Innovation in commercial banking often lags the retail banking side, where product improvements roll out more frequently.
But as Wells Fargo’s Reetika Grewal sees it, the development process for both should be similar. Whether the customers are business people or retail consumers, figuring out how to best meet their banking needs comes down to better understanding who they are, she says.
Grewal — who has been charged with rethinking the digital experience for Wells’ business customers — joined the bank in early 2021 as executive vice president and head of digital transformation for its commercial bank and corporate and investment bank. A digital business banking veteran, Grewal spent early days in the job evaluating all that Wells has for small and midsize business customers and how those offerings could be improved.
“My biggest takeaway was that the range of customers that we serve in this space was not reflected in the tools that we offered our clients,” says Grewal. Wells had a lineup of digital business services that used recent technology, but with little customization or adaptability built in.
“There can’t be one-size-fits-all, because no one thinks that way or builds software that way anymore,” says Grewal. “Think of the way you enter your Amazon experience. It’s very personalized and is driven by your behaviors. Amazon personalizes down to ‘one.'”
Grewal felt that Wells hadn’t done enough work to understand the range of customers it was serving.
“We needed a grounding in our innovation process to see whose problems we are solving for and then what problems we are solving for,” says Grewal.
Innovation Doesn't Just Mean Cool:
Ultimately the point of digital banking innovation is not innovation for its own sake, but to develop what business customers need to succeed.
Going beyond that meant diving not into technology, but into people, in cooperation with the lines of business that have direct contact with this customer segment.
It’s a lesson that innovators in the banking industry are constantly re-learning, in different ways, as they apply new technology to people’s needs.
Grewal’s First Tech Initiative Comes to Life
Under Grewal’s direction, Wells Fargo began rolling out the initial results of this process in late 2022: a major reboot of the CEO Portal banking platform. (CEO here stands for “Commercial Electronic Office.”)
In its day, CEO Portal was considered state of the art, but that’s a constantly evolving yardstick. The reimagined product is called “Wells Fargo Vantage.”
Through the whole process Grewal says she also made a point of not thinking in terms of digital services being strictly for business or for consumers, because people don’t think that way anymore.
“At a very basic level, we look at consumer applications because, at the end of the day, the people who interact with our commercial banking tools are consumers too,” says Grewal. “So we need to study a lot of the consumer stuff so we can bring some of that simplicity and transparency to the commercial banking side.”
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How Wells Fargo Set Out to Serve ‘Ambitious Amy’
Grewal has spent much of her career in digital banking and payments on the commercial side, including past posts at JPMorgan Chase, Silicon Valley Bank and Wells Fargo itself. “I love this space because these clients are so dynamic,” she says.
Part of that dynamic nature is their focus on their own businesses. “They don’t want to have to learn all of our banking terminology,” says Grewal. “They want to move money.”
Understanding the needs of businesses of different types and different stages of maturity is critical to coming up with better products. So, as Grewal’s group began working with various business units to come up with improvements, they developed a series of “business personas,” built around the owner or manager, as a way of parsing the range of needs.
“For example, we have ‘Ambitious Amy’, who represents an earlier stage company,” Grewal says. “The persona includes the company’s sales, the number of employees it has, and defines the complexity of banking products and services that she needs.”
Adds Grewal: “And this is keeping in mind that at any moment Ambitious Amy could become a unicorn.”
Eventually a total of 19 personas were framed out. Beyond “Amy” are groupings with labels like “Efficiency Ella,” “Organized Olivia,” and “Seasoned Saul.”
“We included a range of genders and ethnicities to reflect who our clients are and because we wanted to make sure the personas reflected a diverse population,” says Grewal. The alliteration in the two-word names added an element of fun and memorability.
“We built these personas with the lines of business, asking questions to see how needs varied,” says Grewal. Going through this exercise helped solidify the business units’ understanding of their customers’ needs, in addition to clarifying needs for the digital team.
Establishing personas served as a foundation, but not as the entire structure, according to Grewal. Companies represented by a persona don’t operate through one individual, typically.
