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The New Banker's Hours

Wells Fargo leads customers to the future of online and on-the-go banking

When was the last time you walked into a bank? Exactly. What once was a purely in-person relationship has now moved largely into the ether. Direct deposit has made paycheck cashing obsolete. Online banking and bill pay has pushed the checkbook to the back of the drawer. And now, mobile banking puts access to our finances in our pockets, wherever we may be. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Company has consistently (but conservatively) blazed a trail at the edge of the digital banking frontier. For the better part of a decade, Secil (rhymes with “Rachel”) Watson has been at the heart of Wells Fargo’s online and mobile banking efforts, where she is a tireless and visionary advocate for the bank’s 70 million customers. Watson has succeeded in making customer experience be owned by all of the bank’s business units – not just the digital marketing group – and has spearheaded Wells Fargo’s innovative User-Centered Design methodology. Benchmark spoke with Watson about online and mobile banking, and a future that will bring ever more powerful financial tools into the hands of consumers.

Benchmark: First off, what is your role and what are your responsibilities at Wells Fargo?

Secil Watson: I manage mobile banking, money movement services, and online and mobile customer experience. Money movement services includes our online transfer services, transfer scheduling capability, person-to-person payments, as well as bill pay and some of our more niche offerings like global remittances online, as well as some small business offerings we have around employee direct pay, vendor direct pay, and desktop deposit.

Benchmark: Are you responsible for customer experience on the main Wells Fargo website as well as the online and mobile banking services?

Secil Watson: Yes. My customer experience team is a diverse group of professionals who design the website, write the content for the website, and do the interaction models. And I also have a 'best practice' customer insights team made up of all customer insight practices including syndicated research, market research, user research, and ethnography. They really help define what the experiences should be for customers, for both online and mobile.

Benchmark: Wells Fargo has been in the news with some important new product offerings — text banking, and then recently, person-to-person payments. Can you tell us a little bit about the person-to-person money transfer functionality?

Secil Watson: The interesting thing about it is that it's actually not a new functionality. In 2004, we introduced the ability to make person-to-person payments among Wells Fargo customers in online banking. We started with zero marketing and it's still a minimally marketed product; it's been word-of-mouth growth. It's gotten pretty solid adoption across our customer base, and there are a lot of repeat users.

When we saw the success of it online, we thought it would be a great extension to do this on mobile as well. And so we transferred that same functionality onto the mobile device. And we've seen the same type of adoption in mobile that we had in online banking. A lot of people are repeat users, making transfers to other Wells Fargo customers.

So we know that the demand is out there. What the customers are looking for is a convenient way to make payments that is channel agnostic, because one of the things we've realized is that, although we bankers love inventing new ways to make payments happen — more conveniently, securely, in a fashion that is supportable and maintainable by us — what the customers really want is not to think about how to make a payment.

They really want it to be just intuitive for them. And so we want to come up with methods that they just get used to and they use in whatever channel they're in. Our vision basically is to provide payment options for customers that give them peace of mind and a sense of control. And the real value proposition there is convenience and easy access.

But we don't want the customer to think just oh, now I have my mobile device so now I need to use mobile payments mode and then I'm on online and I use this other thing, and I'm standing at the ATM now and I use this other thing, and I'm at the point-of-sale and now I have to use a card.

Ideally, our vision for the future is that we have payment methods that are cross-channel that meet the customers' needs around speed of delivery, convenience, security and easy access and reporting.

So the product that was introduced in 2004, we introduced in mobile in 2009, and it's been great.

Benchmark: So how is it being used? What are the typical use cases?

Secil Watson: The kind of usage that it sees is typically among family members. So, parents paying their children's allowance or helping them out. Also, what I call the 'in-house' services — people paying the cleaning lady, babysitters, dog walkers, and that kind of thing. We know of through our research that sharing rent between roommates is another common usage of money transfers.

Once people start using it, then they start adding new payees into the system because they realize this is a convenient way to do the payment.

Then for the person receiving the payment, it's very immediate. Instead of getting a check, going to the bank, cashing it, which may take anywhere from — if you're me — up to 10 days, you can get this thing pretty much the same day if you do it before the cutoff. So that's a great benefit.

Benchmark: So right now it's just Wells Fargo customers. Do you envision it branching out beyond Wells Fargo?

