Banking Fintech

Bipin Sahni on nurturing innovation at Wells Fargo

Bipin Sahni on nurturing innovation at Wells Fargo. Photo: Devie Mohan
Written by Devie Mohan

Devie Mohan chats to Bipin Sahni from Wells Fargo while at Sibos 2015 in Singapore.

Bipin Sahni is an SVP in Wells Fargo’s Innovation Group. His team defines Wells Fargo’s vision and new product development for customer interactions, mobile solutions, and authentication solutions, along with big data initiatives including the mobile wallet. He is also co-lead for the newly launched Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator.

At Sibos 2015, he shared with me his thoughts about what Wells Fargo is achieving in terms of innovation, and how things have changed during his 20 years there.

Please tell us a little about your role at Wells Fargo.

I’ve been in the bank for 20 years in multiple roles. My current role is focused primarily on research and development; bringing new technologies into the bank to see what it can do for our customers. Our customers include a corporate, consumer, merchant service or mortgage customer, and of course team members.

What are some of the initiatives you’re working on at the moment?

We’re a group focused on new tools, technologies, and new experiences. Biometric is a big conversation everywhere right now. We’ve invested a lot in getting more value out of data analytics. We do behavioral analytics of consumers and corporate banking customers, because we could be doing things more proactively. It’s all about information being rendered to them by push channels now (vs them coming to us).

We’re also focusing on APIs, and we’re lucky enough to launch a few capabilities. We launched our first software development kit last year. We launched two services last year with a customer called Caruso Affiliated. They own a mall called The Grove and Americana, based in Los Angeles. We have a large volume of consumers going to this location and the mall is faced with a unique challenge: they have to tell people when not to come because there will be too many people visiting at one time.

That’s a great personalized experience: telling them not to come when it’s too busy!

Yeah, it’s totally awesome. We showed a quick experience demo to the CEO, Rick Caruso, who’s a visionary because of the way he does things and the way he builds the real estate environment. We built a reservation, a scheduling service and a receipt capture service for them in less than 90 days, which is a very good accomplishment from our side.

We put a lot of emphasis on how we become more agile. Everybody has been talking about it and doing sprints and stuff, where we tried new things. In the old way of working, three months were spent in writing ‘business requirements’ documents. Here, we started with the design, which shows what the flow would be to the customers. It’s much easier to walk through the model workflows. It was a pretty good accomplishment from the bank’s perspective, as it’s not just the R&D team that worked on it. There’s compliance, infrastructure and QA involved, and everything comes together. And we achieved it within 90 days!

It’s all bundled in through the API. We gave them our software development kit, they embedded that to their mobile apps, Android, and iOS, and they were off running.

How do you work with fintech firms or other technology firms in your ecosystem, and how do you bring them together?

In this particular situation, we built everything. Wells Fargo has typically been a believer in ‘build vs buy’. We are more focused on building stuff. We didn’t want to just go out and partner and put our little branding on it – we want to actually be part of that whole ecosystem ourselves. That lays the foundation – it’s the whole relationship. We’re a relationship-based bank.

You did it in three months, just like a small, nimble (fintech) company.

Once the smaller companies find out that we are beginning to get into these different APIs for mobile services and platform services, they will want to call us up and want to see if they can partner with us so that we can package their services. We will do that at the right time for the right need. Wells Fargo has been in the API business for many years.

How do you do this in an efficient manner?

We don’t offer everything in the mobile channel for corporate banking customers. We offer a little over 80 applications in products currently on our commercial electronic office portal. That’s how you work things out when you’re in a large enterprise of our size.

The culture doesn’t come overnight. It probably takes a long time to bring innovation back to market.

That’s very true. If you look at Steve Ellis’s current organization (of which I am a part), it’s no less than a hundred people. Now, actually, the hundred people who are in this team are all in that zone of ‘so what’s the next thing for us all to work on together?’. There’s a payment strategies team, an innovation strategy team, and a design and delivery team. The construct of our team is very different and it’s not all bankers sitting in a room trying to think of the next brilliant idea, which wouldn’t go anywhere. We want people to come up with ideas, because it’s people that make this happen, not just me or Steve. It’s the whole ecosystem.

