Banking Leaders Discuss 2014 Strategic Planning Priorities

Banks and credit unions are faced with margin compression, high operating expenses, new competitors and channel disruption that challenge even the most efficiently run organizations. To assist with this year's strategic planning process, I asked some of the foremost global leaders in the banking and credit union industry to provide thoughts on what they believe are the 2014 strategic planning priorities.

Enhance the Customer Experience

Improving the customer experience was the foundation of almost all of the responses I received around 2014 strategic priorities. Whether we are talking about branch reconfiguration, mobile banking applications, back office operations, etc. banking industry leaders believe an improved customer experience is the key to growth.

As was said by Mary Beth Sullivan and the team from Capital Performance Group in their May/June Newsletter, “Many banks have a long way to go to get the basics right, so banks and credit unions should focus first on the basics. Once the basics are humming, ask yourselves: What can we do to be sure that our customers are better off banking with us than with our competition? What will make our customers lives better? How can we help them solve specific problems they are dealing with? Answers to these questions will define the experience you seek to create.”

Beyond ‘the basics’, other specific strategic initiatives were recommended by Steven J. Ramirez, CEO of Beyond the Arc. “Developing a proactive complain management process that goes beyond regulatory requirements can drive new customer experience projects”, says Ramirez. He also believes financial institutions need to determine how they can be a finger swipe away from providing guidance and support through mobile devices.

Financial industry futurist and blogger Scott Bales believes bankers need to get out of the office and talk to real customers, developing empathy for their problems, behaviors and desires if they want to develop offerings that align with the needs of the market. According to Bales, “The goal is to build experiences, not products”.


Sankar Krishnan from Sutherland Global sees customer experience as the ‘X factor’ across all channels and interactions the customer has with their financial institution. Comparing what banks need to strive for with customer experience leaders Apple, Amazon and Quicken Loans, Krishman believes banks need to excel at aligning people, process and technology.

Sam Maule from Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group believes that recent start-upssuch as Moven and Simple (and perennial cx leader USAA) are the best at visual engagement and customer experience. He quoted one of his banking clients as saying, “I would pay $500K for ONE great user experience designer. FSI’s are horrible at this. We have massive data systems, huge BI tools, and more, but none of that means jack for consumers if there isn’t an amazing user experience.”

Finally, best selling author and acclaimed management advisor Joe Pine believes banks and credit unions must go beyond providing just checking accounts and loans.


Define Mobile Positioning

In response to the growth in smartphone adoption and customer demand, most financial institutions offer basic mobile services. But those are just table stakes. Going forward, banks and credit unions now need to determine how to position this channel for the future.

Senior Aite analyst and Snarketing 2.0 blogger Ron Shevlin states, “The most important strategic question banks and credit unions need to address is how will the mobile channel help FIs add more value to the customer relationship, help differentiate the institution, and create a strategic advantage”. He adds, “If the 2014 strategic planning process can answer these questions, it will drive decisions regarding pricing, product offerings and customer segmentation.”

Noted technologist Bradley Leimer from Mechanics Bank agrees that banks need to move beyond ‘mobile banking 1.0’ and adopt a mobile-first mindset in regard to application development, marketing, service and transactional functionality. According to Leimer, “Banks need to build simplified journeys similar to those offered by Moven, Simple, Bluebird, GoBank and USAA.” (Leimer expands on his strategic planning thoughts on his Discerning Technologist blog here).

Senior marketing professional, Lori Philo-Cook from InnovoMarketing believes that financial institutions also need to improve the marketing of the mobile channel to customers, including enhanced training of employees and one-on-one demonstrations to customers. “The key is to better understand the needs of customers and provide personal demonstrations on how mobile banking can meet these needs”, says Philo-Cook.

Multimedia and special projects editor of Finextra, Elizabeth Lumley believes it is time for banks to go beyond just mobile banking improvements and to place their bets on mobile payment partnerships. While the winners in payments have not been determined, she believes waiting is not an option.


