Banks are a necessary part of the small business landscape, a 2020 survey of SMEs by Statista found that 99% of SMEs work with a bank or building society. Small businesses are often extremely loyal to their bank, unfortunately, that loyalty is rarely reciprocated. 

Banks rarely go beyond the bare minimum when it comes to supporting SMEs: products are designed for mass use, but poorly suited to the needs of any individual business. While banks are increasingly coming around on the need for technology and digitalisation, they are followers, not leaders in this space.

Why banks don’t serve modern SMEs

For an example of the issues with banks, let’s look at onboarding. Getting a small business set up with a bank is a frustrating, time-consuming experience at the best of times, and it’s made significantly more challenging by the inclusion of any changes, such as complex entity structures and special purpose vehicles (SPVs). The old-fashioned process often requires in-person attendance at a branch, even following Covid, and can take weeks.

Overall, banks are large, slow-moving institutions. They have historically been successful, and they’re reluctant to rock the boat as a result; innovation is risky, and banks like to play it safe. They’re wrapped up in legacy red tape and long-outdated processes, but every bank is in a similar position, so there’s no competitive pressure to do better. Unfortunately, the very loyalty that SMEs show to their banks also means that they have little incentive to improve. 

FinTech’s enter the scene

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, SMEs make up more than half of all UK business turnover. This represents a remarkable opportunity, so it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs have leapt into action. Seeing a clear gap in the market, newer, nimbler companies have emerged specifically to serve the needs of SMEs. 

Unlike the big banks, these businesses are eager to innovate and leverage technology to deliver a set of features designed to make life easier for small business owners. Compare the weeks-long process of signing up for a bank with that of signing up with a fintech - which is straightforward, takes minutes, and can be done from the business owner’s smartphone. 

Over the past decade, these alternative financial services (AFS) have evolved from plucky start-ups to trusted institutions in the small business world. Providers have built out their ecosystems, ironed out early issues, and now represent a realistic alternative to the old banking giants. 

What can SMEs do?

Every SME is unique, and each one has different needs from its financial provider. The first step that small business owners should take is to ask themselves questions about what they need from banking and expenses and the challenges they face. Often, this is something that SMEs have never seriously considered – the big banks are so well established, it’s easy to forget that there are other options or assume banks are the better one. 

Many SMEs don’t actually need to work with a bank and would be better off with an alternative financial provider. For instance, modern payment providers offer many of the same services as a bank, yet are far more responsive and deliver a higher quality of service. In fact, many providers connect SMEs with a dedicated account manager from day one, making the transition over as simple and hands off as possible. 

For others, a more tech-savvy partner may act as a supplement to the bank, adding capacity rather than replacing it entirely. Many businesses use the bank to store funds while managing them through a tech platform for greater insight into their finances. Combining a core banking solution with specialised solutions for the financial processes a business regularly needs – such as managing employee expenses, international payments, and foreign exchange – is well worth considering for SMEs which aren’t ready to ditch their banks just yet. 

The future of SME finances

There’s no doubt that the entry of fintech’s and alternative financial service providers has spurred banks to improve their offering, but they still lag far behind. It could be years until they implement the quality-of-life features that every smaller provider already has. For that reason, SMEs leveraging new providers – whether instead of or in addition to a bank – will have a competitive advantage. 

About the author: Simon England is Managing Director at Equals Money