The digital world is changing so fast that even companies born into the dotcom realm can have trouble keeping up.

Banks and other old-school businesses have always moved deliberately. Historically, that has served them well. Until a few years ago, clients did not look to banks for innovation. There are many reasons for banks to move slowly, of course. The biggest drag on productivity today is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Legal, compliance, risk or IT departments live in the unknown because of the CFPB’s confusing stances. However, there is a bigger reason to move quickly. Today’s savvy, digital bank customers demand it.

In the digital world, slowing down is akin to pulling the plug on growth. Customers — whether Fortune 500 companies or individuals — want to do business here and now (at home, in their own office, in the middle of the night, in the car) and they will find a financial partner who can deliver.

Paula Tompkins

Paula Tompkins is CEO and founder of ChannelNet

Apple, Google, PayPal and Amazon get it. Compliance, legal and IT need to get it too. The likes of Amazon are no longer waiting in the wings. They are moving into financial services the same way they moved into other industries. They know there is money to be made. They know victory goes to the sure and the swift. They are unreasonably aspirational. They set lofty goals and pursue them relentlessly. Banks must do the same.

The Apples and Googles of the world are obsessed with pleasing their customers. Bankers must be even more customer obsessed.

Bank CEOs need to challenge the status quo and take measured risks in order to succeed today and tomorrow. It is a war that banks can win. But, they need to shed the risk-averse mentality that stems from uncertain regulation and focus more on giving customers what they want, when and how they want it. Right now.

When I work with people in banks I see and hear how regulation stifles progress. Legal and compliance are concerned and careful—for good reason. Yes, a bank needs to understand and play by the rules. Legal and compliance cannot get in the way of progress, however. If you think the worst that can happen is a bank will draw the attention of regulators, you are wrong. Banks can win that battle. If banks lag behind, their battling days are over.

A McKinsey study notes that in addition to needing good ideas and all the right skills to move into digital, financial firms often also need “… a certain loosening of control and a more flexible approach to project management.” Digital cannot be business as usual.

To win in the digital banking arena, banks need to do five things:

Get rid of silos. Everyone involved — from legal to IT to marketing — needs to be on the same team and tasked with the goal of making digital happen. Collapse silos between departments so that everyone is working toward the same end. Companies can name a Chief Digital Officer, or they can simply make sure that the leader of a cross-functional digital team reports directly to the CEO.

  1.  Financial services must acquire the capabilities they need, whether they are insourced or outsourced, and empower people to move quickly. It is literally now or never. Talent acquisition and development must be a top priority. Companies that don’t have the people in house who can get it done or don’t have a culture that emphasizes time-to-market cannot afford to let those things be stumbling blocks.
  2.  Respect, but do not fear regulators. Follow the rules but do not let uncertain interpretation or enforcement paralyze you. By the time the regulatory landscape is completely understood, it will be too late.
  3.  Just as you might ring-fence assets to protect the company or comply with regulations, banks should consider ring-fencing digital development and implementation.
  4.  Reward digital breakthroughs. In companies like Google and PayPal, innovation and good ideas are expected from everyone, from the CEO to the new marketing hire to risk management. Their legal and compliance departments find ways to say yes. Everyone in those companies is driven by delighting customers. They play to win.

Banks can do no less than their upstart competition. They must hire and empower people who can put digital banking on the fast track. The world of financial services is changing the same way retail has changed—quickly and forever. Get in front or be left behind.

Paula Tompkins, CEO and founder of ChannelNet, is a digital marketing and sales expert. ChannelNet has helped hundreds of the world’s leading companies use technology to sell their products and build customer relationships.