Every week there seems to be wave after wave of engagement announcements between a financial institution and one fintech partner or another. Since these types of partnerships are relatively new and unfamiliar territory for most financial institutions, banking execs need to work hard and with deliberate focus to keep the relationship healthy.
As new consumer-centric experiences and digital services transform the banking sector, fintechs provide critical agility and innovation to help both industry incumbents and disruptive newcomers gain a competitive advantage. Without any fintech partnerships, a bank or credit union risks looking old-school and technologically unsophisticated. Conversely, many fintechs depend on banks to help bring their innovations to market.
Given the stakes in fintech partnerships, it can be helpful to think about the relationship like you would a marriage. When a marriage fails, there are major consequences — e.g., child-custody and division of assets. Similarly, a poor fintech relationship can result in all sorts of uncomfortable situations. It will likely hurt both organization’s brands, negatively impact employee morale and — most importantly — damage customer relationships.
In the ups and downs of fintech partnerships, the key to success is creating and maintaining strong, clear communication channels. This goes a long way toward ensuring that both parties continue to thrive and prosper after saying “I do.”
Right off the bat, both parties need to know that they must invest a great deal of time into creating a healthy relationship. It always, always, takes longer than one would think. The institution’s executive leadership team should never underestimate the work it takes to build a strong, stable partnership. Plan to put in the time.
To kick off the relationship, both partners should commitment to regular, face-to-face meetings. To be fair to both sides, teams should choose either a neutral, central location, or alternate between home HQs/cities. Keep in mind, few things can build a relationship faster than the informal conversations that happen on the way to grab coffee or on a walk to dinner after a long day at the whiteboard.
If the budget does not permit this level of face-to-face engagement, explore using video-conferencing services. A good fintech partner should be happy to accommodate this using the service of a bank’s choice.
In addition to regular meetings, partners need to create a shared vision and set of goals. While the commercial terms are being hammered out, teams must develop a roadmap of the way forward. Even at the beginning of partnership talks, project managers should feel empowered to start planning ahead. In fact, there’s no reason why partnership negotiations and roadmap planning can’t happen at the same time. That way, when the negotiations are complete, teams are ready to go. In many fintech partnerships, the design conversations start three to six months before the contract is even signed.
At the beginning stages and beyond, financial institutions and their fintech friends need to set clear goals for the relationship. These goals should be regularly revisited. Just as teams need to develop consistent meeting cadence, executives at both firms should meet as needed to review progress and revise strategies. Given regular market and priority shifts, partnership teams should aim to have such meetings quarterly. That way teams can stay on top of business roadblocks and can quickly change course if necessary.
An important method for managing these meetings, and the bank-fintech relationship as a whole, is to designate a point-person. Each financial institution needs to designate a single person who is responsible for the care and feeding of the fintech relationship. The scope of role requires a broad enough span of responsibility to be able to make calls independently. This person must be a decider capable of removing blockers and keeping things moving.
Even when a banking provider develops strong communication channels, it’s still common that people avoid the hard conversations. Bank-fintech partners must not procrastinate on discussions about topics like risk mitigation. It is better to start having these talks early so that the financial institution can ensure its fintech partner is on the same page. Deferring these conversations until the end of the product development cycle could lead to unexpected launch delays and a lot of unnecessary frustration. Held early on, such a conversation might be much simpler than expected.
By keeping lines of communication open, partners can also ensure that when the going gets tough — which it will — challenging conversations can happen constructively. Banks and credit unions should do their best to understand everything that is involved in meeting the team’s milestones. The best problem-solving happens when each side understands the other’s strengths and constraints.
There can be many challenges in fintech partnerships. After all, you are typically pairing one conservative, risk-averse and traditionally slow partner with an entrepreneurial company that is scrappy, nimble and technologically advanced. There can (and often are) culture clashes. It can be stressful at times, but when everyone agrees on the ultimate goal, both partners can usually accomplish something great. Creativity is often fueled by the combination of an impending deadline and limited resources.
And a sense of humor.
Colleen Lindow is Vice President of Strategic Partners & Account Management at Bill.com, where she is responsible for helping Bill.com’s banking partners grow their business bill pay services. Colleen earned her MBA from the University of San Francisco. She is a permanently certified cash manager (CCM) and a certified anti-money laundering specialist (CAMS).