In the Press – American Banker – To Win in Digital Banking, Get Techies Talking to Service Reps

Arjun Sirrah takes great pride in his company’s national-level success as a community bank in Connecticut competing against digital lending startups in student loan refinancing.

The 10-year-old Darien Rowayton Bank in Darien, where Sirrah has been chief technology officer of its affiliate DRB Lending since 2014, has $588 million in assets and has securitized more than $1.5 billion in loans in the last couple of years.

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DRB has managed to succeed in an environment filled with disruptors like Social Finance, Earnest and CommonBond – fintech players that moved in with faster and oftentimes cheaper versions of financial services. It has done so by upgrading its technology and by providing its customers with an easy-to-use product. The company is now taking its tech-based approach to banking to a new realm — later this year it plans to enter the mortgage market with the same commitment to simplicity. That commitment to improving the customer experience makes Sirrah a Digital Banker of the Year finalist.

Mortgage applications have long been slow, arduous processes whose operational incentives aren’t always aligned with consumer expectations, Sirrah said, but can be.

Consumers should be able to enter their information, upload relevant documents, and verify their identity in a “transparent, easy-to-use online experience,” he said. “A lot of those applications just don’t exist yet.”

That means lowering consumer confusion by monitoring incoming feedback and addressing points of confusion or bottlenecks.

DRB’s online mortgage origination platform promises to include all those specifications: an uncomplicated, paperless application process with fast turnaround times.

Transparency and ease of use are the value propositions for technology, Sirrah said. Delivering on that is easier if the bank doesn’t have some of its older technology. DRB has been revamping its processes since he arrived, making sure they’re engineered for agility so it can keep up with feedback loops.

“When you first start as a business you don’t have a particularly profound database,” Sirrah explained, adding that many banks use “old-school databases” and recalling how DRB’s primary database “was still an Excel spreadsheet” not too long ago. Now, all its origination databases run in the cloud.

Those upgrades have helped DRB regain dominance it may have lost when other fintech players began popping up.

Nate Matherson, founder and chief executive of LendEDU, an online student loan comparison site and marketplace started in 2014, said DRB has long led the student financing industry, but says its investment in and commitment to technology has kept it competitive.

“When we were first starting, DRB was at the top because they had the best products,” he said. “But for six months DRB was uncompetitive from a customer ease-of-use perspective.”

LendEDU constantly evaluates how well its customers perform at the lenders to which it sends them, Matherson said, and a “vast improvement” from the business it sent to DRB coincided with the bank’s site upgrade. The products didn’t change that much, but the customer experience did.

“If they wanted to keep up they had to also have a beautiful product,” Matherson said. “Now that they’ve learned they have to bring a forward-thinking tech product to the table, they’ll bring this to mortgages.”

Sirrah says much of the company’s success is due to the collaboration of the technologists with the front-line staff. His engineers are on a first-name basis with the customer service representatives and communicate openly and frequently in order to implement that feedback into weekly development sprints. They’re also involving a lot of mortgage experts in the process who aren’t on the digital team.

“You’re either fully a technologist or fully a mortgage person – and you can’t do both,” he said. “People doing it best are those who are bridging the two.”

Banks today are more willing to follow the lead Internet companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have set, Sirrah said – that is, a focus on clean, minimalist design that employs easy-to-use processes driven by user and demographic trends. Security remains a big concern, but he said that as companies have become better at managing transactions securely, consumers have become more open to making online transactions.

“Fifteen years ago not everyone used Amazon,” Sirrah said. “In the last 15 years people have become more comfortable with e-commerce. People are increasingly comfortable doing bank transactions online, and banks in turn have devoted a lot more of their resources to that.”

Much like the big tech companies, DRB is devoted to constantly improving its systems, Sirrah says.

“We’re a fairly agile player; every week we make our system better,” he said, describing why bank technologists rewrite their code bases so frequently. “Feedback loops are shortening; why shouldn’t development cycles?”

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