learned from hundreds of small-business owners. Small-business customers are a hybrid: They have the financial resources, technology expectations and financial anxieties of a consumer banking customer but the logistical needs of a business.
In an effort to respond to that unique set of needs, banks can begin by asking prospective some rudimentary customers: Who are you? What challenges do you have in your business? What's working and what's not working in your current financial landscape? The most important question is: How can we help?
The most important thing startups do is to listen to their customers and build things that people want. Rather than focusing on cost reduction through customer service automation, banks should focus more on: "What do our customers want service to look like?" If you concentrate on building chatbots that may or may not meet customer expectation, you may fail to understand that small-business customers just want to talk to a person.
Not all banks have traditionally considered technology and service in unison, with the exception of treating both as a cost center. The industry has embraced technology as a worthy investment to help build a competitive advantage and spur growth. But banks sometimes struggle to figure out which problems tech is best enabled to solve. The clear answer is that banks should focus on how to leverage technology to improve customer happiness. The intersection of customer happiness and technology is where the most opportunity lies for fintechs and banks to come together.
Happy customers lead to growth. Using technology to improve efficiency or cut costs helps your margins once, but creating more capacity to understand and build what your customers want can enable growth long into the future. There's no shortcut to good service — it requires investment of time, tech and leadership. Luckily, the first step is the simplest: know your customer.
Brian Merritt is CEO of Seed, a mobile banking service for small business. Previously he was the vice president of engineering at Simple.