Why ‘Digital-First’ Banking Will Become ‘Digital-Always’


Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a significant number of bank branches shuttered.

And where there are branches, hours are staggered.

As Doug Brown, senior vice president and general manager of NCR, told Karen Webster, fundamental shifts are underway in financial services and the very way in which those services are delivered — and the shifts will be permanent.

“It’s clear that people rely heavily on their bankers and their banking relationships during crises; we’ve seen that before in prior events,” said Brown. “This crisis — perhaps more than ever — seems to have triggered the need for connections between people, their money and information.”

As social distancing takes root, as consumers are wary about coming into physical environments that might expose them to the coronavirus, consumers are embracing new behaviors, said Brown, while leaning on the trust they have in the relationships they’ve forged with traditional financial institutions (FIs). 

Individuals are embracing technology more and leveraging relatively new offerings, such as remote agent assists, text chats and interactive teller machines, sometimes accessed from their cars.

“These things have proven to not only be effective, but once delivered, they have helped encourage people to have ‘wow moments’ — enough so that they might not go back to the old ways because they realize the advantage and convenience,” said Brown.

The “wow” factor can help smaller FIs offset the top-line impact of mandates to close branches or reduce hours, especially in metropolitan and urban environments.

But for FIs of all sizes, Brown noted that the pandemic is forcing what he termed an “optimization of the branch and the branch footprint.” Firms will look to reassess not only how many branches they operate, but also how activities within the physical setting can be streamlined and made relevant to tech-savvy consumers.


A digital-first mentality will become critical for FIs, a strategic imperative that offers smaller banks a chance to shine. The credit unions (CUs) and community banks, said Brown, are not just brokers of funds — they are now brokers of critical information.

He noted that NCR has helped clients with Small Business Association (SBA) loan origination activity, where information is critical across the application process (for underwriting purposes, for example).

But FIs must also become the source of information for the borrowers/customers. The government makes most things overly complicated and confusing, Brown said, changing the rules seemingly every 24 hours.

“That’s where the banker steps in, telling the customers that ‘I will guide you through this, and I will explain what’s needed,’” he told Webster.

Bankers are becoming advisers and counselors against a landscape where decisioning cycles are speeding up, where job losses and volatile markets can send people scrambling for answers about their financial lives, Brown noted.

A digital-first world can help guide people as they synthesize information, as they look to push pause on their credit card payments, or as they worry about the risk of delinquencies and aim to stretch every dollar.

As Brown said, digital marketing efforts, along with the assistance of companies like digital marketing services Brisbane, can help spur consumers to become aware of, and use, features like “skip a payment” across platforms such as NCR’s. But the marketing efforts must be timely, and FIs have to leverage analytics to reach clients effectively via simplified messaging.

“It’s not just about ‘build it, they will come.’ That was the old bottle,” said Brown. “Now it’s ‘build it, tell them that it’s there, and tell them how to use it, and tell them again.’”

Along the way, analytics, APIs and other advanced technologies can help FIs improve their operations and customer interactions as well as gain the confidence to innovate.

Brown told Webster that small CUs, with the help of APIs, have been able to scale into activity that rivals much larger firms. Where they had been processing perhaps 10 SBA loans a month, now they are able to do 1,000 loans every day — with speed and agility.

“We’ve had a breakthrough moment when it comes to analysis paralysis,” he said, “and it gets me excited and motivated to see the light at the end of this tunnel.”