To kick off 2021, we sat down with with our client-partner, Synchrony Financial, to hear from their SVP and Head of Consumer Bank, Samantha Melting, on how digital self-service, financial wellness and education, and savings products have evolved over the course of 2020 in response to shifting consumer expectations. Samantha is joined by WillowTree’s Kate Gallaher, Partner & VP of Business Development and head of our financial services practice.
Samantha has over 26 years of experience in product management, strategy development, and execution in the financial services industry. Prior to joining Synchrony, Samantha held several executive leadership positions at Bank of America across deposits, investments, retirement, and credit. She has helped to propel Synchrony forward as a leader in the industry across digital banking, financial wellness, and savings.
Kate has over a decade of digital agency and consulting experience, partnering with clients to lead digital strategy and operational transformation. As the head of WillowTree’s financial services practice, Kate works with clients on the value and impact that technology can have on the user experience, their strategy, and market differentiation.
KG: Let’s start with the role of digital and how consumer behaviors both are impacted by digital and influence digital. 2020 was a challenging year to say the least, but as we see with new challenges, people are creative and shift their behavior to address those challenges. How have you seen your customers’ behaviors shift over the course of 2020?
SM: Just as people have shifted to online shopping, the same has been happening with banking. Customers were demanding ways to transact or manage their banking relationship themselves. So this push to self-service became a very important priority for us.
We had already built a number of key features in our native mobile app and website to allow customers to transact on their own, but in some cases they just didn’t know what we had built. In this case, it was as easy as communicating to our customers — you can actually do these things all on your own.
When COVID became very real in the U.S., we saw a sharp increase in customers calling to speak with one of our bankers, because they had concerns about accessing their money or our services digitally.
One investment that we’ve made that I’ll call out specifically is a callback feature for our call center, so that the customer can select an option to receive a call back instead of waiting on hold in our contact center. This is a great feature, and a great customer delighter.
I actually think that the trends that we’ve seen in 2020 are going to continue, and I don’t know that we’re going to revert back to the way we were before.
Other trends even outside of financial services, like curbside pickup, speak to convenience, which is what most consumers are looking for. That’s why they like self-service. That’s why we have mobile apps. Because convenience is so important.
KG: It’s interesting how just one change in the customer journey through digital so substantially improves convenience — even though almost every other aspect of the experience of shopping online, driving to the store, and driving home is the same, this one difference in the journey makes such a difference for the consumer.
KG: What digital products have you been working on at Synchrony to respond to all of the changes and the needs of the marketplace?
SM: A lot of what we’ve been doing this year has been centered around how we can make it easier for consumers to manage their relationships online or in the app — so it’s been a lot more feature development, as well as communication around the features we have.
The other thing we’ve been focused on is helping consumers manage their money more effectively. This is less about helping consumers complete the transactions they’re trying to make, and more so around helping them understand what is the transaction that they should make. Providing financial education is becoming so important, as well as tools to help consumers manage money in smarter ways.
Gone are the days of telling consumers, “Okay, you need to set a budget, you need to have a check register, and then you need to deduct your balances each month, etc.” We’ve moved into a world that is faster and way more sophisticated. Now consumers are telling us, “I want you to tell me how I should set my budget, and tell me when I’ve gone over, and when I have some extra money to save.”
There are a lot of tools in the industry now that take the accountability away from the consumer by letting digital tools tell the consumer where they can save, using rewards, gamification, and other positive reinforcements. That’s where I think the industry will be innovating in the next few years.
KG: Absolutely. I think one thing that underpins what you’re saying is that having applications that work and are performant is a basic foundation, and then once the consumer trusts that your services will work, they start to lean into the provider more for guidance and support. So much of how people interact with each other and with services is about how much we trust each other, and now this is built via Zoom or behind a screen. How do we shift from what used to be face-to face human relationships to trust now having to be built digitally?
SM: I think first and foremost it’s important for us to remind customers that we are always working to maintain security, as well as being an FDIC-insured institution. Another thing that we can do is educate consumers on what they can do to protect themselves. At Synchrony we regularly share cybersecurity tips and resources to consumers regularly, to keep it top of mind.
KG: I love that, especially that you send tips on security to your consumers. If a consumer even just sees that show up in their inbox, they know that you’re thinking about the security of their money and that you care about them.
KG: How can companies be proactive about improving the user journey to help people move from calling call centers to other forms of self-service?
SM: I wish I had the secret sauce for that, but I’ll share some of the things that we do. The reality is there will always be some consumers who are more comfortable talking to a person, so the idea that we would shift 100% of consumers to the digital world is unrealistic. But, we can certainly do things to help consumers become aware of what they can do digitally, and they can choose for themselves what channel they prefer to use.
As an example, one of the things that actually a lot of customers call our contact center for is to check their balance, which you can do in the app or online in just seconds, which of course is faster than the process of waiting on the phone for a person to give you your balance. This is something we’ve actually been training our bankers on — of course take the time to give the customer their balance, but then also educate them on how quickly they could do this themselves online, and then show them have to do it.
This also ties to our digital user experience, because we want as few clicks as possible for our customers to do what they need to do. We’re always looking at the experience to determine if there are elements that we need to redesign to make it easier or more obvious for the customer.
