Giving Customers Credit

declined_plateOne of the most frustrating aspects of modern day borrowing, especially in the heavily securitized U.S. home loan market, is the price you pay for not being “normal.”  I faced this for more than two decades as a business owner. Even with a 20-year track record in business and great personal credit scores, without that regular paycheck and W-2 documentation, it was maddeningly hard to get a new mortgage, refi, or even a car loan or credit card sometimes.

But having worked on the other side, I understand that certain groups, such as small business owners, pose higher risk. So it’s understandable that underwriting, pricing, and documentation requirements for new customers are more onerous. The extra paperwork may be frustrating, but business owners understand risk vs. return, and can come to terms with it.

However, there is another situation that makes customers pull out their hair, rant on social media, and tell their friends to avoid that bank. It’s when you’ve been a customer for years, even decades, but your lender decides you should be in a higher-risk group, even though you’ve done nothing risky. There is a classic example of this in the Wall Street Journal today. It tells the tale of a Seattle couple who are renting a cottage behind their primary residence in a completely legal and transparent way. And when they mentioned this seemingly great $30,000 improvement to their income in a home-equity loan-refi app, their bank, one of the largest in the United States, promptly turned them away saying it didn’t offer home-equity loans on properties with home-based businesses.

Certainly, the bank can make the business decision not to lend to any category where it doesn’t like the overall risk vs. return. But their underwriting should be flexible enough to look at an existing loan that’s in good standing, and realize that if the borrower is pulling in an extra $30,000 from AirBnB, the default risk on that loan has been lowered.

umpqua logoThe bank isn’t commenting on this particular loan application, so we don’t know if there are other extenuating circumstances. Perhaps the couple had a debt go into collection or other credit problems. But since I’ve personally run into similar problems while maintaining excellent credit, I believe the couple’s story is probably accurate.

Bottom line: One bank’s loss is often another’s gain. This story had a happy ending as the couple was able to refinance through super community bank Umpqua. Now that its win has been immortalized by the national press, expect Umpqua to feature this story throughout its market.

Bank-Distributed Content You Might Actually Use from Umpqua, Arvest

Content_marketing_2Discussing bank and credit union blogs seems so last decade. While the hype has certainly died, so-called content marketing is still an effective strategy if done right (remember, less is more).

Just look at Chase Bank’s site, which went through its last major remodel less than a year ago. Once you scroll down the page (below the fold on most laptops), it’s almost entirely general personal-finance content. The section called News & Stories shows 9 to 12 articles initially, or 40 if you click on “more” at the bottom. They run the gamut of what you might see around the Web with catchy titles such “5 Food Trends to Watch in 2016” or “Three Perfect Days in the Greek Isles.”


Chase has more data scientists and Ph.D.s at their disposal than NASA, and if the bank chooses to devote more than half its homepage to content marketing, you can bet they are seeing engagement, if not yet a measurable sales lift. (While I thought they went too far, cluttering their homepage, I yield to the data).

However, the problem with most corporate-written “content” (not to pick on Chase) is that most of it – from any large organization that’s not a media company – is almost always super boring. Content-by-committee is just too watered down to be compelling to readers, who see hundreds, if not thousands, of more intriguing links and articles every week in Facebook, Twitter, ESPN, NY Times or the other big media outlets.

The best FI-sponsored content sticks to local subjects that aren’t widely available in large media outlets. There are few financial institutions that have stuck to blogging over the long haul, but one that stands out is Arvest Bank. I’ve subscribed to its blog feed for many years, and I’ve found their content to be continually excellent. I’m not in their geographic footprint, so I don’t personally benefit from their insights. But as an outside observer, I think they provide a good mix of local interest material, personal as well as small biz financial advice, and simple updates on their products or holiday hours.

The four most recent posts show up in a feed on their homepage (lower left below):

Clicking through to an article brings you to their main blog page, which divides the topics into four logical categories: Community News, Arvest News, Business Banking, and Personal Finance (see below):

But blogs and traditional articles are a tough sell, especially to younger customers accustomed to getting info from YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, and Instagram. That’s why I love the podcasts from Umpqua Bank. They have outsourced the work to a pro SuChin Pak, who interviews interesting people about money subjects (six episodes are archived on Soundcloud). The bank features the podcasts on their homepage (see main image below). The bank also posts some traditional press release news items near the bottom of the homepage (see below):

I can’t write about content market without a shout-out to Tim McAlpine and the team at Currency Marketing who do some of the best work on the planet, for example, the Young & Free campaign aimed at 25-and-unders and its newest effort, That Money Thing.