Secil Watson: Yes. Basically I envision for person-to-person payments to allow our customers to make payments to anyone in the future.

Benchmark: So the mobile functionality that you've added for payments, is that website-based? Or is it part of your iPhone app?

Secil Watson: It's not an app-based service. It uses our Web-based browser solution. But you can access it through iPhone. You can access it through any device that accesses our browser-based solution.

Benchmark: But it's not a text thing at this point?

Secil Watson: Right now our text service is account information, ATM locations and other services around information about your account. It doesn't have transactional capabilities right now.

Benchmark: Do you foresee having text-based transactional capabilities?

Secil Watson: It's something we're considering, among all of the things we're considering for mobile banking. Part of the reason why we didn't go out of the gate introducing the capability of me-to-me transfers, for example, is because we realized that the market needed to walk before it could run.

And customers needed to understand the text commands we were offering. So we started with a limited number of commands and we're increasing that number over time as we see more prolific usage of the commands. It's basically like a language that customers need to get accustomed. For example, to request a snapshot of all accounts, the customer sends a text with "bal all" and quickly receives an automated response. The more they text, the more I think they're going to evolve into the next stage.

Benchmark: When did you introduce text banking?

Secil Watson: We introduced text banking in 2007 to customers who were already enrolled online banking customers. We allowed them to register for text banking using their online banking credentials.

What we introduced recently though, which is kind of a game-changer, is the ability to do text banking without having to have online banking credentials.

Benchmark: That's what's been in the news.

Secil Watson: Yes. And so why is that important? Because one of the things we see is that we still have some customers, definitely a minority of our customers, who haven't adopted online banking. And when we did some field research, one of the things we realized is that while computers are now nearly ubiquitous there are a lot of people who work out of the home and don't have convenient access to a computer in a private area.  You may be a nurse or you may be a construction worker — you may be a teacher, where you don't want to necessarily do your finances in the classroom.

So for those people, while they may have access to a PC on occasion, for them to stay on top of their accounts, they needed something that is more convenient.  Text banking is really fast and very convenient for the customer. So for that customer base, I think it's going to be a real big game-changer.

Benchmark: So it's a different kind of customer who is doing text banking versus online banking?

Secil Watson: We thought initially that people who were using text banking and online, browser-based products were going to be pretty much the same. But we found it to be different. There's definitely a niche for text banking. There are people who have a frequent need to check their account information who prefer text banking because it's really fast. And they don't necessarily go to the browser session that often because they don't have as many needs to transact.

And then we have the other side of customers who typically have smart devices, so their screen size is larger and the usability of the device is easier for them. They prefer to go into their banking session on the browser just because most of the time they view accounts, they also have a transaction in mind. They're thinking of paying a bill or transferring money or checking account details.

Basically we've seen the profile of the users evolve differently for text banking versus browser-based. But the adoption has been really strong on both sides. And there's definitely an overlap user base as well — myself, I’m one of them. I prefer text banking if I just want to check account balances, like, did that check clear or did that deposit come in? But when it comes to making transfers, adding accounts to view, or paying a bill, I use browser banking.

The other thing that happened as we introduced mobile is, in 2007 we couldn't have predicted the impact that iPhone was going to have on smartphone adoption.

Benchmark: No one knew what a big impact it was going to have.

Secil Watson: Our smartphone adoption predictions were much more conservative prior to the iPhone taking off. And so, we had to be quick reactors and develop an iPhone app, and that has really taken off as well. The iPhone has definitely been a great enabler for anything mobile.

But it's also the distribution, and just to get into people's minds that hey, you can do banking online. And you can also do banking on mobile. It really helps that marketing message and increasing the adoption.

Benchmark: Okay. You mentioned your iPhone app has been very successful. What about Android? It seems like 2010 is going to be the year that OS comes into its own. Do you have an app or do you have one in the works?

Secil Watson: For developing apps on different devices, the rule of thumb for us is to maintain scalability and efficiency of our operations. So as long as there are clear market leaders that are increasing smartphone adoption, that have a significant share of the market, we're going to be supporting them with applications that take advantage of the devices that they run on and the operating system that they provide. We want to be where our customers are.

But if it ends up in the marketplace in the future that there's a really long tail of these, we probably won't do something different for the long tail.