Integrate Delivery Channels

As noted by Capital Performance Group in their May/June newsletter strategic planning article, everyone is talking about the future of branches because there is so much fixed cost tied up in this channel where fewer and fewer transactions are taking place. The challenge is not the opening or closing of a branch, however. It is the ability to integrate capabilities and information across channels, delivering an consistent experience.

Dominic Venturo, chief innovation officer at U.S. Bank believes banks and credit unions need to quickly adjust to the disruption in financial delivery channels. “Now that the majority of consumers in the US are carrying a smart-phone of some type and the technology has been used to eliminate the need to visit a branch for many activities (opening account, depositing a check, paying a bill, sending a gift card, etc) how will the delivery model of your institution change to remain relevant?”, says Venturo. He adds, “The mobile wave started just a few short years ago and has already changed how we do business. Planning for the future of delivery should have already started, but if it hasn’t, now is a good time.”

Another retail banking executive at a top 5 financial institution believes FIs need to move to omnichannel banking which maximizes cross-channel consistency and provides a seamless user experience where and when the customers desires. This includes scenarios where the customer may begin their transaction using one channel and finish it with another.

To this end, Nicole Sturgill, research director for retail banking at CEB TowerGroup recommends, “Adjust channel strategy from ‘all transactions in all channels’ to ‘seamless integration across channels’. Our research shows that consumers prefer reduced effort over choice. They’d rather know which channels will be fastest and work best than try a channel that doesn’t work for what they’re trying to achieve. Instead banks and credit unions should focus efforts on ensuring that customers can move easily from one channel to another without degrading the experience.”

Industry recognized innovator Matthew Wilcox also believes 2014 should be the year of breaking down internal channel silos and to determine how banks and credit unions can leverage channels to not just allow the client to self-serve, but to provide a positive full-service experience regardless of the channel.

Unfortunately, the back office of many financial institutions makes it difficult to break down silos that have been in place for years says Fred Hagerman, chief marketing officer of Firstmark Credit Union. He still believes that a disconnected experience has risks.


Both Virginia-based chief marketing officer of Geezeo, Bryan Clagett, and Market Insights’ senior strategist Jim Perry from Chicago agree that financials should get out of their branch-based comfort zone.


London-based mobile/digital consultant for Keatan and publisher of The Bold War blog, Michael Nuciforo may state it best when he says that banks must move from a perspective of self-service (getting customers to do hated tasks themselves) to selfless service (where we focus on how the customer wants to interact). “New technology and changing customer behaviors mean that there are widening gaps between the processes of the past and the expectations of the new”, says Nuciforo.

Reduce Enterprise Costs

It is no surprise to financial institutions of all sizes and in all countries that costs must be reduced as revenues have decreased and margins remain low. Many banks and credit unions have made cost reduction a perennial foundation of their strategic planning process, but more needs to be done in 2014.

“Banks must manage the cost base of the physical infrastructure and staff costs in branches to ensure that overhead of traditional operations are minimized while effectiveness of such operations are maximized”, offers the Chairman of the London-based Financial Services Club, Chris Skinner.

Bob Palmer, global financial services marketing lead at IBM agrees that there needs to be a continuation of the enterprise cost reduction strategies that are already in place. He believes these initiatives need to include a more aggressive reduction in workforce with a correlated reconfiguration/reduction of branch networks.

Melanie Friedrichs, analyst at Andera feels automation of core banking services also needs to occur. “For most institutions, I think that cost cutting through the better application of existing technology is the easiest path to a better margin”, stated Friedrichs. Specific examples she provided include: increasing the percentage of deposit accounts and loans originated online, creating incentives to use online or mobile banking over branches and call centers, and investing in technology, perhaps even branch automation technology, to improve staff efficiency.

Author, 2012 American Banker Innovator of the Year, ‘Breaking Banks’ radio host and founder of Moven Brett King believes that banks need to dig even deeper for cost reductions. In his normal disruptive style, he challenges traditional financial organizations to make a significant paradigm shift.