Top-right image licensed from

Feature Friday: Umpqua Showcases the Closest Branch on its Website


I’m not a fan of bank branches (except Chase’s Northeast Seattle outpost, Hi Ben). In my view, 80% of what goes on there is better done remotely, and the other 20% just doesn’t provide enough ROI. But if you do have good branches, you should at least use your digital presence to showcase them.

Probably the best example of growing a franchise using branching—at least in the United States over the past 20 years—is Umpqua Bank. It grew from a small community bank to a West Coast regional on the back of its innovative branching strategy. (Warning! Do not try to copy this strategy; it’s not 1995 any more.) So, it’s no surprise that Umpqua is one of the more adept FIs in showcasing their local, branch-based services.

Most large banks require users to enter a ZIP code to personalize the website experience. But even then, you generally have to go to an ATM/branch finder to locate the closest branch. Umpqua wisely automates this process on both its desktop and mobile website, though it works more seamlessly on the desktop (see desktop example, above).

umpqua_open_signThe bank uses visitor IP addresses to showcase branches in their city, but it goes one step further (at least in Chrome), by asking permission to use your location. If granted, Umpqua shows the exact branch closest to you. The branch name, address, and contact info are showcased right across the top of the screen. Finally—and I love this little touch—during open hours, there is an old-school “Open” sign in the right-hand corner. They could go one step further and add the temperature and maybe the time right below.

Those personalization techniques, while quite simple, makes prospective customers feel confident that the bank has a local orientation and really desires their business, whether it be digital or branch-focused.

Not everything Umpqua does is perfect. The bank also attempts to showcase local events on the left-hand column. But in my testing today, they were wildly off base. For instance, it listed a farmers market that was 40 miles away and didn’t mention the one within walking distance.

Who Cares about the Bank Branch “Experience”?

Editor's Note: I've been sitting on this post for a few weeks because I don't want to sound like I'm on a virtual soapbox. But since so many influential banking execs were in attendance, I feel it's important to provide an alternative view. So…

<Climbing on soapbox> Am I the only one who thought the "branch experience" keynote at November's BAI Retail Delivery Conference was about 5 to 10 years behind the times?

Sure, I like the Umpqua Bank story as much as the next person, probably more so. I went to CEO Ray Davis's talk in a back room at Retail Delivery about ten years ago and was blown away by his retail innovations. It's in the top four or five most memorable presentations I've ever heard, and I'm glad the strategy has worked so well for them.

And I'm all for remodeling branches to keep up with times, but the Microsoft-produced video he showed, which was shot in Umpqua's Pearl District branch in Portland, was so far-fetched it bordered on ludicrous. (Note: This was Microsoft's "vision" of banking's future, not the bank's. Umpqua merely provided the futuristic location. Here's Microsoft's press release.)

The video intended to demonstrate how in the future a fully networked high-tech, high-touch branch could serve customers better was visually appealing, and, if there was no Internet, it might even be on the mark. But why would the wired diva in the video pay $20 to take a cab to a branch to complete her mortgage application? Surely she would have logged in, perhaps via video conference if needed, and handled it from her home or office, saving not only the $40, but also the half-hour trip. 

Umpqua succeeded because it's a great community bank, not because it had its own brand of coffee and Starbucks-like interiors. Those gimmicks grabbed attention and brought in new customers, but the bank thrived because it created an environment where its front-line employees were able to pay attention to customers and serve them better than its mega-bank competitors.

But today it would be a waste of resources to embark on a strategy similar to Umpqua's. By the time it would become fully implemented, 2009/2010 at the earliest, the world will have moved still further from the old apply-for-your-mortgage-in-our-lovely-branch model.

What's far more important going forward is the "out-of-branch experience" online, phone, and mobile-phone hybrids. You will have ten, twenty, even 100 times more interactions with your customers outside the branch than inside.

Yes, those branch interactions are still vitally important, especially if they involve a new account or serious service issue. But branches will never again be the driver of customer satisfaction they once were. Bank on it. <Stepping down now>

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