Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beyond NFC and coupons: is there real value in payments?

If there's anything I can honestly say about the latest talks about payments, offers and connectivity technology (read: NFC) is that I am underwhelmed. I have voiced my opinion about NFC before, but the extent to which payments related discussions are focusing on what I find to be irrelevant is just mind boggling.

The issue most participants are missing is the intrinsic value in the payments business itself. When discussing NFC and offers, payments are often treated as a necessary evil - an almost commoditized way to move money between two accounts, based on existing rails (mostly credit card), where you optimize on cost (fees and losses). All that, to get to the real prize - users' personal data, to be leveraged for alternative revenue streams. This is the embodiment of the factory approach, and it is self perpetuating since inefficient user behavior management creates bad cost structures, and drives payments into becoming a loss leader. Is that what payments are about?

No. Consider PayPal: the company hit profitability, among other reasons, by offering instant bank payments even though the existing infrastructure (to this day) only clears after 3-5 days. Data was not used to further segment the population for better delivery of advertising content; it was data used to deliver quality decisions and decision supporting tools, and enabling capabilities that users would not have otherwise.

What are the added benefits of a payment option? The ability to move money quickly and for a reasonable price; the ability to drive commerce; responsible access to debt. Any solution that doesn't create more or cheaper commerce activity is not a change in payments - it's a new advertising platform. Extracting that value, however, requires more deep technology and data science/decision design capability than are usually invested in payments, which is probably (together with lack of domain knowledge) why only a handful of companies ever succeeded in bringing real benefits - and they grew into gorillas. Effective risk management and automated decisions can make the difference between making a payment and earning a paying customer and rejecting it; they also make the difference between approving a good customer and a fraudster or a kid using their parents' account. They also constitute the  difference between your struggling gateway business and a PayPal or a Visa. Companies that invest the time and research get rewarded by a substantial revenue stream just from moving money around; companies who don't are forced to treat payments as customer acquisition cost.

The above is the reason why NFC-enabled, offers-driven "wallets" don't strike me as innovation in payments: they are not. Improved underwriting, new payment rails or enabling commerce in a new setting are, but those aren't included in the debate. This is how a huge chunk of business opportunity is being missed.