Banks no longer made of stone, says Unisys

ST PAUL DE VENCE, FRANCE — The world’s first commercial bank opened in Italy in 1472, and for more than five centuries, not much had changed – that is, until now, according to Chris Skinner.

Skinner, vice-president of strategies and marketing for Unisys Corp. and evangelist for the Global Futures Forum, spoke here Monday at an international conference entitled “Leaders, Lemmings and Laggards?” The event is hosted by Unisys and is focused on future trends within the global financial and technical sectors.

Although changes have been taking place behind the scenes of financial institutions for many years, from a customer viewpoint, virtually nothing had changed for 500 years, Skinner said. However, over the last decade, banks have been trying to distance themselves from their customers by using technology such as ATM machines and the Internet.

Try to remember a time before we had computers, he challenged. “You may think that was a long time ago, but that was 1986. So much has changed in 15 years,” he said. “Technology has gone from the back room, onto the desks and laps of little children. So, the world is a different place.”

The consumer today is actually pretty cynical, Skinner said. “Citizens have access to everything immediately. (And) they are much more competent as a result of the change. As a result, most consumers – particularly the newer, digital generation – are really, intimately capable of using IT, and that’s why they are (so) demanding. Consumer power is it.”

Financial institutions are finding it challenging in this new world where everything is transparent, consumers are cynical and intimate with the technology, and will look for the best deal, he said. Differentiating yourself from your competitors is key to survival, he said. “But how do you differentiate when everything is so different?”

Skinner cited two alternative online banks that could not have survived in the old-style traditional banking world, but which exemplify the way customers preferences have changed the landscape of service: Bowie Banc (the Web bank named for pop icon David Bowie) and G&L (Gay and Lesbian) Internet Bank.

Personalization is of vital importance in this new customer-driven business model, he said. In fact, one of the main reasons so many banks are now aggregating is so that they can better capture all of their combined customers’ requirements, he said. The question banks may have to ask themselves in order to gain competitive advantage in the “very near present” may well be: “How niche are you?” he added.

Communication is what will change services, he continued. “That’s why the Internet has become a semi-revolution – it’s that language change; it’s that behavioural change; it’s that cultural change that we have to look for. Those are the things that will change services.”

We just got used to TLAs (three letter acronyms), and now things are different again, Skinner said. Text messaging is one example of how language and behaviour is changing how people communicate.

“Certainly it’s the behavioural change that makes the difference. When we see very serious things like 3G (connectivity) starting to come through, we expect that we will find the behaviour changes again,” he said.

“The idea of chips in everything is here today. I think we already know they have things like Internet washing machines. Now you can read your e-mails while washing your underwear.”

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