NEW YORK — The ongoing tug-of-war between banks and fintechs took up so much air last week at a conference co-hosted by The Clearing House and the Bank Policy Institute that backlash immediately began.
"I’d like us to move away from the bank-vs.-fintech narrative," Andy Navarrete, executive vice president of external affairs at Capital One, said during a panel discussion. "It’s a false dichotomy."
To generalize that all banks are stodgy and costly while fintechs have the innovation market cornered is to overlook the technological advances banks are making, Navarrete said.
The problem may be the perception of value.
"Ten million people signed up for Disney+ in one day for $6.99 a month to watch 'Moana' for the 50th time," Navarrete said. "And yet that price, for a bank account, is unacceptable."
Or perhaps banks are emphasizing the wrong commodity.
"It’s not that bankers are bad salesmen. The problem is the product we’re selling," said Robert Conery, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Avidia Bank. "People don’t want banking products. People want technology with convenient banking features."
The key is leveraging technology to create a personalized customer experience, said John Stecher, group technology and innovation officer at Barclays.
"What people want is banking integrated into their life," he said. "[The question is] how do we leverage data to give customers a picture of their risk, their debts and give that back to them?"
In the past, the breadth of that data was overwhelming, said Laura Listwan, senior vice president and head of commercial payments products at Fifth Third Bank.
"For the longest time, banks sort of threw up on their customers," she said. "Now we have to tailor data to an individual experience. It’s gone from 'Hey, you figure it out yourselves' to 'We can drive your journey.'"
But banks have to be cautious that in using that data, they’re not compromising customers' trust, Listwan said.
One difference between traditional banks and challengers is the value assigned to certain roles within the company, Stecher said, noting the "rise of the engineer" and other support functions in places like Stripe.
"On legacy floors, it’s salespeople, and IT is somewhere in the background," he said, adding that as technology advances, data specialists must have a more central role. "We need to rethink innovation not just in product but in everything we do."
That extends to rebranding.
"We’re not a bank," Listwan said, again emphasizing the personalization of the user experience. "We’re a hospitality company."
Still, despite a few modified words, the sound of fintechs' footsteps remains.
"What keeps me up at night is, [banks] are still thinking inside the box, and our competitors are fintechs that are certainly not," she said. "We need to sell our story correctly so [customers] don’t look at us as those staid bankers."
Coexistence is key
But the CEO of America’s third-largest bank, in another panel discussion, said coexistence with fintechs, rather than competition, is key.
"We are developing, partnering, buying, making everyone better at what we do," said Michael Corbat, Citi’s chief executive. "We’re at the beginning of the next great change — and young people are helping us reshape how we do business today."
Despite that, the attitude of competition from fintechs is still strong. The CEO recounted a recent brush with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who inferred, according to Corbat, "I’m comin’ to eat your lunch, old man."
"That’s fine as long as you want to be regulated and traded at 10 times market," Corbat said.
It's exactly that gulf of oversight that bothers many in the space.
"Banks are regulated, and fintechs providing the same services are not," said Eugene Ludwig, CEO of Promontory Financial Group, an IBM subsidiary. "That's a complete disaster in our system."
The lack of fintech regulation can't last, Ludwig said. But banks that fail to adapt may not, either.
"Fintechs will change from being a threat to being an enabler," Ludwig said.
And partnerships between the two must put their energy toward what — or whom — they have in common.
"Fintechs are redefining the meaning of banking," said Deborah Matthews Phillips, managing director of payment strategy at Jack Henry & Associates. "But the focus on customer journey has to be front and center."