Benchmark: What's in the digital future for Wells Fargo? Are there things you're working on you can share?

Secil Watson: Our goal is to create good customer experiences that also create business value. And what that means for mobile and payments is that we want to create anytime, anywhere access — convenience for the customer so they can have peace of mind and control over their finances.

The kinds of areas that are going to be game-changing are our ability to offer a payment solution across channels, so that people can do the same type of transaction in multiple channels. So they can set up payments, edit payments, change them and manage them from multiple places. There will probably be developments in the alerts area because information is very valuable for customers.

We just launched our near real-time alert service with Visa. In this service, basically the alert is telling customers when a purchase has been made, near real-time, with an SMS message on their phone, so they can track their spending and better manage their finances. Rapid Alerts let consumers monitor their Wells Fargo Visa credit card account activity and take immediate action if they believe a potentially fraudulent transaction is taking place.

So for us it's basically, can we make our services cross-channel for customers? Can we complete the set of services that we have wherever we have gaps and wherever the logical next step is? And can we do it in a way that allows us to be able to invest in developing new services in the future, so then there would be business value for the bank as well.

Benchmark: You've done some very interesting and effective things in your tenure at Wells Fargo in terms of customer experience — the User-Centered Design process, for example. You seem to have a real ability to get all the constituents involved in the whole process and make customer experience belong to everyone. Are there any new developments in that front, any new ideas, new techniques that you're applying to foster the whole customer experience across the board at the bank?

Secil Watson: A couple things. We had to have a unified online experience for the customer — it was the first place where our engagement with the customer had to be holistic and not siloed by line of business. So as we were evolving, as the practice was evolving, one of the things we learned is how important it is to define your processes around how the customer manages their tasks. We've realized that some of our channels that are face-to-face are a lot more relationship based. But peoples' expectations online — and it's also true for mobile — are very task-based.

So looking at customer tasks was core to how we started thinking about user experience and designing for users, and it's still very important for us to know what tasks customers do. We have a really deep understanding now and a lot of data on the tasks customers do, and their objectives around those tasks.

So the next step for us is actually to look at the modes that they're in, which is a little bit more of the softer side, where the task is, say, paying bills. Not necessarily using 'bill pay,' because that's product-centric speech, but 'paying bills,' because people can pay bills in many different ways. They can write a check. They can go to a biller's direct site. They can use the person-to-person service to pay their gardener, et cetera, or they can use bill pay.

But thinking about it from the customer's perspective allows us to know the choices available to the customer. And thinking about customer modes really helps us understand how it is that we can get the customer to do the best thing for themselves in a strategic manner financially. And here's the rub. You can see American savings habits haven't been where they ought to be in the last decade. And when this causes a problem system-wide, it's a problem we all share. So it's our national obligation, I think, to teach customers good financial management habits in a way that is not penalizing or forcing the customers to do something, but in a way that it becomes a good healthy habit for them to live on. To do that we really need to engage the customer in their financial information in a way to allow them to understand what's going on.

We are really good at providing detailed account information on a same-day basis, in most cases. But what customers don't have is this broad strategic insight. What we found through our research is that everybody knows it's really important to save for retirement, save for their kids' education, save for a rainy day, to be able to accomplish some of their life goals like that trip that they were dreaming of or that house extension they really want to do in a few years.

But it's really hard for customers to find a way to get there. And it starts with very simple steps. It starts with understanding your budget. And most people hate budgeting.

And so how do you bridge that disconnect? How do we make financial management something that people can do? How can we take the doing of it away from the customer and automate it a lot so that the insight appears to the customer in a more baked fashion? We're going from an economy of data, presenting a sea of data, to something that improves the accessibility of data and insight.

And going from data to insight means that we need to understand the modes people are in a little bit better. Motivators — how can we get the customer to engage in their financial information, and what insight do people need at different times? And how do we provide this information so that eventually the customers can then have enough money for retirement and to achieve their life goals?

Benchmark: So how do you do that?

Secil Watson: It's a higher level of services that we're thinking of offering. And that requires a different type of research. Not around the tasks customers do, because if I asked you how often do you plan for your future and if you're being honest, probably quarterly is the most you'll do, right? And everybody knows it's important. It's just, do you do it any time other than around tax time?

