Budgeting for a 2021 Innovation Agenda

Coronavirus COVID

By Charles E. Potts

As we close out the third quarter of 2020, I daresay we’re all casting our eyes toward 2021—hopeful for an eventual return to normalcy, but with a learned hesitation given this year’s experiences.

With so many unknowns, budgeting is difficult, but there is a bright spot. With uncertainty comes the opportunity to look at what we do in a different light using the experiences of the pandemic to explore new ideas, solutions, and approaches to solve for today’s business challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.

I recently discussed this very topic and how these experiences are shaping the future of our industry with ICBA Chairman Noah Wilcox, president, CEO and chairman of Grand Rapids State Bank and its holding company, Wilcox Bancshares Inc., both based in Grand Rapids, Minn.

“This is a real opportunity to reimagine our business model, because the world has been turned on its head,” Wilcox said, noting the dynamic shift in customer expectations and experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noah’s observations bear out in what is transpiring in the market. According to one study, more than 45 percent of customers have changed how they interact with their bank since the outbreak of the pandemic, and 31 percent plan to continue to use more online and mobile banking in the future. For many community banks, these evolving preferences may speak to a need for a strategic refocusing of offerings. 

For Noah, it has meant incorporating an additional element to a planned website redesign to incorporate video chat and support interactions in a virtual environment. He is also exploring an online reservation system where customers can “book” time to come to the bank or have an employee meet them in the parking lot to support social distancing and other customer needs.

“I’ve been asking my team to think differently about space, service, everything,” Wilcox said. “For instance, I’ve challenged them to consider how we can use PPP solutions across more of our bank operations.”


Striking a balance 

While Noah’s asking the right questions, he is the first to admit he doesn’t have all of the answers. Building relationships in a digital-first environment is a challenge, and not everyone prefers a technology-based experience. From team dynamics to customer relationships, Wilcox said he grapples with striking a balance between in-person and virtual initiatives.  

Some of the best ideas originate organically from spontaneous collaborations, he noted. “We want to continue facilitating an environment where dialogue is happening and where teams can continue to gain new ideas from one another and from customers. We’re still the front porch of the community, so we have to solve for that experience in a digital-centric space.”

And technology opportunities continue to knock on that virtual front door through our ThinkTECH Accelerator program. When COVID arose and PPP loans dominated our focus, our previous Accelerator cohorts stepped in to support community banks. In fact, 11 different Accelerator companies immediately pivoted to offer products and services to help community banks navigate new pandemic priorities.

It is with that track record of commitment to community banking that we’re kicking off our third ThinkTECH Accelerator in January. We’ve just begun recruiting bankers to act as program mentors, and we invite you to join us.

In exchange for your insights, you’ll gain first-hand access to emerging technologies and have a stake in the finalization of these solutions. In short, your participation in the program helps ensure the technology solutions presented not only reflect current market dynamics but align with community bank strategic priorities.

The adage holds true: Necessity really is the mother of invention. Because as we navigate a dynamic of “new norms,” the only path forward is one of focused innovation, and ICBA will be there to support the continued evolution of community banking.

“ICBA couldn’t be better timed in its investment in the ThinkTECH Accelerator,” Wilcox concluded. “In today’s world, every area of our business has opportunities for digital services to play a role.”

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