Thursday, May 09, 2024

What is the ROI of a Banking Conference?

Are conferences more than a vacation? 

Last week I attended two back-to-back banking conferences and it was apparent that attendance was down. This is the likely reaction to banks' profit challenges resulting from net interest margin pressures that are due to slowly repricing loans accompanied by ever faster repricing deposits. Let's tighten our belts to offset revenue decline. By the way, I'm off to a warm and swanky place next week.

I wrote most of this article early on a Saturday morning during the business session at one of the conferences. During the prior break, I struck up a conversation with a person from Lendio, a small business lending platform, that was there to promote their white-label platform to bankers. Back in 2015, almost nine years ago, I wrote an article about banks building their own small business loan platforms. Getting much needed capital into the hands of small businesses that can lead their economies forward. 

I still find this to be a challenge at community banks. They want to grow small business deposits. But they will only lend what fits in their credit box. And the hypothetical loan to the expanding engineering firm that leases their office doesn't fit the bill. So the engineering firm ends up at "Big Bank", and the community bank wonders why.

I described the problem to the Lendio guy, and we had a back-and-forth on how community banks can solve it. Using the Lendio platform of course, but that doesn't decrease the value of the problem-solving discussion that happened only because I met him at the conference and we got to talking. 

Who should call on the small engineering firm: a lender, branch manager, or possibly a small business banking specialist? His platform would have the borrower enter the information and the loan could be routed based on the credit appetite of the bank, and its partners outside of the bank if it doesn't fit the bank's appetite. This makes it more possible that a branch banker could be the relationship manager, as I often hear that fear of credit discussions keep branch managers from being effective small business bankers. How do I calculate that ROI?

I talked about the concept of pulling into the pits in my 2021 book Squared Away-How Can Bankers Succeed as Economic First Responders. It goes like this: when a race car enters the pits, it is losing time. If not to recalibrate, refuel, and re-tire, drivers wouldn't do it. If you compare bank strategy to a 500-mile race, banks would also enter the pits. But if you compare bank strategy to a few times around the track, you would be foolish to do so. Is saving the money by skipping conferences short-term track thinking? That is, if the conference was purposefully leveraged to benefit the bank, help solve its challenges, strike relationships with other problem solvers (either bankers or suppliers), or further develop employees. 

Here are ways that I think banks can leverage conferences to deliver long-term benefits to a strategically focused bank.

1. Solving a particular challenge at your bank. When we identify weaknesses in a strategic plan, we encourage bankers to only identify ones they wish to solve. Pick one or two of these weaknesses that are most conducive to getting a variety of ideas of how to solve by engaging with other bankers, particularly ones that don't directly compete with you, or suppliers that are anxious to talk to you at the convention. Many bankers avoid the suppliers because they fear the barrage of post-convention sales pitches that sometimes follow. But there is a reason why they are often called "solutions providers." My ideas on how bankers can solve the small business banking challenges are more informed because I had the discussion with a solutions provider. Once you are focused on finding ideas to your greatest challenges, you can bring ideas back to your bank for discussion and debate with your leadership team and implement a plan to solve them.

2. Purposeful Education. The conference agenda is set and you know the topics and speakers. Perhaps you influenced the agenda because you are on the association board or you provided input via survey. You know the blind spots of your management team and knowledge gaps with your board. Put together a game plan where an executive can amass information that can be presented to the rest of management to help reduce your blind spots or have a board member attend the relevant sessions to help improve board education. A trade association could make it easy for executives with perhaps a "blind spots" presentation tool that could be easily built in the convention app or another tool so an executive could drop slides from multiple presentations to create something unique to their bank's strategy that could be taken back, shared, and presented. 

3. Reward for a job well done. I recall being in a Pittsburgh bank CEO's office where he said he sends the director with the most customer referrals to the state association's annual convention. This is aligned with banks that want to establish a positive accountability culture, where they visibly reward employees (or directors) for moving the bank forward. Expanding on the concept, perhaps consider taking a high-performing, high potential next-level employee to the conference charged with amassing information (see Purposeful Education above) to present to either executives or the Board (or perhaps both) when they return. It will give that next-level employee exposure to the association, suppliers and other bank executives so they plant the seeds for relationships, and builds their presentation skills, knowledge base and confidence. What a great succession planning tool!

How else can bankers leverage conferences so they pull into the pits to refuel and move their bank forward?

~ Jeff

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