For most banks, involvement with Santa Claus might go so far as to host a day with Saint Nick in a branch lobby at Christmastime. But when Well Fargo’s Bipin Sahni brings up Santa during an interview, he pulls up a screen on his iPhone and tells a story about a commercial customer, The Grove, a retail and entertainment mall in Los Angeles.
Sahni was part of a group of Wells’ executives who met with Rick Caruso, founder of The Grove’s parent, Caruso Affiliated.
“The point of the visit was to showcase how The Grove could use our innovation and technology to enhance the experience between the mall and its consumers, who have downloaded their mobile app,” says Sahni, who is senior vice-president and head of innovation and R&D for Wells’ Wholesale Services Group. (Subsequent to the interview, R&D became part of Wells’ new company-wide Innovation Group.) At one point, says Sahni, the bankers popped up a screen they had developed for the visit that said, “Sign up for Santa.” The client jumped on it.
“With this feature,” Sahni explains, “consumers wouldn’t have to stand in line for three or four hours to take a picture with Santa Claus at The Grove. Management would rather have them spend three hours shopping in the mall versus standing in the Santa queue.”
After the meeting, mall management called Sahni and said, “Can you have this ready for the Christmas season?”
“They gave us 90 days to deploy it,” says Sahni. “Actually, we deployed it in 88.”
Bank as enabler
What Wells delivered went beyond a mall “fast pass” scheduling application. Caruso told the Wells team that he had been talking to some payments app developers, both startups and established companies, but was impressed because the bank had proposed something that added to the mall customers’ experience using the mall’s app.
What Wells gave Caruso was a software development kit that enabled his company to add the ability to schedule a visit with Santa, and to choose pictures and order them—all from the customer’s mobile device. “We gave them ease of integration of this functionality into their mobile app,” says Sahni. “It was not our mobile app; it was their mobile app. We were part of their ecosystem.”
How did Wells make this happen? Sahni credits it to rapid prototyping, which pointedly did not begin with a 50-page document.
“We don’t do that,” he explains. What began as a few intriguing screens had become a demo app by the time of the next visit with Caruso’s team. “That became the entrance to the final deliverable,” says Sahni.
Why is a bank creating a scheduling application? Judd Holroyde, senior vice-president and head of global product management at Wells, says, “Ultimately, there is a payment related to it. But what Bipin and his team did was simplify the experience for our customer’s customer. The whole financial services value chain is expanding, and if you’re not proactive and getting yourself integrated into your clients and helping them enable the relationship with their customers, then you’re missing something.”
Sahni and Holroyde gave an interview discussing the topic during this summer’s joint meeting of NextBank and Innotribe in New York City.
“Historically, banks have thought of themselves as having a one-to-one relationship with business customers—‘I’m the bank; you’re the customer,’” says Holroyde. “But now it’s not that you did a payment well. That’s not a differentiator. The differentiator is that you helped the customer do a payment well, and gave their customer a great experience. That’s what we want to hear from our customers,” he adds.
Sahni sees such experiences as essential for banks’ future. “It’s an awesome opportunity for banks to evolve,” he says. “The technology is out there to support this. And if you don’t get into this landscape now, that won’t be good.”
Custom suits for corporates
As the R&D arm for Wells, Sahni’s team doesn’t churn out the equivalent of off-the-rack suits, but builds tools that enable clients like Caruso Group to “stitch your own suit.”
Sahni coins a new buzz phrase to describe this: “innovation as a service.”
Altogether, what you have is a very different way of looking at a customer call, at a commercial customer relationship. It’s an example of the thinking coming out of Sahni’s team.
Finding ways to enhance the experience of customers of banks' corporate customers is an "awesome opportunity," says Bipin Sahni, senior vice-president, left. "The whole financial services value chain is expanding," says Judd Holroyde, senior vice-president. "If you're not proactive, you're missing something."
One program Sahni oversees is the Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator, begun in 2014. Small firms compete to become part of a group the bank works with during each Accelerator term to teach them how to develop a service for large banking companies like Wells. There also is opportunity for some funding, but a key element of the effort is educational.
“My team works with a lot of startups,” says Sahni. Megabanks like Wells typically work with large, established companies who can offer a team of 50 or so players to work on an offering.
“When you are dealing with a startup, it’s a very different discipline and culture altogether,” says Sahni. “You cannot expect them to have 50 people show up. Or to even have more than two people show up, in some situations.”
Providing the right tech
Holroyde is a client, internally, to Sahni’s group, and his markets are international. Innovations come to him from Sahni’s team for an international clientele, who face challenges not only hinged on their own countries’ state of development, but also their cross-border challenges, according to Holroyde. Much activity is customer-driven, through advisory councils that serve as focus groups and sounding boards. “We use those to get insights regarding their challenges, what they want to see improved, the sort of journey they want the bank to take them on, and how they want us to bring innovation to them,” he explains.
In many developing markets, clients enjoy a rapid arrival to where the rest of the world is already, as they don’t have to follow the same path. Holroyde notes that he grew up in a home where internet access was based on Ethernet connections, but most markets worldwide were able to jump directly to wireless channels.
There also is an internal element to innovation. Holroyde says that R&D helps a wholesale banking group like his “look at things that make us more efficient, because our customers can also feel that. It’s an important balance to strike.”
