“There’s definition more of an upside potential than a downside drawback to getting comfortable with where things are headed.” -Eric Cook

Is your financial brand stuck in the past? If so, there’s probably too much fear and not enough empathy to go around in your organization. Digital transformation starts with a personal transformation that happens within each of us.

Eric Cook, Founder and Chief Mentor of The LinkedBanker, an agency that helps community banks innovate in a digital world, joined the Banking on Digital Growth Podcast to address fear in the financial industry, the role of the COVID-19 pandemic, and overcoming common challenges.

Fear and Foot-Dragging in Financial Institutions

When Eric Cook talks to financial brand CEOs and top executives, he sometimes hears things that make him shake his head in disbelief. Many of these head-shaking conversations have happened during the COVID-19 pandemic as traditional financial institutions struggled to cope with an increasingly digital financial landscape.

For example, one CEO gave the marketing team a directive to get people back into the office at all costs. The office space was looking too empty for the CEO’s tastes and needed employees to fill it up and justify the organization’s long-ago sunk infrastructure costs.

Talk about living in the past!

Eric has also heard plenty of bank executives’ fears about moving their business online and putting their jobs at risk. If customers don’t need to walk into physical branch locations, will their company just fade away and die out?

The answer is “no,” of course, but it’s a tough sell to these legacy financial thinkers.

He highlights the need to get traditional banking executives “over the hump” of digital transformation. They’re full of fears about the digital world and probably don’t even do digital banking themselves.

How do we move these talented but fearful executives into a new fintech-infused future?

Bringing the Focus Back to the Customer

If you ask any employee at a traditional community bank or credit union, they’ll say their focus is always on their account holders or members.

But is this really true?

Eric pushes back on the notion that financial institutions are truly making decisions based on what the customers want, rather than what’s easiest for their employees. A banking employee, for example, might provide feedback that, “Customers want X” because X is easiest for them - the employee - to accomplish.

Instead, if you asked the customer directly, they might want something entirely different. What they want might also create a huge inconvenience for the employees and the organization, so traditionally, this option has been ignored.

Take the issue of accepting online applications. An organization might say that they can’t take online applications quite yet due to a lack of securing the budget for it or a lack of proof that the market wants it. These are merely excuses to avoid digital innovation.

Go out and ask customers what they want.

Do they prefer to submit applications quickly and easily online?

Of course they do!

This need would have been ignored forever if you never got around to asking customers and addressing their needs directly, rather than relying on secondhand information from your well-intentioned but fearful employees.

Many traditional banking employees built careers around growth in the physical world. They built their lifestyles on the brick-and-mortar bank, and that’s okay. But to continue working in this industry, they’ll have to adapt to change and address their fears.

The COVID-19 experience has supercharged the rate of change. COVID is like a big bully that showed up and shoved everyone into the deep end of the pool.

Now we have to figure out how to tread water. Everyone would have preferred to wade into the shallow end and learn how to float along slowly, but we’re already past that point and now it’s sink or swim.

The bottom line is that your customers need you to help them stay afloat.

Financial brands must offer solutions that don’t require in-person contact, don’t necessarily operate within banking hours, and don’t follow the same old approaches financial institutions have always followed.

Moving Forward With Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Financial employees are going to need plenty of reassurance in the coming years. They want to be reassured that the financial world isn’t coming to an end and they aren’t going to lose their jobs over the issue of digital transformation.

On the most basic level, your employees need the professional equivalent of a hug that says, “It’s going to be okay.” Explain that you’re going to train them how to succeed in a new landscape and they don’t have to feel pressured.

Remind them that you’re all in this together.

James Robert explains that emotional intelligence, or EQ, is predicted to be one of the biggest influences on our society in the coming years. Along with AQ, or adversity quotient, EQ predicts someone’s ability to have the emotional wherewithal to thoughtfully navigate complex interpersonal situations.

Empathy is part of this complex equation. When someone encounters a difficult situation, receiving empathy from others can help them weather the storm successfully. Likewise, practicing empathy for others can help people cope with adversity and avoid negative interpersonal interactions.

Acknowledge that your employees might be feeling intimidated by the potential demise of their industry, their company, and their role.

Let them know that it’s okay to feel this way and commiserate over the shared fear of having your world turned upside down.

But don’t just wallow in it! Move past it together. Give each other hope.

Eric suggests that when someone is struggling with the concept of transformation, it’s helpful to “go old school” and get out a pen and paper for a good old-fashioned brain dump. A brain dump is an opportunity to write down everything that’s worrying you in a stream of consciousness that flows onto the paper.

When you see it all written down on paper, it’s much easier to handle. You might even look at a few things and think, “Really? That’s what I’ve been so worried about?” Eric says this simple exercise is very freeing and helps people rebuild their confidence as they stop living in the past and start looking toward the future.