How Community Banks Can Compete With Fintechs & Megabanks

The head of innovation and strategy at a forward-thinking community bank shares insights on what consumers want right now, why conversion rates matter more than ever and how the right tech investments can help banks drive deposit growth while reducing overhead.

In 2016, Christian Ruppe co-founded Monotto, a fintech dedicated to improving financial literacy and planning for Millennials. When Monotto was acquired by Wisconsin-based Horicon Bank in 2021, Ruppe, a Millennial himself, stepped up to lead digital strategy and innovation for the 125-year-old community institution with $1.2 billion in assets.

The bank’s President, Fred Schwertfeger, often emphasizes the importance of “driving a shift in the traditional community banking model.” Below, his head innovation talks about the challenges community institutions face in digital banking — and shares his vision for what’s next at Horicon.

What sets Horicon Bank apart?

Christian Ruppe: We have great people, first and foremost. But we also want to enable our customers with technology. We want to grow. And the bank’s team is totally willing to keep improving things, to keep making Horicon bigger and better. It’s really exciting and satisfying to work with an organization like that.

What needs to change about community banking? What needs to stay the same?

Ruppe: Community banks invest in their communities, and that’s an incredibly important thing. But more and more, when customers interact with their bank, they’re not always looking to go into a branch. So all of your capabilities should really be possible through your bank, your app and your website. You need to give the customer the power to communicate and connect however they want. And a lot of community banks don’t have the technology necessary to make that possible.

So more customers are saying, you know what? Bank of America can do this on their app. Wells Fargo can do this. The result is that community banks are losing customers, and we need to find ways to turn that around. Every other industry is finding ways to automate. They’re finding ways to put the power in the hands of the consumer. And it’s time for community banks to catch up.

Christian Rupee Head of Digital Strategy for Horizon Bank says technology is a profit center so investing more in technology makes sense

Going forward, I really only see two options for consumers: 1. a megabank that doesn’t know any of its customers and just offers products, or 2. a forward-thinking community bank that knows its customers and helps with their needs. And if you want to be the latter, you can’t do it without technology.

People are used to Amazon and Apple. They want that kind of experience wherever they go. And they expect a bank — even a community bank — to look and feel like a neobank. If you’re delivering a clunky user interface, your customers won’t stick around. That’s why we pay such close attention to conversion rates. If we can create an intuitive online experience for onboarding new customers without staff intervention, that’s the most efficient way for us to meet those expectations while driving growth at scale.

How do you think customer expectations are changing when it comes to business account opening?

Ruppe: I think there’s a general assumption in the industry that people want to apply for business accounts in-branch. But I think that’s changing. A huge chunk of businesses are operated by one person or a couple of people, and a lot of them want to go online and apply for a business account in a few simple steps. Yes, maybe they want to have a closer relationship to help them with the full range of their banking needs. But ultimately, they’re just people running a business, and they want convenience as much as anybody.

Do you think these changes in customer expectations are largely generational? Or do you think it’s more universal than that?

Ruppe: I don’t think the changes are generational. Obviously, Millennials have grown up in a digital-first-world. We’re used to technical solutions, automated solutions. But older generations are getting on board really fast, because when people know technology is better, they use it. So that distinction between generations, at least in terms of digital behavior, is quickly disappearing.

How do you see the relationship between digital channels and brick-and-mortar branches evolving? How do these channels reinforce or amplify each other?

Ruppe: Many of today’s customers don’t want to talk to a person until they need to. At Horicon, we’ve tried to build around that expectation. The second you want to engage with a live person, we help you connect. We’ll set up a time for you to meet with someone.

We’re also bringing more of our technology and more digital experiences into our branches, so that sharp distinction between the two channels is starting to disappear. We absolutely believe in the future of branches, because almost every customer will want the option to engage in-person at one point or another. But we want the two experiences to be beneficial to each other — not take from each other.

Looking toward the future, how do you see tech investments supporting Horicon’s long-term resilience?

Ruppe: There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. But here at Horicon, we’ve created an engine to help us stay agile. If we experience a major macroeconomic event, whatever it may be, we have the infrastructure we need to pivot. In a matter of days, we can set up a new product to deliver whatever the market demands. And that’s because we’ve made the necessary investments to stay nimble, no matter what.

Ultimately technology isn’t a cost center. It’s a profit center. As soon as you start thinking of your digital investments like that — as soon as you change that conversation — then investing a little more in better technology makes a ton of sense.

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