Barret School of Banking

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The Unfair Game

One of my favorite movies is Moneyball. It’s one of those movies that I will stop and watch no matter where I am or what else is on. We all have those movies. One of my favorite scenes is towards the beginning when Billy Beane is talking to the scouts and assessing where they stand for the start of the year. The team has been gutted. The bigger teams have left the hapless Oakland A’s with none of their former stars. They’ve become “organ donors for the rich”. And he is illustrating a harsh reality in the world of sports. “The problem we’re trying to solve is there are rich teams and there are poor teams…it’s an unfair game”.
It’s not that hard of a stretch to see the parallels for community banking.  Banking (in all its many incarnations) is an unfair game.  We have big banks, small banks, credit unions, fintechs, insurance companies, consumer retail giants…every one of them with their own levels of regulations, tax structures, financial viability (or the lack thereof), and the list goes on and on.  It’s an unfair game.
“It’s about getting things down to one number.”
While we are a numbers-based industry, I am going to revise this Moneyball quote to read “getting things down to one question”.
If you were not employed by your current bank and you still retained all of the knowledge you had about the banking industry, would you give your current bank 100% of your family’s financial business?  Why/why not?
Now, before you reply with the oft-repeated “we have the best service in town…decisions made locally…committed to the community” responses, think about the question.  Think about the products/services your bank offers versus what you know to be in the market and what you want as an informed consumer.  Think about how your bank really handles customer service issues because, as a consumer, you may have the same issues in your own financial life that you deal with on a daily basis at the bank.  Think about if there is a difference between what management says, what management does, and how something is implemented on the line.  Is there a difference there?  I know community banks that could honestly say they hit all of these points.  I also know community banks that, if they were being honest with themselves, could not.
And that is why I like this question.  To me, it merges all the conversations about customer service, products, culture, etc. into one simple question that is relatable to anyone anywhere on the bank’s organizational chart.  One of the strongest drivers in any market is an informed consumer.  In banking, there is no more educated consumer than a banker.  We know how things are supposed to work versus how they actually work.  We know what our competition does or doesn’t do.  We also know where our current bank succeeds and where we have room for improvement.  Objectivity is key here, as well.  We must be honest when we think about this question which is why I added the “why/why not” piece to the end.  It’s easy to say “oh yes, I would have no problem with this” but when we are forced to explain our answer, then we begin to see the real strengths and weaknesses of our banks.
This question, however, must be corporately answered.  One person’s answer to the question cannot (and should not) govern any direction the bank takes.  It would be counterproductive for one executive to build an entire strategy around his/her answer to the question.  Ask the staff this question.  Ask the board this question.  Ask your 10 best customers this question.  Look at their answers for themes and root concerns.  What you have now is specific and relevant information, from informed consumers, about a direction for the bank that would have buy-in from major stakeholders.  Monopolies have been built on less.  We just need to know how to implement the information.
“If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there”
Before we keep going, allow me to provide a little context to this quote.  Beane is trying his best to shift the thinking of his scouting staff towards his analytics based team management.  He is addressing the inequity that exists in the game between the poorest of the poor teams and the richest of the rich teams in baseball.  The truth is that the A’s could not compete with and manage their team in the same manner as the Yankees.  It’s a battle they would lose.  They did not have the money to build a team using the same logic and same players in the same manner as the Yankees.  If they did, they would lose on the field.  They had to shift their way of thinking and approach the age old problem with brand new solutions.  “Adapt or die!” Beane told his head scout who simply would not change his mind set in this new world.  Solid advice!
Community banks cannot try and play the unfair game in the same way the “big” banks, fintechs, credit unions, etc. play the game.  To be sure, there are ideas, best practices, and strategies we can adopt and translate into our own world, but there are multiple reasons that prohibit us from playing “like the Yankees” even though we play the same game.  Once we answer the big question, it illuminates the gap between what is desired and what is reality.  How that gap is closed…that’s the creative thinking.  That’s strategy.
“Who?!” “Exactly.  The guy sounds like an Oakland A already”
I would like to finish with two examples I have found recently that are illustrative of my points.  You might consider these to be a little out there.  They are.  The execution of these ideas took a little extra time to reason out.  That’s ok.  These ideas may not work in your market.  You know your market better than I do.  I am not about to tell you that you should follow these steps to financial success.  I am merely offering some best practices and some starting point questions to consider as you ask the big question from your stakeholders and start to consider closing the gap.

