Why banks are turning to fintech for help


As banks look to improve the products and features they offer you, they are turning to startups for help.

This would have seemed unlikely five or so years ago, when a plucky group of financial technology companies began popping up with the goal of upending the traditional financial services industry with simplified products, easy-to-use interfaces and great looking apps.

Turns out it wasn’t so easy to put the likes of Bank of America or Chase out of business. The combination of embedded trust in the safety of well-established institutions and customer inertia has made getting customers to sign up for new services a major challenge. Even the most successful fintech companies have managed to grab just a sliver of the market, in things like personal loans, deposits and wealth management.

Instead, over the past few years, banks and fintech companies have figured out that not only can they co-exist, they can develop symbiotic relationships — with fintech firms bringing the innovation and fresh thinking and banks bringing the regulatory understanding and, well, the customers (not to mention the proven business model and regulatory understanding).

As banks respond to the pressure to improve their digital offerings, these types of partnerships will likely become more frequent.

“At their core, these collaborations are about banking trying to make their digital offerings more interesting,” says Bradley Leimer, managing director and head of fintech strategy for Explorer Advisory & Capital.

Who has partnerships?

Well, it’s hard to say exactly how many of these types of partnerships have been struck. That’s partially because it’s hard to define what constitutes a fintech company and a partnership versus a vendor and a contract.

Banks often have dozens of technology providers that help them run the business. Most companies do. Essentially, sometimes banks tag these contracts as fintech partnerships to drive home the message that they are being innovative.

That’s not to say these aren’t substantial improvements to their ability to deliver products and services digitally.

For instance, TD Bank has a wildly successful budgeting tool called MySpend that is offered in Canada and was built by Moven, one of the original neobanks. Last year, TD and Moven extended the agreement to the U.S., but MySpend has yet to launch here. (Moven also exists independently but also licenses its technology to companies in a process known as white labeling.)

TD also announced late last year that it’s working with Kasisto to add a conversational chatbot to its digital products.

“This leading AI platform will give customers instant support and access to real-time spending insights through an experience that really is as natural as texting with a friend,” Tim Hogarth, vice president of innovation framework and strategies at TD Bank Group, said in an email.

Alleviating consumer pain points

Fintech companies are often marked by the way they’ve developed products. They tend to identify a specific problem and set out to solve it.

Neobanks sought to change the way we manage our money in our checking accounts and eliminate the fees that creep up when we run out of money. Marketplace lenders used technology to make the process of getting a personal loan super fast and easy and found a woefully underserved market. Robo-advisers found a way to bring investing to people who don’t have enough assets to garner the attention of traditional providers.

Cracking the code on making things very easy to use is key for banks right now. Many of them are trying to become more customer-centric, but it’s tough to do within the confines of a well-established company with legacy systems, bureaucracy and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking. It makes a lot of sense to turn outward to bring forth change.

“Fintechs have had a lot of success in removing customer pain points,” says Trish Wexler, chief communications officer for JPMorgan Chase’s retail operations. “Our customers are showing us where we need to improve, and we’re paying attention. They expect speed, simplicity and to be able to do what they want on any device.”

JPMorgan Chase has been particularly aggressive in this regard. It has taken a build, buy or partner strategy with fintech innovation. In other words, it is building what it thinks it can, partnering where it makes sense and buying companies it thinks will give it a competitive edge.

Noteworthy partnerships include its deal with TrueCar and Roostify. With TrueCar, Chase is making it easier for people to pick out the car they want, secure financing and then go to the dealership. In doing so, Chase is disrupting its indirect auto business to respond to the way we now shop for cars.

With Roostify, Chase is trying to make the mortgage application process easier and says it has managed to reduce the time it takes to process a refinance by 15 percent.

Internally, Chase’s neobank experiment Finn is also serving as a bit of fintech partnership. Technology developed for Finn that makes it easy to open an account digitally was added to Chase’s flagship digital products earlier this year.

What consumers need to know

The good news is you, the consumer, don’t really have to do much of anything. Banks are partnering with fintechs to make the digital solutions they provide to you much better. Indeed, much of the partnerships involve back office things like compliance that you’ll likely never see.

However, there are a few things you should know. For instance, some banks are partnering with alternative lenders to provide their customers, especially their small-business customers, with loans that they wouldn’t otherwise underwrite. The thinking is that even if they aren’t the ones providing the money directly, they still get the good association of giving the customer what they want. Your bank should be rather explicit in telling you that it is connecting you with a third party, but consider this an additional reminder.

Similar advice should be followed in working with a robo-adviser connected to your bank. Be sure to understand if your money is being managed by the bank using technology provided by a fintech firm, or if this is just an affinity relationship and your money is being managed elsewhere.