Benchmark: Quarterly seems ambitious for most people.

Secil Watson: Yes, I mean — personal experience, right? I get forced to do it after something dramatic happens in the marketplace.

Benchmark: Exactly.

Secil Watson: So if the information was right in front of you, that would be a great experience for the customers. That's how a financial institution can add value, not just to the customers, but to the whole economy, to be honest.

Why is this important for Wells Fargo? Wells Fargo used to be a more regional bank that also offered national services, especially in the area of lending and mortgages. But now with the Wachovia merger, we have a national footprint. We have very solid coverage from a physical distribution perspective. And we have online and mobile and significant adoption numbers in our electronic delivery channels.

The good news is that we can help the customer from cradle to grave, because we also added a lot of capability for customers to manage their retirement, investments, brokerage. There's not much left that Wells Fargo doesn't do for the customer.

One in three households in the U.S. has some product that touches Wells Fargo, either from institutional retirement or from deposits or from lending, and that kind of coverage is fabulous.

But that also means that our customers' best interest is our best interest. Because it's up to us to lose the customer right now, they're not going to move away from us anymore because they moved to another state and they want the ATM convenience, or their financial situation changed and now they're approaching retirement and they want to take their retirement account somewhere else.

We have all the offerings. The point is, how do we get the customer to adopt them as their life needs change and life stages change?

One thing that's true though is the market has changed so much that, one of the first things you get when you open up a bank account in a branch is a checkbook. For a lot of customers now that's an odd thing to get in your hands, not to mention the savings stubs. That's even odder — you open up a savings account and there's this little notebook that comes with it.

Benchmark: A passbook.

Secil Watson: The passbook, right — I don't even know the name of it so you can tell, I'm Generation X myself. But that's how the market is evolving. So, as technology becomes a part of how we live, broader age groups adopt it, but the people who adopt it most readily are the young people.

The interesting part, though, is that we did a digital age survey where we were asking people questions around their digital adoption, and as a result we would say you're a digital teenager, you're a digital adult, or a digital youth. And it's kind of an age reverse. Most younger people end up being digital adults. They've grown up in the digital age.

But you realize that there's more facility with technology and more engagement in the connectedness that technology provides in the younger age groups.

But the financial needs culminate around the middle age groups, because typically if you're a student, you have a smaller set of financial obligations to manage. But if you're a head of a household, you're probably managing an auto loan, home loan, personal loan, accounts for multiple people, multiple direct deposits or whatever; so there's a lot more complexity in your life.

Benchmark: Sure.

Secil Watson: That's where technology really offers that upper hand. And so we get a lot of coverage in the middle of the age range, for the 25 to 45 year old segment basically.

Benchmark: Let's talk about the experience of your users from a performance perspective, whether they're sitting at a computer using your online banking services or out and about with their mobile phone. How do you manage performance to make sure that your sites are performing well and meeting user expectations?

Secil Watson: We use Keynote as well as other providers to let us know how they think we're doing. And that data is really useful. It doesn't always trend the same way, which then has our technology team scratching their heads trying to figure out why one indicator is going one way when the other's going the other way.

Benchmark: Among the providers you mean?

Secil Watson: Yes. And then we have our own internal testing and reporting monitoring service as well. So we'll get those various data points and we'll try to figure out, what are the drivers of each, and we have a team that's looking into any issues that may be percolating in the backend.

I think the art in technology management is to actually avoid an issue before it happens, as opposed to the rapid response that is necessary to take care of an issue upon it happening.  So we do invest quite a bit in what we call ‘keep the lights on’ work, upgrading our systems, our infrastructure, going to the next software release, making sure that when we make changes that our availability doesn't impact as many customers, such as over multiple weekends or in the middle of the night.

And so performance is a foundational element. It's the fundamental part of what the customers come to do. If you look at a store experience, a branch experience, they really care about wait time. Because there's nothing you want to do less than wait for 20 minutes to cash a check.

And for online, clearly 20 minutes is not there — for us it's about two seconds. So you don't want the customer to have to wait. Performance is incredibly crucial.

It's an active management of all the different drivers that get us there, and more strategic tradeoffs around how much information we present on one page versus how quickly can that page load, because they're both important.

