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story.lead_photo.caption Arvest Bank employees Pascal Verwimp (left) and Veronica Lopez talk Thursday at the Arvest Experience Lab in Bentonville.

Financial technology companies are gaining traction in their efforts to provide mobile banking products to Arkansas' banks.

Fintechs, as they're known, commonly are entrepreneurial or startup efforts that provide financial services that empower customers and add value for banks.

Banking used to provide the personal touch, with customers getting to know tellers and their local branch manager. Statistics today reveal there are fewer teller transactions and branch banks are withering away.

Fintechs are working to re-establish that personal connection through digital offerings. "With digital banking, we have speed, we have convenience and a lot of features for customers, but the personal aspect is completely missing," said Uday Akkaraju, founder and chief executive officer of Bond.AI, a Little Rock-based fintech. "That's what we enable -- the personal connection between the bank and the customer."

Bond.AI was founded in New York and moved operations to Arkansas' capital city in May 2018 after participating in the fintech accelerator program at the Little Rock Venture Center.

Today, Bond.AI does business with four banks in Arkansas that can't be identified because of confidentiality agreements. Bond.AI creates "direct conversations between banks and their customers" by using text messages, social media sites such as Facebook and voice-activated tools like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri products.

Customers can engage in conversations that help them find the right credit cards or recommend savings and investment programs based on their behavior patterns. For example, customers who like to travel and have a favorite airline would get a recommendation for a travel rewards card that best suits their needs.

Participation in the Venture Center program was a major boost for the company, according to Akkaraju. The Venture Center set up meetings with local bankers and supported pitch sessions so Bond.AI could promote its offering. "We quickly realized there were a lot of banks in Arkansas we could potentially help," he said. "We found this was going to be a great market where we could really add value."

Digital Onboarding of Boston also participated in the Fintech Accelerator program through the Venture Center, and now is about to start a market trial with Arvest Bank at two Little Rock branches.

After customers open a new account, Digital Onboarding sends them a link to a personalized portal that will walk Arvest customers through a process to discover the tools and features available with mobile banking. "Our goal is to make customers aware of all the features and functions that are available to help them manage their money better," said Angie Garrett, executive director of digital innovation and strategic analysis at Arvest.

Garrett runs the Arvest Experience Lab, an innovative approach focused on digital and mobile products that make life easier for customers.

Arvest also is working with another fintech on an initiative called Banker Connect, which allows customers to pick a banker they can communicate with on a regular basis through digital channels. It's the same banker every time -- and the customer doesn't have to enter a branch to do business.

"The purpose here is to actually build a relationship and have a banker you know and to be able to proactively offer you advice that is relevant to you and your needs," she said, noting that the banker will have access to colleagues if additional expertise is needed in certain areas, say, for instance, if the customer needs a mortgage loan or investment advice.

Connect Banker will be offered in Oklahoma City in November by invitation to select customers.

Centennial Bank also works with the Little Rock Venture Center to find fintech businesses with mobile products that can be introduced to customers. Earlier this year, the bank worked with Omnetrium, based in Illinois, to offer customers a prize-linked savings program that delivers a game-like experience. Every dollar a customer saves gives him a digital ticket that can be redeemed for cash prizes, ranging from $25 to $10,000.

"It's really a fun way to save money," said Meredith Gessert, manager of business intelligence and analysis at Centennial.

The bank continues to explore potential business opportunities with fintech companies that have been part of the Little Rock program. "For us, it's very important to stay on top of new innovations," said Rebecca Lake Pool, digital products manager for Centennial. "We want to be at the forefront of new technologies coming out, especially as it concerns mobile banking."

Arvest and Simmons banks stay connected to the Venture Center as well. "There is a thriving community here and we want to see what they have that we can leverage, and they want to see what we have that they can leverage," said Alex Carriles, chief digital officer for Simmons.

Likewise, Garrett noted that Arvest brought in the most recent cohort at the accelerator program to pitch to the bank's executives. "We all get better by supporting entrepreneurs and fintechs," she said.

Digital Onboarding's forthcoming trial with Arvest is a way to establish a more personal connection with customers, according to Laurie McLachlan, chief marketing officer for Digital Onboarding. Customers are contacted immediately through a digital channel after they open an account, guiding them through a process to discover the tools available in mobile banking.

"Interaction is disappearing in the banking industry," McLachlan said. "Institutions need to build engagement, but through digital channels."

Little Rock's fintech accelerator provides great access to potential clients, McLachlan said. "We've gotten countless opportunities that we're still pursuing from our work there," she said. "It's one of the most productive accelerator programs out there."

SundayMonday Business on 09/29/2019

Print Headline: New 'personal touch' tech reliant

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