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Financial service automation: a Q&A with EZOPS CEO Bikram Singh

The following interview with EZOPS CEO Bikram Singh covers automation within the financial sector, and highlights the growing adoption trend for AI, machine learning and other innovations that boost workforce efficiencies.

Founded in 2014 and based in New Jersey, EZOPS offers process and data automation using machine learning, low-code interface, and platform integrations. The company completed its only funding round, a Series A led by Credit Suisse NEXT Investors, in January 2019 according to Crunchbase.

Q: When it comes to financial services, what would you say the biggest areas where you’re seeing a lot of demand for machine learning, AI and automation?

A: A lot of it has to do with how people are coming out of the pandemic. A lot of these institutions have now realized that they cannot continue to rely on huge capital to do business and be there all the time, because as we know all of these disruptions have really changed their integrity.

A lot of the institutions are not focusing on automation, they are focusing on digitizing human interaction and making sure that they are geared for a post-pandemic world.

What they’re doing is creating platforms that stitch functionality with technologies that will actually automate all the things that are repetitive. Low-value added or things that are also very critical, they would have been manual for whatever reason, right?

Things that are related to regulatory reporting, things that lead to anything with books and records, they’re automating the entire stack. So that is the space that we are playing in. We’re helping companies automate operations, we’re helping them digitize occupations and we’re helping them basically do more with less on a scalable basis.

Q: What would you say causes the most friction when adopting these new technologies and automations?

A: I think there’s a couple of points. One is obviously there’s this classic age old debate, build versus buy. You build it or you buy off-the-shelf technology, so that’s always there. But I think that equation is now fast changing, as the pace of acceleration is so high that companies can’t really afford to be as complacent as they used to be.

Number two is the push towards the cloud. A lot of companies are asking ‘How do I make sure that I can be ready for the migration that’s happening towards the cloud’, even if it is in-house and you’re doing a native cloud strategy. So a lot of companies are being forced to think like that.

The third place friction comes from, when you look at the timeline, ROI on investment. People want to see quick results, and are only willing to only invest in things that can show quick results in a defined time frame, within a certain budget. People no longer have the luxury, time or inclination to have these multi-year projects that don’t show results quickly. That is a point of contention, but again the mindsets are changing there.

Largely it’s a question of competitive advantage. If you don’t do what is required in terms of automation you’re going to get left behind, because your competitors are going to be ahead, gain more market share, and it’s going to impact your bottom line at some point.

Q: What have been the biggest driving factors in EZOPS’ overall journey and automation overall?

A: Obviously the post pandemic world looks very different. Second is a competitive pressure. Third is regulatory pressure, which is very real and very pressing. Lastly, it’s a question of making sure that you are creating not just a culture, but an actual career track for your employees. Where they feel that the skills that they’re going to be learning and what they’re going to be doing will be relevant in 5, 10 or 20 years from now.

A lot of that has to do with putting together and implementing technologies that are also going to create benefit…You want to work on newer technologies so their skill sets are also updated and relevant going forward. So there is the regulatory and pandemic narrative narratives, as well as making sure you are putting in this structure that makes your employees relevant and competitive as well.

Q: Let’s touch on the regulatory space, where do you see regulation going for the government and what do you think are the best ways for companies to tackle those upcoming challenges?

A: In the regulatory space, one thing is for certain. The regulatory pressure and mandates never shrink, and they only go in one direction—higher. The pace of regulation, the number of regulations, and the complexity of regulations is set up so that firms have no choice.

If you want to be in business, you have to be able to make sure that you comply, and in order to comply there’s a whole series of steps. You sort of have to look backwards and make sure that you are ready for any and all kinds of new regulatory mandates that may come.

The bottom line is that you need to run your data strategy, your tech strategy or your OPS strategy in a way that is what I call ‘Reg-proof’ down the road. You should have fewer issues, because ultimately regulations are all about the quality of data that you are managing, reporting, keeping track of and acting against.

If you have the right business strategy to tackle your data, you have the right processes and the right technology on which to do this. That is the only way to make sure that you are Reg-proof going forward.

Q: What would you say are the biggest factors when it comes to being Ref-proof as companies look ahead?

A: You have to make sure that you are putting in technology or platforms that deal with the entire lifecycle of data, and you’re dealing with it in a very siloed way. Regulation requirement is just one aspect of what you’re doing, but it’s important to have the whole data lineage and lifecycle of data so you are able to explain exactly what is going on to the regulators.

You want to make sure that the technology and processes that you’re putting in captures things on an end-to-end basis. Things need to be very transparent to anybody who is looking at your data.

You need to make sure that you can explain what you’re capturing, why you’re capturing and what the metrics are around it. Largely it is the speed of how you’re going to report is, and that is again largely predicated on the type of technologies that you’re deploying.

Q: I’m looking at the cloud like you mentioned, and I just want to know your thoughts on the biggest potential you see there moving forward?

A: It’s always going to be a mixed model, I think. You know, there will always be data that the financial institutions will probably never get comfortable putting on the cloud, for whatever reason, right? There has to be a balanced approach. It’s never going to be one or the other, so the companies that are going to do well are ones that actually do both of them simultaneously.

Q: When it comes to banks and fintechs, there is a lot of partnership movement in that realm. What do you think needs to be done on either side and how do you see this trend moving forward as it relates to digital transformation?

A: It’s a very symbiotic and synergistic relationship. Banks may look at fintechs as competitors, but more so as enablers and they should really look at fintechs as a mechanism to make sure that they are not wasting their dollars on things that will not offer them a competitive advantage.

