So assuming you have got the capital raised and have got through the regulatory hurdles necessary to be a challenger bank what the critical factors for success?
Pick your battleground. Given that the big five banks (in the UK) or the Four Pillars (in Australia) or the equivalent in other markets are so called because they have the scale and the established track record trying to take them head on at their own game is a sure fire guarantee of failure. To paraphase the Chinese general Sun Tsu in his ‘Art of War’ only attack the enemy head on if you have a three to one advantage. A bank that wants to take on the banks across their entire retail customer base is setting itself up to fail. The established big players have the depth of capital and the customer base to play the long game and can besiege the challenger bank until they have used up all their capital and their investors patience.
For challenger banks the better strategy is to ‘fragment’ i.e. to pick off part of the established banks’s customer base, preferably one of the more profitable segments.
By not having a clear customer segment strategy but simply competing for business that can be won from the established banks can end up with the so-called challenger winning the unprofitable business that the big five would happily like to exit.
Handelsbanken have never sought to be a replacement for the big five banks in the UK for all their customers. They have deliberately adopted a strategy that focuses on small businesses in largely market towns where customers like to use branches, have face to face contact and are prepared to pay for that service. The result has been very high customer satisfaction along with high profitability.
First Direct (albeit owned by HSBC) set out to be a bank for customers that weren’t interested in visiting branches, liked to be able to talk to a person, liked a high quality of service and were prepared to pay for it. First Direct is very rarely at the top of the price tables. Equally First Direct has not tried to grow its customer base aggressively with its market share relatively stable and relatively small. What they have ended up with is the highest Net Promoter Score amongst the banks.
Consider competing from a position of better insight. The established banks have the scale, the benefits of a high margin back book and the deep pockets so competing purely on price is not a long term strategy. Neither is competing simply on not being one of them. Some of the legacy problems the established banks have is their data has grown up from individual product systems, there is a culture of not sharing data between organisational silos, their systems have often grown from a series of acquisitions and are based on old technology. This gives the challenger bank a real opportunity. Designing the bank from the start to be based around the customer not the product, designing the data infrastructure around the ability to analyse, model and forecast not only the customer, but the risk, the external environment and the way the business performance will be managed will give the challenger bank a significant advantage. By having better customer insight offers can be better tailored to what the customer actually wants (resulting in a reduced Cost Per Acquisition), pricing can be based on individual or segment risk (not only for lending but also for deposit pricing) and retention of customers can be significantly higher.
A good current/checking account offering is not optional. Without it being a real challenger is impossible. Unless you have a transactional product, one where the customer interacts with you frequently, you are not going to be able to own the customer relationship and whilst you might win in the short term it will only be for that. When you ask any customer who they bank with their first response will be the bank where their salary is paid into and which they use daily to buy goods and services with.
If the basis of competition is around taking mortgages and savings market shares off the established banks, then effectively regardless of the ownership structure, this is a building society offering. Building societies have been around for over a hundred years and their attempts to be challenger banks can be seen in the demise of the likes of Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock.
Nationwide Building Society has shown that by having a good current account offering that they are a real challenger to the established banks. (Nationwide has done more than that as well but the current account has been a key building block to their success).
What’s more the current account offering needs to be designed to attract the customer segment that has been selected as part of the fragment strategy.
Most customers see one current account being the same as another. A lot of customers will also have been made more cynical because of the ‘value-added’ or packaged current accounts that were sold in the run up to the financial crash. These were accounts where it was questionable whether the ‘added value’ was worth the monthly fee. There are very few ways of differentiating a current account but certainly for a challenger bank it needs to be designed for being used on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The established banks, whilst they may have deeper pockets, have old and under-maintained systems which should give challenger banks an advantage (see the comments about IT below)
The danger of coming out with a simple, low function current account is that the challenger bank ends up with the low income, highly unprofitable customers that established banks are obliged by governments to offer to the unbanked. While this may make the challenger bank popular with government it will do nothing to help investors and if that is not the customer segment being aimed for will only lead to brand confusion.
Design the business from the outside in. One of the biggest challenges the existing banks have is their organisation structure which is built around silos, largely product-based and very hard to change. This brings inflexibility and high cost. Challenger banks have a real opportunity to do something different, even if they have come into existence by acquiring an existing player. The way that the bank’s processes are designed should be driven by the experience that its customers, partners (intermediaries, aggregators, suppliers) want and then decide how it can be delivered profitably. Experience doesn’t just apply to getting a customer to purchase a product but also what happens after that. On-boarding is even more important now for retention, profitability and customer advocacy, particularly where business comes from brokers or comparison websites.
