The missed small business banking opportunity – why banks must optimise digital capabilities, or risk losing customers

By Derek Corcoran, Chief Experience Officer, Avoka

Derek Corcoran, Chief Experience Officer, Avoka
Derek Corcoran, Chief Experience Officer, Avoka

There are an estimated 4.5 million SMEs in the UK – accounting for 99.9%[i]of private sector business. By anyone’s standards, that’s a significant potential market. But,providing excellent service to SME customers is an opportunity too often overlooked by the major banks, who are seemingly unwilling to tailor their services to meet the specific needs of this group of hard-working, time-strapped individuals.

By failing to make life easier for small business owners, banks are missing out on building relationships with the lucrative business banking market. Even for existing customers, adding a cross sell capability — to apply for additional credit, for example — would bring with it a significant upside for banks.

Despite the diversity of the SME market, it’s simple enough to pull out some common trends -the most fundamental of which, is a simple lack of time. Therefore, the guiding principle for banks must be to make their services easily accessible, easy to understand and easy to navigate. Compare this with the current situation: cumbersome form filling,waiting in lines at physical branch locations with limited business hours, and long friction-filled processes for small business owners to get what they need from their bank.

Take opening hours. The average small business owner in the UK works a hefty 50 hours a week, significantly more than the national average of 37 hours.[ii] In comparison, UK banks are only open for an average of 46 hours a week, meaning that their hours typically do not correlate with those of many of their SME customers. It’s not unusual for banks to close up shop in the early afternoon, well before the end of a traditional working day, making things difficult for many SME owners.  Access for SME customers is restricted further still by the fact that bank branches are continuing to disappear from UK highstreets, with 1000 branch closures between 2014 and 2016.[iii]

The time could not be more right for banks to make their processes and applications more digitally accessible for the small business banking audience.

Avoka’s 2017 State of Digital Sales in Banking Report found that small business products still show the most potential for improvement. In particular, small business accounts continue to lag behind in mobile banking developments. Only a quarter of business banking products can be opened digitally andsmall business account opening from mobiles lags behind those of personal banking accounts. Furthermore, progress is slow. Currently, 9% of these loans and accounts can be opened from a mobile device, up from a similarly modest 7% in 2016.

It’s not just the UK that lags behind on servicing SME customers. Avoka’s report found that the lack of attention to the small business banking opportunity was consistent worldwide. This seems madness when SMEs account for nearly half of UK and US revenue (48 per cent). One in five SMEs are exporters, and internationally active SMEs are three times more likely to introduce innovative products or services.

It is clear that focus is needed to help SMEs access capital, scale up and boost productivity, especially consideringthe huge impact that SME growth has on the global economy. By failing to adapt digitally, banks are taking a huge gamble with their business banking customers. Lack of convenience for SME owners could see banks start to lose their most loyal or“sticky” customers to alternative providers who are recognising this opportunity.

So how can banks ensure that their SME customers don’t jump ship? The answer, broadly, is a simple one: they need to start helping to make their lives easier. It is vital therefore that banks take an omni-channel digital approach to make sure that their business-owning customers have access to bank products on-the-go and at a time that suits them.

There are some clear steps which banks can take in order to make their digital business banking work for the small business owner:

  • Keep it simple – This is vital for busy business customers. Keep the number of questions on applications to a minimum and always start with the easiest questions in order to prevent application abandonment. Every time a busy client finds themselves forced to fill in banal and generic information, they edge ever closer to dropping out of the on boarding process. Make sure to minimise those moments.
  • Support multiple devices and enable a save and resume functionality– SME owners often wear many hats from CEO, to accountant, to delivery driver. With so many plates spinning at once, it’s essential that banking processes fit in around other tasks. Offering the option of different devices affords small business owners the luxury of being able to complete tasks on the go at a time most convenient to them. Meanwhile, a save and resume functionality means that they don’t have to sit and do everything in one go, further decreasing abandonment rates.
  • Use data to analyse customer onboarding processes– The digital world is constantly evolving. Analysing data gives banks an invaluable opportunity to continue to improve processes for customers.
  • Add a cross sell capability – Allowing SME customers to apply for additional credit, for example, would provide a significant upside and help to make customers feel valued.

Improving digital capabilities has the potential to be one of the quickest and easiest ways to boost acquisition rates, increase revenues and, most importantly, foster strong relationships with SME customers. Business banking customers represent a major opportunity for banks, one which they are continuing to jeopardize with low levels of digital capability.

Banks have an invaluable opportunity to be a trusted ally for their SME customers. But to do that, they need to assure them that they have the capabilities to make life easier for them so that small business owners can get on with what’s important to them – and that’s growing their business.