Number two, they should look at fintechs as enablers for them to comply with regulations quickly and in a more thorough, comprehensive way. They should look at fintechs in a way that actually helps their workforce become more nimble, more agile, more productive and more competitive.

Lastly, I think they need to look at fintechs as revenue generators, because ultimately everybody is in the business of making money. And to that extent they can come up with either partnerships or structures that help him collectively drive revenue. It is a win-win for both sides, because the fintechs have the advantage of starting with a blank slate.

They’re able to be very nimble, agile and add a lot of features and functionality. They also can build out products and test things out, and the speed to market is something that the bank cannot match. So the banks need to learn from that, and instead of building things internally they need to figure out what is the right way and the right calibration that makes sense for them in order to scale up.

Q: Considering your comment that banks are traditionally slow moving, have you seen pushback against automation from banks?

A: I think almost all of them now understand that automation is not only here to stay, but that it’s going to get even more intensive. The push for automation, the drive for automation, the need and the imperative is just very strong. There are differing degrees in terms of how they are going about implementing their automation strategies.

There are different degrees in terms of how they’re able to do it, because of legacy debt, or how they are structured or how IT management is approaching automation. The timeframe that they think that they have in terms of when they need to get things done by, and the fact that it has to get done. Nobody’s debating them, it is ‘How to do it’. And the intensity of that is something that every bank has to decide, but, it is to some extent here and it is it is getting intensified as we speak.

Q: What are. you thoughts on the future of automation and what aspects of it do you think are reaching maturity to the point that they can really make a difference?

A: Automation, if you’re looking at a financial institution, there are many different functions within any institution. Starting from account opening and client onboarding, to processing funds, to dealing with the operational aspects of things and then making sure you’re managing the risk.

At the end, reporting would cross all of these and there are various degrees. I would say on the front side of things or where the revenue generation side of things, there’s a lot of maturity around automation because it is imperative as a revenue driver.There’s a lot of dollars being spent there.

When you move downstream from there, that’s where the focus is coming. Making sure that firms realize that there is operational alpha that you can actually generate by making sure you’re automating your processes. So this is sort of the second wave of automation, which is more operational in nature. Things that are not very obvious to the C-suite, but increasingly are becoming obvious because that is where a lot of the money is being spent.

That is where a lot of risk resides. That is where a lot of the regulators are now focusing in and saying, ‘Look, do you have the processes and the technology to run effective shop going forward?’ Automation dollars are getting realigned and shifting towards areas that I would say are less obvious and less glamorous. Areas that normally don’t get a lot of attention but increasingly have become critical to the success of these organizations.

Q: As these processes continue to move forward into operations, what are your thoughts on it? Are there processes that companies might try to automate, that in reality can’t be automated?

A: I would say when it comes to sales there are aspects that you can automate around, like sourcing deals and doing things of that sort. But actual selling is still a relationship-based game. It is based on handshakes and trust, and those are the kinds of things that I don’t see automation necessarily making a big dent on. I could be proven wrong, but I highly doubt that sales and relationship management are the kind of things that will be done in the future.

Q: What are your thoughts on customer experience? I know there is chat bots and things like that, but it seems like while some try to push automation into customer service, others are hesitant.

A: I think there is increasing convergence between the experience that clients have gotten used to in their personal domain and in the retail domain. When you are dealing with a social media app for example, or you’re dealing with e-commerce, there is a certain level of expectation in terms of just how that interaction should work.

People have started to expect the same thing with B2B engagement: the ease of accessing data, what you can do, how you can get information, how quickly you can get it, how refined it can be, how customized it can be. Those are the things that people are now expecting of B2B applications, and there is no reason why it cannot be delivered.

Yes there is a lot of technical debt and a lot of legacy systems in some cases, but when we talk about automation there is a beautiful opportunity to reset the clock and give clients that experience from day one.

Q: What are EZOPS plans? Where is the company going and what are your big goals as we head into 2022?

A: We want to basically become the predominant data and process automation company for banking and capital markets clients. When they talk about automation and end-to-end data lifecycle automation, we want to be first on their mind and their first call for the type of use cases and level of complexity that we are handling given the DNA of our firm.

The founders, the management team and everybody else who works in the company, we understand the space very intimately. Our goal is to make sure that we take the success that we’ve achieved thus far and build on that. We can also accelerate our growth into other areas within banking and finance traditional use cases, that can be impacted around automation.

If we are doing an ROI for a bank, let’s say that we are saving or are liberating 30% to 35% of your workforce. We want to sort of expand on that and take that number to even higher, closer to 70% to 80% down the road.

Q: Do you see any specific roadblocks or challenges that you personally believe automation might need to tackle in the next year? Is there anything that may kick things back a notch or do you see smooth sailing ahead?

A: I wouldn’t call it smooth sailing. I think this boat has set sail largely, and I think the question is only how these institutions, our clients and potential clients look at their automation journeys. Are they going to be stuck in their old ways, or are they willing to accelerate the automation journey? It’s a mindset issue.

It’s an alignment issue. It’s a question of where they are in their own entire journeys, and how quickly do they want to adapt and move on? I think that will be critical both for their success and ours.

In other recent fintech news, Credible acquired online insurance marketplace Young Alfred in order to provide consumers “one stop shop” for insurance and lending. Tradeshift also raised a $200 million funding round to scale growth, improve its cloud-based B2B marketplace and battle supply-chain stress.

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