Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Trent’s Comments 
Fall 2014 Germantown, Tennessee 
Thoughts on Cost Control
Insights into cost control and efficiencies
The rules of profitably continue to change   We are in the midst of an historic period of low rates, with corresponding narrow Net Interest Margin.  Improving your cost control, in a number of areas, can make a significant impact on your profitability.   While your attention naturally turns to cost control in difficult economic times, a better approach is to build a culture of cost control that permeates your organization. In effect, it is a type of fiscal discipline.  As you strive to elevate your entire staff's awareness of the importance of cost control, you will instill habits that extend to current and future business practices, for matters large and small. Let’s look at a few key areas you should address in order to succeed at cost control and revenue improvement.

Stop giving things away.  Your loan and deposit agreements with customers provide for certain types of fees . . . for research, overdraft charges, and late fees, for example. One of our struggles in community banking is that we have given away so much, for so long, that customers have come to expect it.  By the way, doing so greatly devalues the services you provide.  Implement a review of fees you are due, and put in place new practices that make it much harder for employees to waive such fees.  Late fees on loans, for example.  Unless the bank has made an error, why would you waive such a fee, that the customer has contractually agreed to?  
Remember that employees are the key to successfully implementing this change. Education and training to help employees enforce the rules are key.  On occasion, you may have to remind your staff that it is revenue that allows you to keep the lights on and pay salaries.  An employee who charges a fee, but whispers “I’m sorry THEY are making me charge you” is not carrying a message of the value of the service rendered. As you’ve heard from me before, “knowledgeable, enthusiastic” employees are the key to success.  These are costs in the sense that potential revenue is slipping out the door instead of going to your bottom line.

Staffing remains a significant cost for all banks.  It is my humble opinion that many of you are overstaffed.  Before you doth protest much, let me explain.  By failing to properly utilize the technology that you have invested in, you are creating undue costs via manual or automated work arounds.  One of my “tricks” for identifying gaps and improving utilization is to look for the use of spreadsheets.  Often, spreadsheets are used by employees to overcome perceived gaps in product capabilities, when in reality these are often gaps in training on how to use the core system more effectively.  Have your staff fess up to the spreadsheets they are using, and consult with your core vendor about ways to accomplish the same things using the core system.  One key danger with spreadsheets is that they don’t travel well.  If the person who wrote the spreadsheet isn’t around to modify and maintain it, it often becomes useless, posing the risk that important work won’t get done.

Encouraging and preserving mediocrity, by failing to establish performance standards and holding employees accountable, adds to your salary cost.  An example of this is the impact on employee morale, as those who are doing their own work become resentful of those who are not pulling their weight.

Contracts and relationships associated with Information Technology services are often overlooked.  Especially for those of you who choose to outsource data processing, there are long term contracts that reflect significant costs to your bank.  These costs include day to day costs, and extraordinary costs that might be associated with acquisitions, early terminations, or conversions to other systems.

Overall management of these contracts is an important subject.  I have written and spoken about it extensively.  For our purposes, however, I want to focus on the ongoing cost elements of these contracts, as they are significant and persistent.  Complex services, such as core account processing, involve complex pricing, and I often find errors in monthly billing associated with these contracts. Failure to correct an error the first time means it is likely to persist.

To ensure that your bills are accurate, evaluate them in light of the terms and conditions, and pricing schedules of the contract.  It's important to look at these bills every period (whether monthly, annually, or otherwise)  in a timely manner.  Such familiarity will cause your staff to better understand what is “normal” and quickly identify errors. 
 You'll also find that many such contracts preclude your recovering all of the over-billing or other errors, if you wait too long.  One such contract I saw recently limited the vendor's liability to the last three months of overages and errors.

One final area.  As we’ve discussed, our industry has given away so much, for so long, that it is hard to convince both customers and employees that we need to charge for services rendered.  One way to break this cycle is to intentionally attach fees to any new services you offer.  The “iTunes Store” concept of pricing is not that different from J.C. Penney’s original fractional pricing method. It works well.  Consider such pricing for products and services you introduce, such as 99 cents for mobile check capture, or $7.95 for a specially branded or photo debit card.  Doing so communicates value to your customers, and acclimates them to paying for value.

I could go on, but I’ll save the rest for another time.  Please take a few minutes to investigate at least a couple of the suggestions above.  It is my hope you can enter the New Year with a newfound focus on controlling your costs, and thus improving your bottom line.

My best to you and your families for a wonderful Holiday Season! As always, please let me know how I can help you.

