When I ask bankers what topics they are most interested in having me address at meetings, they invariably say some version of “dealing with change.”
That response makes sense. The speed of change in the banking industry is increasing. Ubiquitous personal computers, smartphones with ever-more creative and functional mobile apps and near-universal high-speed internet access have done more to shift the tectonic plates of banking than anything else in decades.
Those things are hard to argue. However, while the rate of change has increased, the rate at which we’re told we’re doomed if we don’t immediately change everything has increased even faster. I compare it to the social media phenomenon. As individuals, we often feel pressured to live up to the highlight reels others project on social media. Everyone appears so smart, happy and successful on Twitter and Facebook.
Likewise, business leaders feel increasingly pressured by whatever new brilliant strategy or move their competition is aggressively promoting:
Branches are visited far less by customers than in past years and must be phased out.
No, branches are a critical part of a broad-based offering that customers demand.
No, branches are needed, but not in the formats we presently offer.
From institution to institution, each of those things may be true. Two competitors in the same market can make moves that seem incongruent, and yet, they make sense for each business. Some financial institutions are shuttering branches in certain markets, while others look to add and/or refurbish and recommit to branches in those same markets. One institution decides that small branches with increased self-service technologies are the key to survival, while another chooses to provide branches with community rooms for meetings, sitting areas and free Wi-Fi to customers and non-customers alike.
In other words, banking is not homogenous. All may operate in a similar economic environment and play by the same rules. The idea that there is one strategy for ultimate success, however, is a specious one.
That shouldn’t be an especially debatable statement. And yet, there is a natural tendency for leaders to fear that the competition is onto something that they aren’t.
An admittedly not-perfect, but useful, analogy I often reference is the restaurant industry. There tends to be even more restaurants in most U.S. cities and towns than banks. All are in the same general business and must follow the same zoning requirements, health codes and labor laws. Some are parts of large restaurant chains and are one of hundreds of comparable locations that have identical menus, layouts and product offerings across the country. Other restaurants are sole operators or smaller chains with more individuality, local ties and diverse menus. Some strive to serve many people quickly, often in drive-thru windows. Individual ticket dollars are lower, but their volume is high. Others strive for fewer total sales transactions, but with higher dollar amounts per visit.
They are in the same industry — with noticeably different strategies — and succeed when the operations are well run and fail when they are not, regardless of the merits of their strategies.
Banking is no different. Your strength might be having the most convenient branch locations. Maybe you have the deepest local ties and community involvement. Perhaps your teams are appreciably more engaged and focused on delivering superior customer service. Rather than always chasing what competitors are doing, strive to become even better in areas, services and offerings you are exceptional at now.
New technologies, branch designs and banking strategies will continue to evolve and smart banks will adopt them as they make business sense. But the teams that are most focused on executing and creating superior customer service today will be the ones most successful in executing on whatever comes next. Customers will be far more likely to stick with you through the changes you make — or don’t — tomorrow.