Where do you think the customer ownership challenge is going?

We all have the same customers – Apple, Google, Wells Fargo, and so on. If you look at the payments disruptions, even before Apple and Google, one of the best disruptions was created by Elon Musk with PayPal. I mean that’s where it started, even today, he’s the leader … and we’ll see whether Alibaba is going to be the next big thing. Amazon is pretty hot right now and it’s been hot since it was created. There’s going to be a lot of action going on in that space, and a lot of companies want to come into our space, thinking payments is the hottest thing. If you look at the payments industry, it’s more about value-added services than just the payments for us, and that’s what we’re focusing on.

It’s a combination of data and experience that will be the key driver, and it will not just be one piece that can win everything. If you see the disruptions happening or the disrupters or enablers right now in the industry, actually they’ve got some traction because of the front-end aspect of it, because of experience. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

The fintech industry came up because of a large gap in customer experience. How would you define a good customer experience?

The whole packaging is important for good customer service. If you look at our numbers, we’ve done pretty well in that space, from a bank’s point of view. Time, efficiency and ease of use are also important. We have browsers, touch and now we’re exploring voice interaction models. We have partnered with a company called Kasisto from the Stanford Research Institute that offers voice-based virtual personal assistance for banks.

In the future, it will be a combination of biometric authentication, speech and aspect of interaction, and then real-time information exchange. If I can make something simpler for humans, I know I’ve won the battle and created a good customer experience.

I’d say next Sibos, there has to be more of this conversation around customer experience. Blockchain is great and there could be a bigger conversation, but I haven’t seen anybody talk about experience at this Sibos. I don’t know if you’ve met a lot of people talking about customer experience …

Well, everyone wants to achieve better customer experience, but I’m not sure I’ve heard too many conversations on the practicalities around it. The intention is there, and as a first step, that’s great.

We’d rather be the top player in getting that customer experience right. I’ve been in the bank for 20 years, and Steve has been in the bank for 28 years. It’s in our DNA – if we don’t do it, who will?

What do you think are some of the trends that excite you in the fintech world?

I think data is No 1, and we still have to draw a lot of value from it. Another trend that I personally think will happen is ‘banking as a service’. With so many devices in our lives, payments across multiple devices will be another area of interest. Wearables is another huge opportunity in the US, and we’re about to launch the Wells Fargo at Hand app for Apple Watch.

Blockchain is another conversation everywhere right now. Everybody’s talking about blockchain! I don’t know how many sessions we had at Sibos about blockchain.

Do you see any use cases for blockchain?

Yes, we do see use cases. There’s no doubt about it. You’ve got to think about use cases, where you widen your database to do something similar or use a blockchain. We try things out on the lab first, choose one or two use cases within the bank kind of environment, and then see how things progress in the external world. Once we’ve done those few steps, maybe there’s a private blockchain environment where you have only trusted and selected parties involved. That’s where the models have been involved.

Do you think the UK banks are doing this well?

I’ve heard good things from them. I’ve been going to London twice a year now. We have an office in London and I’ve spent some time with Level39. They’re a nice group of people. They’re trying out new things, actually everybody is. I wouldn’t say that one bank is better than the other, but it’s like everybody is looking at the same things, and everybody is trying things out.

What’s the idea behind the accelerator program you’ve just launched?

It’s about how many new ideas, concepts and access to smarter people we can get through this program, and how many of those companies potentially can work with us. I look at it this way: if three to five years from now we have 50 companies in our portfolio, if 25-30% of these companies become our vendors, our partners and then potentially our customers, that’s the game for us.

I came across an interesting company in your program called Context360, which has a very interesting gamification platform.

What they do is predictive analysis of when the user connects to the game before they do it. And that I thought was the most amazing thing a bank can have in terms of technology to predict when the customers will want to connect with you.

About the author

Devie Mohan

Devie Mohan is a fintech industry adviser and analyst based in London. She is the co-founder and CEO of Burnmark, a fintech research company, and is a panel member on the ING group Think Forward initiative on better financial decision making. Devie is actively involved in the fintech community and has been listed in CityAM's Top 10 Fintech Powerlist, and in Innotribe's Fintech Power Women list.

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