Fellow disruptive thinker Deva Annamalai from Zions Bank agrees that banks need to identify processes that are outdated and archaic and get rid of them. “There is nothing more dangerous than sticking to things that we have done in the past because we are too lazy to change them,” says Annamalai. “Your customers’ tolerance for unneeded traditions like signature cards and other long and costly processes is wearing thin. Competitors who provide simplified, frictionless banking are ready to serve these customers.”

Optirate CEO, Serge Milman adds that the future of banking may require additional scale. “Scale is needed to diversify ‘concentration risk’ (customer, geographic and product), attain lower funding costs, reduce unit costs, absorb regulatory burden and gain access to a broader base of potential customers,” says Milman. “Options include organic growth and acquisitions.”

Leverage Data

The discussion of ‘big data’ permeates our industry trade publication, industry meetings and blogs like mine (see here, here and here). This is because most financials sit on some of the richest sources of data of any industry, yet we rarely leverage it as effectively as possible.

Recognized top innovator Matthew Wilcox states that while investments in innovation data management are up, banks still lag behind other disruptive companies in recognizing payoffs. “Banks have a strong hold on massive amounts of customer data and understand that their data is truly a gold mine”, says Wilcox. He adds, “Initially, banks should avoid major new data initiatives until they get good at using the data they already have”.

Scott Bales suggests that banks may want to look outside their organization for help. “Bankers may want to look to data scientists, who can create stories from data to derive patterns, trends, insights and add context to interactions with consumers. The bank who best leverages their data best will ultimately win.”

Fred Hagerman from Firstmark Credit Union agrees.


Understanding and processing data from various internal systems is imperative according to Zions’ Deva Annamalai. “Break down data silos within the organization and facilitate information flow which will lead to a better customer experience,” states Annamalai.

Sam Maule from Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group agrees and adds, “We all must be better at drilling into the contextual data that matters for customer engagement and not on creating executive dashboards for PowerPoint decks. Data analytics must lead to actual application and engagement with consumers, from customer acquisition to origination, marketing, education, collections, fraud, etc.”

Nicole Sturgill from CEB TowerGroup believes that channel preference would be a great starting place for many financial institutions. “Know a customer’s preferred channels, both individually and in the aggregate. At the individual level, understanding how a customer wants to bank can drive how they are served, what products are offered, and how they are offered. At the macro level, understanding the channel preferences of the customer base can drive strategic decisions on channel investments as well as management structure.”

Improve Marketing and Sales Effectiveness

As I discussed last month in my blog, the consumer purchasing funnel has changed forever, with the majority of consumers beginning their purchase process using online channels and less and less frequently preferring to visit a branch to open a new account. This new paradigm requires a shift in marketing emphasis from ‘push’ marketing, where mass media would bombard a consumer with messages, to ‘pull’ marketing, where time, place, offer and channel become much more important.

This significant change in the purchase process requires a rethinking of strategic priorities for bank marketers in 2014 and beyond.

James Robert Lay, president of PTP New Media and advisor to the credit union industry is a strong advocate of building a digital strategy that will lead to increased leads and sales. According to Lay, “Moving to digital channels requires banks and credit unions to stop thinking about digital as a tool that works independently of other channels and processes, but instead works together as part of a system or process.” Lay continues, “Once banks and credit unions accept that the business model will need to change when dealing in a digital world, banks and credit unions need to explore how digital can align with people and products around a unified purpose.”

London-based retail channel director at Misys, Alex Bray emphasizes that the future reduction in branches across the globe will require digital marketing acumen. “Banks and credit unions need to build relationships, differentiate brands and identify customer needs through digital channels instead of face to face as branches disappear,” states Bray. “I think gamification and social media marketing will also play a big role here as will the importance of ‘one-touch’ mobile marketing.”

