What stage IV cancer made me realize about banking

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On Jan. 15, 2016, during my 33rd-birthday party, I was eating dinner with friends when my face experienced partial paralysis. I couldn’t move the left side of my mouth. Something was wrong.

At the emergency room, doctors ran several tests and told me there was little to worry about — this problem wasn’t uncommon.

When I got the results a few weeks later, I learned that the situation was serious. I had 14 tumors in my lungs and additional tumors growing on the left side of my face. As the tumors were doubling in size each month, estimates were that I had four to seven months to live.

Teammates at my employer, MX, spearheaded by our CEO, wouldn’t accept this prognosis. We adopted the mantra that success was seemingly impossible, certainly improbable, but necessary. We met with a series of doctors across the nation, carefully documented their advice point by point, and eventually settled on a treatment plan in Boston and Seattle that was being tested for the first time in humans.

Six months passed and little changed. The tumors continued to double in size unabated.

However, by October of 2016 we received positive news. The growth rate of the tumors had halved. What’s more, in January of this year the growth rate reached negative-2%. We have reason for hope.

At this point, you may be wondering what my personal story has to do with the banking.

During one of my treatments, I was talking to a friend who sat with me. We’d just read about a company that claimed they were five years away from curing a certain subtype of cancer, and my friend said that if he knew he could help cure a single subtype of cancer in five years he would drop everything and work 100-hour weeks.

I told my friend that I thought what he was saying was noble — and total bs. We would all like to believe that we would work 100-hour weeks if we were part of something truly noble, but the truth is that most of us already have opportunities for nobility and yet we seldom capitalize on them.

Lately I have reconsidered my skepticism as it pertains to the financial services industry. Banks have the potential to combat a cancerlike scourge: consumers’ financial stress. It is imperative that they seize this opportunity. Economic stress is more than a nuisance; it can be a killer.

To illustrate, a study from Oxford University found that there were more than 10,000 excessive suicides related to economic stress in the U.S., Canada and Europe between 2008 and 2010, which was when people were feeling intense anxiety from the financial crisis. Another study from the International Academy for Suicide Research found that experiencing a major financial crisis is one of the two “most robust predictors of suicide attempts.”

If we would be willing to put in 100-hour weeks to cure a subtype of cancer, why wouldn’t we be willing to put in 100-hour weeks to alleviate financial stress and reduce suicide rates? Why not devote as much time, effort and resources to financial wellness as we would to curing a cancer subtype?

But doing the noble thing requires a certain mindset about the industry’s mission.

When we start from a place of advocacy — privileging actions that alleviate financial stress instead of compounding it — decisions in banking become far easier. We no longer push people into loans that are likely to cause them pain down the road. We don’t offer teaser rates and then incur heavy hidden penalties. We don’t fixate on short-term gains. Instead, we think about what Bradley Leimer, head of innovation at Santander NA, calls “customer lifetime value.” Everything we do is about how to enable real financial strength in consumers so they end up accurately viewing us as helpful partners throughout their entire life.

Fortunately, this strategy doesn’t mean neglecting your return on investment. In fact, it can mean just the opposite. For instance, Gallup notes that "customers who say their bank looks out for their financial well-being are much more likely to be fully engaged with their bank, leading to better financial outcomes for their bank.” They add that “these customers have a 13% higher penetration in credit products and a 22% higher penetration in investment, insurance, or advisory products."

Other research firms back up this point as well. Accenture writes, “Banks are at a tipping point. Their historically stable customer base could erode steadily if banks cannot deliver the service proposition that customers demand.” And Forrester Research puts the situation in even starker terms: “Focusing on customer loyalty is no longer just a smart strategy. In an age of empowered customers, it is an imperative.”

Our industry must take an active role in meeting consumers when they’re at the point of most need. We must provide the guidance, products and tools to the right user at the right time. It comes down to enacting a philosophical retreading of why we chose this profession and what makes it noble. Each consumer interaction gives us the choice to defend that nobility or acquiesce to the default mode of apathy. The foundations of ethical living demand that we act in ways that alleviate pain and embrace the nobility of our profession. To do anything less than that is to cheat life of its beauty.

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