Banks vs Fin-Tech Start-Ups and the Digital Transformation Race

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22 October 2014
Juan Mazzini
The digital transformation in financial services is about the move from the physical to the virtual world, from person-to-person interaction toward person-to-machine or machine-to-machine. It is Celent’s view that Integrating and coordinating among disparate and siloed delivery channels will be critical to satisfying ever-increasing customer expectations. This in part encompasses looking at how financial institutions relate with their customers and ecosystem, but also about the underlying infrastructure and processes required to provide a digital experience. It also encompasses re-thinking how a branch should look like and what services it should provide as an integral part of the customer experience. In this context I had the chance to moderate a panel during last week Next Bank Americas. With the participation of Hugo Nájera Alva - Head of Digital Banking at BBVA Bancomer, Miguel Angel Fañanas - Director of Corporate Customers and Multinationals in Telefonica Mexico, Héctor Cárdenas - CEO and cofounder of Conekta (conekta.io), and Martin Naor - partner and CEO of Infocorp, we discussed about the digital transformation in the financial industry. What an excellent moment to do it, along with the BBVA Open Talent that looked into promising fin-tech and digital life start-ups. I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of my take aways from this panel:
  1. Banks have a harder time reconciling digital with their legacy platform and infrastructure, and how they have been doing business for many years. Fin-tech start-ups instead are born digital, without any legacy, but they need to be careful not to build one for themselves as they grow.
  2. Technology doesn’t seem to be the constraint for becoming digital, neither is budget. Banks have much more resources and still we are seeing some interesting start-ups in different aspects of banking disrupting with much better digital propositions. Banks instead need to push the digital concept across the organization, and very tied to the concept of innovation, they need to make fundamental changes in the culture of the organization. This is what banks such as BBVA are trying to do though their Innovation Centers, open API’s, Hackatons and fostering an ecosystem of fin-tech startups in Americas and Europe, and why they partner with Next Bank to propel those.
  3. Digital also needs to reach to those customers that are still analog. This requires banks to re-imagine their branches and provide solutions that leverage the digital components but understanding the customer engagement required. Banks are quite better positioned than fin-tech start-ups in terms of physical presence, though it is no longer acceptable for banks to continue to open (or update) branches under the old branch paradigm.
  4. Banks need to better understand what customers really want, and that is not necessarily other financial product, but maybe help with administering their finances, banks helping them to save money, helping SMEs make more business, even expand globally. These are the type of issues fin-tech start-ups are tackling today. Banks have tons of information but they need to become smarter in how they use it and what new services can they offer to their customers. It is also important to look at how customers use technology in their everyday life to find ways of making banking more convenient.
  5. You just don’t claim that you are going to be more digital and then magically wait for that to happen. There is a lot of effort involved. In cases such as BBVA, acquiring Simple is part of such effort. Understanding the bank limitation in terms of its culture is also important to define what is feasible and what not. Reaching out to understand what the ecosystem is doing, actively engaging and participating to come up with a better digital vision has become an imperative today.
Overall and subjacent to the digital transformation race there is still an open debate whether fin-tech start-ups are a partner or a threat to banks. My take is that they are more a threat than a partner in the long run, but they need each other in this initial stage so partnering seems a good starting point. In the long run banks should incorporate those ideas that work; otherwise they will be cornered to a role where they just process transactions for those companies that dominate the relationship with the customer. The implications of this scenario are daunting for banks. What do YOU think?

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