  • If you have listened to the Main Street Banking podcast, you will hear Trish Springfield’s name often. Most recently, she left her banking executive position to start her speaking and consulting firm, Energize2Grow.  In her most recent episode with us (“Banking Got Talent”), she discussed an initiative at her previous bank where new account holders were given a “new account concierge”.  Even as bankers, how many people like to change bank accounts?  What if you were assigned a “concierge” to make the process easier for you?  These individuals can move your BillPay payees, work with you on setting up the ACH’s, help insure that the app is operating for you the way it is supposed to, etc.  Who doesn’t want a concierge whenever they can?!?  They simply asked the question “where is the friction coming from in the process?” and this was a service they discovered people could get behind.  It is only slightly less frustrating for CSR’s onboarding new accounts as it is for customers to move accounts.  Here is an example of thinking differently…not playing like the Yankees.


  • On February 26, 2019, JPMorgan Chase released a strategic planning presentation on their Consumer and Community Banking division. I can hear the scoffs now…”big banks don’t care about consumers”.  This division makes up 48% of JPM’s revenue.  I can assure you that they care about their Consumer and Community Banking division.  From 2014-2018, JPM recognized a 9.4% growth rate in deposits.  75% of new customers are mobile-active 6 months.  Mobile-active customers are twice as likely to have multiple JPM products.  Take note that these statistics are relative and not driven off their size.  A $50 million bank can have a 9.4% growth rate in deposits.  Community banks could have (and probably could exceed) a 75% activation rate within 6 months and be twice as likely to have multiple products.  None of these facts are solely driven by JPM’s massive size.  It also has nothing to do with some mythical abandonment of the brick-and-mortar bank branches.  70% of the growth rate from 2014-2018 came from consumers who frequently use branches.  “Convenient branches” was the top consideration for people switching accounts.  As community banks, we often claim to that we have the corner on the “convenience” market…maybe sometimes the “big” banks are more like us than we would like to think.

Clearly, that’s the Yankees.  They have the money to develop that app and pay for big marketing campaigns.  As a community bank, you cannot play like JPM in the conference room and expect to win but those are the relative figures you would have to achieve in order to play the unfair game.  Much like the A’s having to replace Jason Giambi on first base, the answer was not go out and spend the money (that they didn’t have) to find a duplicate.  They recreated the gap by using different players.  Your bank has digital products more than likely.  How do you go about moving the acceptance rate from where it is to JPM’s numbers?  How do you go from this being a product/service you offer to being the main thrust of your customer’s experience?  Are our people trained enough and supported enough by management and operations to achieve this level of success…or are the silo’s walls too high and thick?  You won’t be able to outspend the Yankees…but you can achieve the same results by looking at the problem differently than you’ve looked at it before.
It is an unfair game.  The cards are stacked against community banks in more ways than one…and yet, we keep on fighting.  We keep on serving our customers and our communities.  We continue to strive for excellence in ourselves and in our banks.  But it’s time we start to think from the perspective of an informed consumer because that’s who we are.  Rather than looking at what we lack, ask ourselves where we need to be.  Once that is established, we have a target.  We know where we are going.  If we are to win the unfair game, we must approach that target in ways that we would have never considered before but allow us to keep our team on the field and within a fair shot of winning.
Batter up!


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Byron Earnheart is the Programming Director for the Barret School of Banking in Memphis, TN and the host of the “Main Street Banking” podcast…the only podcast solely devoted to community banks. He has over 15 years experience in the financial services industry; 11 of which have been in banking in various roles from teller work to branch management. He spends his time playing guitar and singing in Delta Heart (the “house band of the Mississippi Delta”), writing music, cooking, reading, and enduring the University of Tennessee Volunteers athletic seasons. He is married to his wife Kelly of 11 years and has two children, John Aubrey (11) and Mary Laura (7). If you'd like to hear Byron's music, check him out on Spotify:
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