“There may be a CFO logging in or there may be 50 different employees who each have small tasks to accomplish,” Grewal explains. “So how do we solve for that sort of variability?”
Vantage Blends Tech from Inside and Outside of Wells Fargo
Figuring out what elements go into a digital commercial banking package hinges on checking out both the competing banks and the fintechs that want to provide these customers with banking services.
Developers of new business banking services can’t ignore fintechs, Grewal stresses. “There are some great fintech tools and services that we need to make sure we are thinking about,” she says.
That’s partly because there may be some that Wells Fargo would want to integrate with in the future.
Such thinking drove conversations Wells had with outside technology partners as it was developing Vantage. The bank showed them the personas and the usage patterns anticipated for individuals within those sample businesses.
Then Wells and its tech partners had to strategize the best ways to implement features. Discussions concerned such issues as the best way to use cloud computing to integrate a partner’s services.
The Role of APIs in Customizing the Vantage Experience
The other element of the blending process was managing the bank’s own collection of application programming interfaces, or APIs, and their places in what became Vantage.
Grewal’s team manages the API platform for the entire bank. This collection of APIs includes 45 in all, some made for commercial banking, some for retail banking, some straddling both worlds. Figuring out how to fit the APIs into the whole, and when customers would likely need which ones, was part of the re-engineering process.
One example is an API that Wells offers to businesses so they can verify the addresses of their own customers. Companies that need such features can “call” the relevant Wells API as part of their digital flow.
Grewal sees open banking increasing the role of blended approaches for digital commercial banking. “We have a lot of great products and services at Wells Fargo, but there are things we don’t do so great on our own,” she says. Leveraging partnerships and other outside help pulls things together.
Grewal says fintechs are important as partners and providers of functional pieces of the services that Wells offers to businesses.
Because of how open banking evolved in Europe, people tend to associate it with consumer finance, but Grewal sees more of a continuum.
“Anything that touches the consumer ends up touching businesses as well. And often at the smaller end of the business spectrum consumers and businesses look very similar to each other.”
— Reetika Grewal, Wells Fargo
One of the key principles of open banking is the portability of data. Grewal believes this will be increasingly important on the commercial side to facilitate the functionality that small and medium-sized businesses need.
She also considers this integral to the future success and takeup of Vantage.
How Personalization Works for Wells Fargo’s Commercial Customers
In what is a key outcome of the personas exercise, Vantage is designed to personalize the banking experience in multiple ways. Ambitious Amys and Seasoned Sauls will be able to get insights into how they are running their businesses and how their own customers are behaving.
The intent is to make these insights more than just observations and helpful data. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, Vantage is intended to be more of a proactive and interactive experience for business owners and operators.
Vantage’s “recommendation engine” evaluates the business customer’s behavior and makes the kind of suggestions that a classical commercial banking relationship officer might have in the past, but with more regularity and consistency than a human might be able to deliver. The new platform is also intended to grow in sophistication in tandem with the growth of the individual business being served.
Grewal gives an example of what this could look like: “Vantage might say, ‘Hey, you are sending out 10,000 checks a month. Did you know that if you used a virtual card that you could streamline your processes?”
Harking back to Grewal’s point about learning from consumer digital services, such recommendations are reminiscent of neobanks that point out budget trends with observations like, “Do you realize you spent 15% more this month to dine out than you did last month?”
This function is also akin to ecommerce sites making recommendations under headings like, “Buy again” and “Deals related to your shopping history.”
Wells Fargo Gives New Vantage Features Slow Reveal
Vantage is rolling out to CEO Portal users in earnest in 2023. As business customers closed their 2022 books, they began to learn about the new features.
Wells Fargo is introducing Vantage at a measured pace so customers don’t feel the new approach is being forced on them, Grewal says.
“We want to make sure people are prepared to enjoy the experience and not have to worry about whether they are going to find everything they need,” she says. “There’s an expression we use a lot around here: ‘We want to minimize the ‘who moved my cheese’ sentiment.'”