Ask anyone in the financial services industry if the core of their business is heading toward sweeping changes, and they'll likely tell you yes. And the changes, in most scenarios, are attributable to the rise of blockchain technology and fintechs reimagining the way people bank.

These digital startups are evolving the way we lend and borrow money, pay for goods and services, and transfer funds between accounts and overseas. But now, even large corporations are hedging their bets, jumping on the blockchain and fintech bandwagon.

In fact, according to research by CB Insights, "As of late April, "blockchain" was already mentioned close to 300 times on Q1'18 earnings calls." Some of these companies --MasterCard, Nasdaq, Broadridge Financial Solutions, etc. -- have also started shifting away from their core products in favor of the new tech. Though it's been slower going, top banks have also started to acquire fintechs, with six acquisitions made by five different banks since last September alone.

With nimble startups and massive corporations both rapidly seizing on opportunities to tap new technology to grab pieces of the evolving consumer market, where does that leave the community banks and credit unions of the world? It all depends on how they respond.

Those that choose to look at this evolution as an opportunity rather than a threat and tap into their core strength --building community -- will rise to the top. Those that continue to rely on tired marketing practices and fail to look closely at the customer experience won't be met with a favorable fate.

Customer experience is everything

Part of the reason behind the fintech uprising is the way in which new solutions are catering to today's digitally savvy, instant gratification-loving consumer. Technology has changed the way consumers do things and many of the legacy systems behind the financial services industry have failed to keep up.

Up-and-coming fintech solutions are catching on largely because today's consumers feel their needs are being met by these innovative, intuitive systems. They "get them."

Younger generations are gravitating toward this new customer experience for convenience, yes, but more so because it matches their way of life. Not only do these forward-thinking financial services brands meet them where they are, they've also figured out how to personalize the experience.

The good news for community banks and credit unions is customer experience and personalization has always been their differentiator. The key, however, is ensuring they continue to move in lockstep with their customers and that will require getting to know the wants, needs and desires of a changing consumer base.

Baby Boomers may have been your bread and butter for generations, but as they inch towards retirement, their loyalty is increasingly fleeting as they follow rates. So, how are you meeting the wants and needs of the millennials, and gen x through z?

While you may not be able to compete with the agility of the fintechs or the buying power of the large multinational corporations, you can compete on customer experience. But you have to first get to know your customers then meet them where they are, and in most cases that's online.

Collaboration versus competition

The fear for community banks and credit unions is that they won't be able to keep pace with the digital revolution. And often that comes down to simply not knowing where to start.

Do you build your own and compete against the fintechs and blockchain startups of the world? Or do you consider following in the footsteps of a number of the larger institutions and build partnerships with fintechs?

To answer that, you'll want to take into consideration the resources you have --cost, time, talent -- if the return would be worth the investment of building your own, and what will ultimately best serve your customer. Often, when you can strategically align with the right fintech, both parties can scale up business, strengthen their competitive edge, and improve efficiencies as well as the customer experience.

Through these partnerships, banks have been able to become more nimble, pivot around their customers, and ultimately empower them in new ways. For example, some banks have teamed with fintechs to expand retail merchant services with digital payments, offer mobile and online banking platforms, and provide peer-to-peer payments, among a host of other services. This has put the customer back at the center of it all, and enabled banks --and fintechs --to reach new audiences they may not have otherwise.

To the community banks and credit unions, home in on your greatest strength --building community -- but don't get so entrenched in the old practices that have gotten you where you are today. The times are changing, and the generations you've previously relied on may no longer be your best bet.

Published on: May 21, 2018