The SVB episode: The latest case for putting people at the heart of every strategy

Zone
5 min readMar 30, 2023

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Zone’s Lead Business Designer, Tripti Gawankar, takes a different view on the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. She explains why businesses must be customer-centric to avoid mismanagement of crises and minimise their cascading impacts.

A lot has been written and analysed about Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) over the last few weeks — a rigorous post-mortem of the bank and the (almost) bank run performed by every publication, consulting firm, armchair enthusiast, and podcaster (pandemic expert turned banking expert). TLDR of such analyses is that there were elementary mistakes made by the bank’s treasury and risk management teams. However, these mistakes would lead to liquidity concerns, not defaults or losses in the long-term. Then why did the bank fail overnight?

The case we make is that SVB forgot that banking involves living, breathing human beings — people with characteristics, needs, pain points, biases, etc. As its name suggests, SVB served Silicon Valley — a tight-knit community filled with highly influential and resourceful people who understand the world of finance. So, on 8th March 2023, when the bank announced its plan to raise capital to balance out its loss-making portfolio, the people they served started their own analyses and spoke to their friends, who spoke to their friends, which snow-balled into the valley wanting to pull their deposits from the bank — the classic recipe for bank runs seen even in movies like Mary Poppins.

Most businesses, just like SVB, need to remember that people are not numbers on an Excel sheet or a sum of data points in a model that spits out how and when to serve them. What do we learn from this SVB episode?

Understand people to de-risk your business

Risk management in a business does not only mean covering quantitative concerns. People lie at the heart of every business, and understanding how they react to situations will help organisations plan for the future. When the headlines are all about artificial intelligence (AI), data, and the Metaverse, it’s becoming easier for businesses to forget that everything from purpose to product-market fit is a function of people — their needs, wants, problems, and perceptions.

It is essential to constantly steer back to human-centricity when businesses shift focus due to competing priorities and KPIs. The central idea that underpins everything is, “are the people you serve happy with your product/service?” Getting better at understanding people will help you design and develop the right products, services and strategies. It will also enable you to safeguard investments and create an organisation attuned to the needs of your users and evolve with changing times.

Tailor your communications for customer buy-in

SVB’s communication on capital raising would have been a run-of-the-mill media report had the SVB customer been an average retail banking customer with limited financial savvy. However, the fact that their customers understood the space well meant that this regular piece of communication triggered a series of events that resulted in what is now being called a bank run.

SVB should have tailored their communications, in terms of content and channels, to relay this information in a manner that would have enabled more open dialogues so that their customers could buy into the bank’s plans without feeling side-lined.

Build trust among customers so they can help you weather the storm

A common complaint of most banking customers, irrespective of how well-versed they are in banking and finance, is that they don’t trust their financial services provider. To add to this persistent issue, SVB did not take their depositor community into confidence when they started noticing concerns. Their leadership paid themselves hefty sums, which added insult to injury.

Ironically, banking — which should be a business that makes its customers feel secure, often alienates them further. Trust should be the cornerstone of customer relationships in banking. Other banks must learn from this situation and start developing products and services that reflect the bank’s trustworthiness. Ensuring customers feel that banks have their backs will help these organisations wade through tricky waters more easily.

Combine skills for a holistic view of the customer

SVB’s risk management and communication strategies were clearly out of sync. When most organisations don’t function effectively, the reason for this tends to be large silos that have calcified over the years, which reduce communication and collaboration across different parts of the organisation. Generally speaking, such silos are the root cause of organisational failures.

Although on the surface, it might look like we’re rehashing this exact idea, if you dig deeper, the takeaway is that reframing challenges to let people take centre stage and design strategies and solutions around humans will help businesses avoid similar fates. Does that mean that the Chief People Officer or the Chief marketing officer needs to run the treasury department of a bank going forward? No, but they should be consulted while designing communication around risk management or engaging customers in trying times.

Conclusion

Every crisis is a time for reckoning and rethinking. The SVB episode clearly underscores how ignoring our humanness in the day of tech and AI can exponentially worsen a salvageable situation. The SVB case and its fallout present a pivotal opportunity to put humans first and to create a culture that ensures that customers and employees are at the heart of how you conduct business. Most importantly, it underscores trust as the key to navigating challenging times.

Zone’s banking and finance solutions team created a framework to understand whether banks are truly customer-centric, which can be found in our recent Consumer Duty report. Download it here.

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Zone

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