What serves both needs is a preference for agility. Holroyde says R&D moves quickly from proof-of-concept work to deliverable products and services that can rapidly move into production pilots and market-ready versions. This has been especially helpful in countries, such as the United Kingdom, where faster-payment projects have advanced further than in the United States.
“You have to avoid having your point people get stuck in what’s happening right now,” says Holroyde. “You have to look past the challenges, because some of what the future will bring will address some of those challenges.”
Innovation without walls
The idea is to avoid walls that can interfere with innovation. Everyone knowing what is going on is critical.
The head of mobile at Wells sits near both the head of retail services and the head of wholesale banking, in part to facilitate awareness. “They jointly own that domain,” says Sahni. “So the walls are not there, really.” Joint ownership amounts to more than a matter of turf.
“One of the things that we’re always reminding our designers about in the wholesale bank is that they are still designing for a consumer,” says Holroyde. While the electronic products and services they are designing are for corporate clients, the users “are going to compare the design to their retail experiences,” he explains. “So you still have to think about the user as a person. I know, for myself, that I wouldn’t want polar opposite experiences between what I see at work and what I see in my personal life.”
“Turbo, book me a flight”
While electronic banking in some form has been around for years, for Sahni, “mobile changed the world.”
Mobiles have not only become ubiquitous, but are stuffed with apps touching on nearly every aspect of our lives. The rub, says Holroyde, is that all those programs work independently of each other.
“I can do 20 different things on my phone,” Holroyde explains, “but it becomes so noisy in my head.” He would like to see a next-generation integration service of some kind that would learn his needs, even down to when he likes to receive information. That said, Sahni adds, “I know we call these devices ‘smart’ phones, but I think they still have to grow up a bit. We have to ask: How do we leverage technology to make our lives simpler?”
Sahni would like to see mobiles become virtual personal assistants. “Right now, I may go to OpenTable, I may go to Uber, I may go to a third application, and I don’t need all that,” he says. “I want my virtual assistant to listen to my conversations and automatically book my tickets, book my car, book a table. I want it to be proactive. And if I had an appointment with Judd [Holroyde], my virtual assistant would talk to his virtual assistant.”
Sahni would like this hoped-for personal assistant to be in always-on mode.
The virtual assistant would stitch together many elements, including banking services, says Sahni. Among its functions would be connecting various apps, and handling routine chores, such as authentication, nearly automatically, to simplify tasks for the user.
Sahni muses during the interview that he needs to come up with a name for this virtual assistant concept. He and Holroyde come up with one: “Turbo,” named for Sahni’s pet bird.
“I’ll say, ‘Turbo, get me my balance.’ Turbo will authenticate me and go talk to the bank and give me the information. The matter’s done,” says Sahni.
Not surprisingly, this is no idle dream for the tech executive. Startups that Wells has worked with through Accelerator have been developing elements of what would be inside a “Turbo.”
One company is Kasisto, which was spun off from SRI International, a nonprofit research institute that developed Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant purchased by Apple for its mobile devices. Kasisto has developed the Mobile Virtual Specialist for Finance and Commerce, which performs some of the functions that Sahni would like to see in his concept. At the NextBank/Innotribe meeting, Zor Gorelov, cofounder and chief executive at Kasisto, characterized Kasisto as capable of much deeper functionality than Siri.
Another startup company called EyeVerify has developed biometric authentication based on an “eyeprint” of the eye—an “eyeball fingerprint.”
Already, elements of such technologies are making it into live service. Subsequent to the interview, Wells Fargo announced redesigns of its CEO (Commercial Electronic Office) suite of treasury management applications available online and on mobile devices, to be implemented in 2016. Voice and face biometrics for CEO Mobile customers will be piloted next year. EyeVerify technology will be made available to iPhone app CEO Mobile users next year as well.
Don’t worry about the box
Often, bankers complain about regulation and compliance, seen as a ball and chain that holds the industry back. That is not a view shared by Sahni as he and his team go about their work. It’s partly a matter of communication and partly a matter of perspective. Clearly, R&D at Wells has freedom and leeway.
Much is discussed, and some of it moves forward—with very senior levels of management kept in the loop. “We may create a prototype of some sort,” says Sahni, “and show it to management, perhaps work with customers, because that is the most important aspect for us. We are not just doing what we think is the smartest thing, but what customers want us to deliver.”
Sometimes ideas have to be reimagined, and sometimes they just don’t fly. “If things don’t look good, we cut it off ourselves,” says Sahni. “I don’t need to go ask anybody to shut it off.”
This is not to say that R&D is a loose cannon. “Compliance and risk management play a big role,” says Sahni. “They are kept informed so they know what is being tried out. We’re not making any rules, nor are we making policies. But they understand that this is an R&D group.”
“Something that makes the compliance angle a bit easier at Wells is that we’re not fundamentally changing the underlying financial transaction,” says Holroyde. “What we’re doing is delivering it in different ways, and building other value propositions around it.”
Ultimately, according to Sahni, the banks that will succeed at innovation will have to think beyond where banks traditionally think. “I think that any company that says, ‘We’re not going to take any risk in bringing ideas to market,’ might not be successful,” he says. “It’s really hard to drive innovation that way. If you don’t test and learn from the testing, you’re just going to be in a conundrum of ‘What do we do next?’”