SimplyBank’s Take on Fostering Community Bank Innovation

By Charles Potts

Charles Potts

The term "innovate" is evolving in the community banking space. It once focused primarily on delivering an innovative product or solution on demand. Today the concept has been expanded to include anticipating customer needs, enhancing existing products for additional value, and laying the groundwork and infrastructure for what comes next.

So, in an environment where innovation needs to be continual, how can community banks succeed? Blake Swafford, senior innovation officer at SimplyBank, sums it up well. “It’s about being really committed to innovation," says Swafford, who was featured in this year's Independent Banker “40 under 40” emerging community bank leaders list. "You have to challenge everything."

SimplyBank is always looking to improve upon its innovation to deliver better products and services for customer use, he explains. “When you adopt that mindset, it propels every area of business.”

That philosophy enables the 100-plus-year-old institution to leverage innovation to keep pace with the bank’s evolving needs and customer demand.

Responding to Market Needs 

Case in point, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home mandates, which necessitated electronic signatures for managers working from home and customers concerned about coming into the branch to finalize paperwork.

“It wasn’t a priority for us until COVID,” says Swafford. “But after identifying the need, within two or three days we had it up and running. We were able to use it for new accounts, loans and almost every Paycheck Protection Program application, and now we’re deploying it across the bank for deposits, loans, operations, signing of forms, and other areas. It has really worked well for us.”

And the implementation of that technology is spurring even more ideas for the bank, such as online deposit account openings. “It was always on the radar, but maybe two years away,” says Swafford. “But with the current environment, it’s made it even more of a priority.”

While the bank now has an important component of virtual account opening in e-sign, it still doesn’t have the full start-to-finish virtual experience customers want and need in a new, remote world. “So, it’s been reprioritized and now sits as the top of the list,” he explains.

Planning for the Future

SimplyBank’s innovation plans don’t stop there. The bank continues to explore new innovative technologies and opportunities, including artificial intelligence. The ability to link data from different systems—such as the CRM, core system, online banking, and marketing—and leverage AI to give helpful feedback based on that data will go a long way in helping support the relationships employees have worked so hard to cultivate with customers, Swafford says. “And it will help customers even more,” he predicts. 

To support this constant evolution and offer greater convenience and customer service, the bank encourages staff to present unconventional ideas and think outside the box. “If you foster an environment where it is safe to come up with a bunch of bad ideas, a good one will emerge. So, we’ll take them all,” says Swafford. 

“We want to be the best community bank for our community," he says. "We can’t say, ‘That’s fine. We’ve always done it that way.’ We have to continue to challenge everything and come up with the creative solutions.”

Charles Potts is ICBA senior vice president and chief innovation officer.