What we try to optimize is the customer's task. So we want the customer to be able to do a transfer in a certain amount of time, because we know time is sensitive and valuable for customers. We don't want to put the transfers capability seven screens in so that everything is so light and loads fast. We want to make sure that we're looking at that end point.

There's a lot of focus on sign-on speed, of course, because during sign-on we do a lot of the back-end calls that allows us to pull the customer's information and render it. But sign-on is not the end game, so it's sign-on and all the different services that the customer touches around transactions they do and the services they call within the experience that do matter.

Now the interesting part is that we've been doing this online for a long time and there's always room for improvement. And customer expectations have really increased over the last 15 years and the content that we offer has increased. There's video, there's animations, there's flash, there's complicated JavaScript, et cetera, that comes on the page.

And the technology we use to optimize that and streamline it has also changed. On mobile, the challenge is that we are going for multiple devices through multiple carriers and that creates a lot more noise for us to sift through to differentiate what is it that we're causing as the application provider and what is it that is being caused in the system before it hits the customer. So it's really important to have testing that is simulating the customer's experience — so that it is going though different carriers and different devices.

Benchmark: You definitely have to do it at that level. Are you using Keynote for your mobile testing?

Secil Watson: We basically did a proof of concept with Keynote. The Keynote differentiator is that they use real devices. We want to make sure that we get that experience.

There's two things that we care about. What can we do to make the experience better? Is it something that we're doing that's eroding the experience or improving the experience? And we want to get feedback on that, so we want to get that clean read.

But we also want to know what is the customer experience on average. And what is the customer experience in the extreme, too? What's the fastest that happens and what's the slowest that happens?

Benchmark: Yes, and in mobile it can be a really broad range of performance between the two.

Secil Watson: On mobile we're still back to basics because there's so many devices, and coverage is very important for us because we don't want to alienate any one of our customers. We want all the customers with a mobile device that's Web-enabled to be able to use our services. So it really impacts how much you can put on a page and how fancy you can make that experience, but that's going to evolve.

We're constantly chasing the capabilities that arise through the whole system of providers that get the service end-to-end for the customer — a better device, a better browser experience, better standards, better carrier speeds. All these things are going to improve the experience.

Benchmark: There seems to be a lot of hope for HTML5 on mobile devices.

Secil Watson: Yes. And it's interesting, because we were just having that conversation. Our technology team and HTML5 can make us do a lot of things that we were doing with Flash for example. And it has a huge level of interactivity and huge design implications. It opens new doors for us. At the same time we don't know which browsers will support it and how.

Benchmark: What other challenges do you foresee moving forward?

Secil Watson: I mentioned before that our vision now is to do a lot more things cross-channel. So that's exciting. There's a lot more cross-channel collaboration, and we're trying to find the right ways to interact and engage with the different channels and their technology teams and their servicing groups.

But at the industry level there are a lot of regulatory changes that are happening. And those will allow us to rethink our portfolio of products and the value propositions we have in the product mix.

I think there's a tail of product innovations that are going to be coming out into the marketplace in the next two years that will change the banking relationship for the customer. It's really exciting to be in banking because, through the kind of new constraints that we face, we're now probably going recreate the value proposition for the customer. And I think it's going to be one that does focus on this overall value of managing your finances, understanding the information and being in control.

So it's more these higher order values that we're trying to get to the customer, and it's a different way to create and bundle services and products. We were even talking about the names of products, like checking. As we said, the checkbook is going away, so what are the products?

Benchmark: We'll be watching to see what you call it. Thank you, and good luck.

About Secil Tabli Watson

Secil Tabli Watson is a senior vice president in Wells Fargo Internet and Mobile Banking, responsible for Customer Experience, Money Movement and Retail Mobile Banking. Her product management teams manage online payments products and all mobile banking services. Her Customer Experience teams advocate for customers and provide customer insights, communities and site designs.

In December 2009, Watson was named the #1 Bank Innovator of the Year by Bank Technology News magazine. She was recognized for her leadership in person-to-person mobile payments, advances in online and mobile banking and research into next-generation customer experience—all innovations handled in-house.

Watson holds an MBA from Wharton in Finance and a BA from Cornell University in Government and Economics. Secil joined Wells Fargo in 2002. Prior to that, she was a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies in telecom, banking and healthcare.

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