We also completely changed the user experience for the CD renewal process to make it more proactive and more intuitive. Now the customer knows that they have a CD coming up for renewal, and the process for taking action is far more intuitive and easier for the customer.
To speak generically, what any bank would need to do is understand what are the hurdles to digital adoption, why are customers calling the call center, and are they calling for something that they could do in either your current or future-state digital experience. I can’t say enough about how important the digital user experience is, because when you finally get someone to download the app for the first time and the user experience is clunky or difficult to use, you might only have one shot with that person. You have to get it right the first time.
KG: I know this last topic will be a favorite of yours: addressing financial wellbeing and financial education. Let’s start by defining what we mean by financial well-being.
SM: The way that I think about financial wellness is getting to a place where someone feels comfortable about their money. It can be that simple. Someone who is not stressed about where the next dollar is going to come from. They have a plan, they have goals in place, and they feel like they’re making progress toward those goals.
KG: That’s great. If we look across demographics and focus on younger generations, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges for this demographic in understanding their financial wellbeing?
SM: I think it comes down to two big challenges. One is education. It’s rare that we educate the youth today in the school system about basic financial things, like writing a check or saving for retirement. So they enter the adult world not understanding how to manage their finances.
The second is that we live in a consumption society. We like to spend money and buy things. And the key to financial health is saving money. Learning to recognize and appreciate saving as an investment in you and your future, rather than a sacrifice, is so important.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my career educating people about savings, and it all comes back to that attitude about money, that savings is a sacrifice. This is something that I really hope we can shift and educate youth about — how important it is to invest in yourself.
KG: I’ve never thought about savings through the lens of investing in yourself. What a powerful framing.
SM: Thank you. Another thing is that it’s okay to start small. There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you start by just saving $5 a week. Small steps can yield really big results over time, and the behavior is what’s important.
KG: One of the books that a lot of folks at WillowTree have read is The Progress Principle, which posits that small steps of progress not only help you achieve your goals, but also put you in a mindset of achievement, elevating your overall emotional and mental state. I think that absolutely translates to making small progress in savings.
So what about other age groups? Do you think this also translates to other demographics?
SM: I actually don’t see it differently across demographics, because I think the challenges of financial savviness is something that transcends all age groups and income levels. For example, when an older consumer enters retirement, they have to adjust and learn to live with a fixed income for the first time, and they have to change the way they save and the way they spend.
Talking about financial education is important across all age groups, it’s just a matter of how to talk to that particular age group in a way that’s very personal and appropriate for where they are at their life stage.
KG: Yes, and it comes back to the ability to personalize which is becoming a demand among consumers. What role do you see digital products taking in supporting consumers’ financial wellbeing?
SM: Digital products are so critical, because what happens is that if a consumer have a question about financial wellness, they pick up a phone or computer and search. And what’s delivered is a whole host of different sites that are focused on this. The important thing is how do you connect what you just read to the next action that you take with your financial services provider.
That’s a big focus for me over the next year — how do you help the customer feel excited about taking the step that they’ve learned about and make it fun. I think this will be particularly important for younger age groups who grew up learning on YouTube and from influencers.
KG: What are some of the ways that Synchrony is helping their consumers with their financial wellness goals?
SM: We have been focused on how we can tell an engaging story about financial wellness that really connects with people. Our Money Matters blog has great content — and these are quick articles and videos that give you the basics, keeping the audience’s attention span on the topic.
We’ve also partnered with a number of groups focused on financial education. The first is Millie, our financial wellness magazine. Millie is all about helping women of all age groups and backgrounds manage their money more effectively and be successful with money. This came about via a collaboration with Meredith Inc, which publishes magazines like Good Housekeeping and Real Simple. We discovered with some research that out of all digital and printed content geared towards women, less than 4% of all the content was about money. There are so many studies that show that women today are underrepresented when it comes to feeling confident about money and holding roles in finance and investing. So we became very passionate about this and publishing Millie.
We’ve also partnered with Marvel and Sony — and this is where the fun comes in — we’ve had a campaign throughout the year called “Save Like a Hero.” With this, we make a financial topic like savings fun and connected to an audience that is excited about these movies.
We also had our Pay Day video in collaboration with Issa Rae, which was so much fun. It’s about a woman who blows through her paycheck every pay day, and realizes that she has to change how she manages her money.
These are things that banks typically have not done, so I love that we’re doing things to make banking and financial wellness fun and exciting.
KG: It sounds like there is a big component of access — people just don’t know that these financial wellbeing resources are available until they see something that connects with them. Those sound so exciting, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Millie.
SM: Throughout my career, I’ve heard time and time again when meeting with consumers that they don’t want to talk to someone about money, because they’re worried that they will be told that they are behind, and will feel shame about that. I think that’s part of why there’s so much content about financial wellness online, because it’s sort of anonymous.
I want to get to a place where consumers can do that research, and they’re also comfortable talking to someone about it. I think that’s where personalization comes in, and connecting digital and human.
To learn more about how WillowTree collaborates with clients like Synchrony Bank to design and develop user-centered, outcomes-driven digital products, fill out this form to get in touch with Kate Gallaher. We’d love to hear from you.