What typically happens is that organisations where there is any conscious design are built from the perspective of the bank and how it is easiest to manage, not from the customer’s or strategic supplier’s perspective. The challenger who gets this right will only be able to attract customers at a lower cost (reduced CPA), will reduce customer attrition and achieve higher customer referral rates.
Invest in talent and experience. Everybody thinks they are an expert in retail banking because everyone has a bank account. This is the equivalent of saying that everybody is a doctor because they have a body. If retail banking was really that easy and that profitable there would be no need for challenger banks. It is not only since the financial crash in 2008 that people have looked down on bankers and treated them as of less value than estate agents or tabloid journalists. Prior to the crash many banks employed retailers because they thought bankers were just staff who didn’t know how to sell properly. A probable consequence of the introduction of this retail talent was the PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) and the Structured Investments scandals, where sales techniques borrowed from the retail industry were applied to the banking industry. There is no doubt that the banking industry can benefit from the insights and experience of industries that deliver better customer service and use technology more smartly but that needs to be counterbalanced with deep experience of retail banking. Current account-based retail banking is far from the same as simply attracting deposits and selling mortgages. If retail banking was so easy why have the building societies (Nationwide excepted – see comment above) been so unsuccessful in making a significant dent in the established banks market share? To be a successful challenger bank investment in real expertise of current account banking is not optional.
Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean customers want it. There are plenty of digital gurus out there who are coming up with very imaginative ways of doing banking whether it is different ways of making payments (at least once a day someone somewhere in the world announces a new way of making payments), identifying the customer, wearing technology, and interacting in branches, but just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Unless it makes it more convenient for the customer (and many of the novel ways of making payments are cool but take longer than conventional ways of paying) then don’t do it. Being sexy is not a requirement to be a challenger bank.
Start from the goal of zero IT ownership - exploit the cloud, SaaS and outsourcing. The established banks have very expensive and old IT systems which they need to maintain. This comes from the legacy where banks were amongst the first organisations to use IT and therefore had no option but to build up their own expertise. With the maturity of the both the IT and the outsourcing industries there is no reason for banks to own or manage their own IT. Given the problems established banks have had with their legacy systems over the last few years their competency as an IT provider has been seriously tested. Not only does putting IT out to third parties save overall money but it also allows the challenger banks to focus on what is important and that is the provision of banking to their customers.
For many banks using the cloud to provide banking services has been unthinkable. However Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), the former public sector bank, has its internet banking hosted by Amazon. (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/12/commonwealth-bank-of-australia-run-by.html) If a traditionally conservative bank has done that why wouldn’t challenger banks adopt that approach?
Metro Bank, one of the challenger banks in the UK, has bought the use of its core banking service on a per transaction basis (SaaS – Software as a Service). Its IT is outsourced. When the time it took to Metro Bank to launch its current account is compared with Tesco Bank (which is building its own platform based on a core banking package) then there is a clear argument for considering SaaS.
Taking modern technology and commercial approaches should give challengers a great advantage; however it isn’t always turning out that way. A number of challenger banks are being created by the acquisition of assets from existing players. They would argue that by having existing proven platforms that they can be up and running faster than starting from scratch. This is true in the short term but rather than being able to offer a truly differentiated service what they offer is a smaller but more expensive (due to the smaller scale and, in some cases, having to pay one of the big 5 banks to support the IT) version of the established banks. This is the situation that both TSB (the former Verde Lloyds Banking Group 630 branches) and William & Glyns (the 316 RBS branches) find themselves in. (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2013/07/can-tsb-be-challenger-bank.html) In the longer term this is not a viable solution for a challenger bank.
Challenger banks who have acquired legacy IT, need a transformational CIO working alongside the bank’s executives, to put in place a plan to get off the legacy and onto modern platforms enabled for mobile and digital as quickly as possible. They also need to be experts in strategic supplier management. The challenger banks need to educate their investors that this is not optional.
Have an exclusive relationship with major investors and get them committed for the long haul. There are plenty of hedge, private equity and sovereign funds who are interested in investing in challenge banks, however a number of them have placed investments in more than one challenger bank in the same sector in the same country. What does that say about their commitment?
To build a sustainable challenger bank will take time particularly given the limited availability of off the shelf banking technology and the time it takes to implement a new business model. Equally getting a return on these investments is not going to be quick, so investors who aren’t in for the long haul should be politely shown the door.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what a challenger bank should be looking at but highlights some of the areas where the difference can be between success and failure.