The Customer Effect

Wells Fargo’s Secil Watson wants to change the customer conversation

  • The buzz in fintech innovation may have shifted to back-end operations, but Wells Fargo's Secil Watson is still excited about the customer interface and experience
  • Gone are the days of a single-tier, long-term go-to-market strategy; planning needs to happen on three levels these days, and the "long term" has shrunk from 20 years to about five
Wells Fargo’s Secil Watson wants to change the customer conversation

While true innovation happens in the backend of a company, the customer experience is still top of mind for Secil Watson, Wells Fargo’s head of wholesale Internet solutions.

In the past two years, she’s led Wells through its introduction of mobile tokens to make it easier for its commercial customers to log in and gone live with an API channel that covers 15 different use cases — and plans to have five more by the end of the year. Most APIs fall under payments, data services and gateways to third-party fintech vendors.

“We’re happy if Blend has a better mortgage application process; we’ll partner with them. We’re happy if Intuit has a better PFM offering for their customers; we’ll partner with them,” Watson said. “In this time of fast change our brains and technology team aren’t enough to find the right solutions. We can’t be too selfish about saying ‘it’s my brand and IP and I want to have these secrets.’ It’s through sharing that we create better solutions. We want to make sure solutions are community sourced.”

Watson believes the same amount of technological change the industry has experienced in the last 25 years will happen in the next five, and while that’s affected the products the bank chooses to build and sell, it’s hit culture more than anything, forcing it to move away from its “build-it-first” mentality.

Tearsheet recently sat down with Watson to discuss how the pace of technology has changed banks’ long-term strategy planning, the digital lending opportunity in fintech and why she’s still excited about customer-facing innovation.

It seems like excitement in fintech this year has shifted from consumer products to infrastructure. What are you excited about?
The magic is the interface, but it’s the tip of the iceberg and you can’t make your interface great until you change your back-end processes. A lot of the large-dollar investments in culture change, process change, tools change, system change happens in the back end so the investment needs to go to the bottom of the pyramid.

How would all that change feel to the top of the pyramid?
It’s about how to take two steps instead of 50. Think of a one-click mortgage experience where you’re already pre-qualified for a mortgage of X size based on your assets. That’s what you want as a customer, to get there we need to do all this work to change our processes because right now we start a mortgage application only after you say you’re interested.

How would your conversation with the customer be different?
For the existing customer that says, show me what the opportunities are: we can say things like — “hey, based on what we know about you we would pre-qualify you for a home equity line of credit of this much; give us two more pieces of information or consent for us to get that information and we’ll put together a deal for you, and it’s up to you to take it or not.” It’s different than what we currently do where we say “Apply now!” and then we’re like, “Who are you? What do you do?”

You’ve been at Wells Fargo 15 years. Beyond the products and channels, how has technology affected your work?
Two years ago bitcoin was a kooky thing and now everyone’s talking about distributed ledgers being part and parcel of the process tools we use to do contracts. The mentality is shifting two, three years now. We no longer have this one strategy, we need to have this three-tier strategy. The idea of strategy used to be that you would establish a goal, identify where you are and draw the most optimal road to get there. That strategic planning doesn’t work anymore.

Talk about the tiers.
There are three time horizons we need to look at. The closest horizon is what I hear from customers — what’s broken? We need to fix it. What’s an opportunity? We need to add that. The mobile token is a great example. Tokens have been around for years, mobile makes it more convenient, customers knew to ask for it, they asked, we did it. The second horizon is where you try to leapfrog, differentiate by offering something that gets you prepared for the next level.

For example…
The API gateway is one of those, it’s not going to pay off this year. We haven’t in year one shifted all our ACH payments to APIs, but as it grows it’s going to be the enabler of success for the next generation of types of sales we’ll do in the bank and products we’ll offer.

What’s the last tier?
When you ask, how can I get myself out of a job? How do you transform the bank that radically? You start to identify as potential threats and opportunities today into a strategy that says: if we do this, the bank may no longer exist. And you try to build the seeds for that so when that change happens you’re not surprised, you’re able to add value still in that new environment.

So short-, middle- and long-term.
But “long term” is five years. That’s what’s changed. We used to ask: in 20 years where will banking go? It could go anywhere.

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