Recent and Upcoming Speaking Engagements
November 6th 
Western Independent Bankers: Director’s Conference, San Francisco
November 14th
Connecticut Bankers Association: Annual Conference, Scottsdale
November 19th
Arkansas Bankers Association: Technology Conference, Little Rock
November 20th
Tennessee Bankers Association: Directors Retreat, Nashville
January 13th (2015)
 Tennessee Bankers Association: Retail Sales and Bank Marketing Conference, Nashville
Trent's Comments is published six times each year and provides insight into strategic topics facing financial institution executives. Please feel free to share this with your staff and colleagues. 
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Thursday, April 3, 2014

This material originally appeared on my Rural Economic Revitalization Blog at The Des Moines Register recently reported that 50% or more of those expected to inherit farm land will sell it.  This reminded me that Generational Retention remains a key to the continued viability of many community banks. I will expound on each of the three key issues, but I felt it appropriate to include this general post as a reminder:

General Transfer is a key issue for most rural banks. One challenge these banks have is relationship retention. If you've taken the first step (and some are frankly afraid to look) and found that many of the heirs to your current deposits are "somewhere else" then you realize the challenge. Two parallel tracks are necessary. First, address the heirs who are still local. Reach out, through parents if necessary, to form relationships and help these heirs learn that your bank can be a valuable tool for managing the assets that will be left to them, be they a business, land, or simply deposits. Second, put together a plan to reach out to absentee heirs with essentially the same message . . . we are here to help you manage your inheritance. Your plan for resident and non-resident heirs is comprised of three main parts: relationship (a face); services; and technology.

Generational Retention: Relationships
In keeping with the theme of what community banks can do to preserve relationships as older depositors die off, my last post indicated there were three keys. This time, lets look at the first key - the Relationship Factor. If you want to keep banking relationships beyond the current generation, you must - well before a "transfer inducing" event occurs - establish solid relationships with heirs. This starts early in life . . . even during elementary school. Kids savings programs, and financial education, can serve to implant your brand into kids thinking. As kids grow older, work with mom and dad to make sure the kids feel that the bank is a trusted friend and adviser. We'll talk more about technology in a future post, but it is essential in staying connected to these youngsters if they leave home. Hosting events, or webinars, regarding estate planning, generational transfer, and asset management will strengthen your position as that trusted adviser, and make it easy for heirs to look to your bank for money management advice and services. That's the goal . . . when parents retire or pass away, you want to keep your relationships with the family money, the family business, the family farm. Building strong relationships is the key.

Lets look at the second of the three keys to retaining banking relationships across generations: technology. Banking has been quick to adapt many new technologies, and a lot of them are customer facing. From the advent of automated teller machines, through voice response systems, to today's mobile banking platform, customers are demanding, and banks (most of them anyway) are providing a variety of technologies to make access to information and transactions simple and painless. A large part of maintaining and preserving relationships with heirs and potential heirs is ensuring that it's easy for them to do business with you. This includes Internet Banking for individuals, and Internet cash management for businesses, along with remote deposit capture for those customers who still handle checks as a primary payment method for their business dealings. The rising popularity of Smart Phones makes mobile banking - as an extension of your Internet Banking product - a must.

Packaging and promoting these services is important . . . as a part of your overall bid to serve out of town (and of course local) customers. Put together a brochure (print and electronic) and perhaps a web site to promote your ability to assist families in preserving and enhancing wealth across generations . . . include descriptions of all the ways that you can help. Remember that promoting a comprehensive package casts you in a much better light than waiting to react to requests for services. If you are serious about surviving generational transfer, make that evident to all that do business with you.

The final of our three keys to success is services. Some of this has already been covered under technology - but there is more to it than that. Business specific expertise is an important part of helping families realize that there may be more value to keeping the family farm or business than selling it. Land management, timber management, business valuation, estate planning, and general business planning advice are all important, depending on the economic landscape in the communities you serve. These capabilities will set your bank apart with current and future generations. For example: the death of the farmer in the family need not mean selling off the land, if you can aid the surviving spouse in leasing out the land for farming. Doing so can provide comfort to the family, by keeping the land, and generate needed income for years to come. There are many examples across many family oriented businesses.

As I stated previously, packaging and promotion is critical . . . as a part of your overall bid to serve the heirs to your current customers. Remember that promoting a comprehensive package casts you in a much better light than waiting to react to requests for services. Again, if you are serious about surviving generational transfer, make it evident to all that do business with you.

About the Author
Trent Fleming serves as a trusted adviser to financial institutions. For more than three decades, he has worked with banks on matters as diverse as strategic planning, business continuity, employee education, and operational efficiency. Fleming's presentations on technology, management, and strategy consistently get the highest marks from his audiences. He serves on the faculty of the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin, and regularly contributes articles to industry publications. He also publishes the very popular banking newsletter “Trent's Comments.” Trent holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Finance from Christian Brothers University. More information at or on twitter @techadvisor