Financial Services Club’s Chris Skinner also believes that a strategic priority for 2014 will be to find ways to leverage social media and mobile for growing share of wallet through deepening customer relationships.

Define a Differentiation Strategy

According to the list of strategic planning priorities developed by Capital Performance Group, there has never been a better (or more important) time to identify your institution’s niche. How do you become the ‘go to’ financial provider for a specific retail or business segment? And how can you increase revenues (and potentially reduce costs) through this differentiation at a time when the consumer thinks all financial providers look pretty much the same?

According to Keatan’s Michael Nuciforo, it may be as ‘simple’ (or difficult) as being the firm that executes the best against their plan. “The banks that are winning are the banks that are delivering,” says Nuciforo. “They have refocused not on analysis paralysis, but on quality and speed of delivery.”

Serge Milman from Optirate and Melanie Friedrichs from Andera voice a similar warning around building differentiation in a crowded marketplace. While they agree that banks and credit unions need to develop strategies to set themselves apart in the marketplace, they both emphasize that there needs to be a highly focused commitment to the strategy.

Amber Farley, director of interactive services and media at Financial Marketing Solutions in Nashville, reminds us that, “Companies that usually do the best are ones that have a brand that permeates throughout the entire organization. The best companies value customer service and they make consumers want to be a part of their story”. She suggests that more time and investment should be spent on internal branding initiatives by improving internal communication and energizing the organization.

“Once each member of the entire team (from executives to the front line staff) is a brand ambassador for the bank, I think it is equally important to communicate the brand message in a consistent and aesthetically pleasing manner so that community members desire to be a part of the story. That’s how life-long customers are made”.

Finally, fintech technologist Bradley Leimer emphasizes that differentiation (and innovation) do not need to be created internally or in a vacuum. Instead, he emphasizes the power of partnership with outside providers. If your firm is not able to address all of the external requirements of your customers and the marketplace, are unable to test, iterate or develop agile or lean processes that can help differentiate your organization, or simplify the customer journey and build a unique customer experience, partnering with an outside disrupter that can lead the way may be a better option. (read more about Bradley’s perspective here).

Revenue, Security and Regulation

As was very profoundly offered by SourceMedia’s Editor in Chief Penny Crosman, the financial services industry can’t ignore the ‘elephants in the room’ . . . the ongoing need for revenue, the increasing importance of improved security and the reality of a heightened compliance environment. The negative impact of neglecting any of any of these strategic priorities could easily offset any benefits from the strategies discussed above.


Finding new ways to generate fees from new innovations or established products, testing new security options which will allow for greater acceptance of mobile banking and mobile payments and finding ways to improve compliance with fewer dedicated resources will be ‘must haves’ in 2014.


Keys to a Successful Planning Process

Whatever strategic initiatives are agreed to by a bank’s or credit union’s management, it should be shared and communicated with bank employees so they understand the organizations’s mission, vision, goals, and objectives and the employees’ role in achieving the objectives.

In its simplest form, a bank’s strategic planning process should answer the following four questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get there?
  4. How do we measure our progress?

In today’s marketplace the strategic planning process must be dynamic and focused. Unfortunately, at many institutions I visit, the process becomes nothing more than an adjustment to the prior year’s plan without adjustments that reflect the rapidly changing industry dynamics. In others, there is a lack of unified focus that can lead to disruption and competing priorities.

Simply going through the motions is a recipe for disaster as articulated by credit union advocate Tim McAlpine, president of Canadian-based Currency Marketing and Jeff Marsico, EVP of bank strategy at The Kafafian Group and fellow blogger.



Fintech advisor and CEO of Clientific, J.P. Nicols cautions, “Too many banks try to be all things to all people, and the universal bank model really needs significant scale to work. Bank executives should spend a a good share of their strategic planning time evaluating all of the businesses they are in (or not in) and make an honest assessment of potential growth rates and the investments and scale needed for success”. He adds, “Business lines not making the grade should be divested or closed and the investments diverted to lines where they can legitimately compete and win”.

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