Digital Banker of the Year: U.S. Bank's Ankit Bhatt

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It was 2017 and U.S. Bank thought its mobile check-deposit offering was near best in class, yet customer adoption lagged most big-bank competitors. What was it missing?

Ankit Bhatt joined the team that April as senior vice president for omnichannel experience, charged with spearheading a broad transformation that is putting heavy emphasis on digital in the Minneapolis-based company's strategic plans.

It's a huge task, involving changes in technology, processes and culture — leading a 70,000-employee organization to embrace rapid and profound change in pursuit of a vision. It includes ensuring that core tools of the digital revolution, such as mobile deposit, are working well and embraced by customers.

Bhatt didn't know the reasons for the low penetration rates, but he knew how to fix things: Ask customers. Observe customers. Make customers into default designers and developers. Come up with creative ways to get customers to give something new a try.

Bhatt is part of the new guard of digital leaders focused on boosting the quality of customers' experience through intense research. Such insight might have shaped products in the past, but this goes much further — practitioners like Bhatt describe it as "co-creating" apps and capabilities with customers.

"It's one of the differentiating aspects of digital," said Bhatt, who has been part of five other banks' digital teams over the past 18 years. "Whatever you want to design, if you run it by customers you get a lot of amazing insights."

An analytical guy by nature who once thought he'd be a geneticist, Bhatt attacked the mobile deposit challenge like a scientist.

His team spent much of his first year watching and listening as customers used the feature. They did one-on-one interviews, intercepted customers at the branch and mined front-line employees, learning some valuable lessons.

Limits on how much customers could deposit were too low, and the image-capture software was error-prone and slow.

Faced with the data, executives agreed to spend money to fix the software and risk management signed off on doubling deposit limits.

The bigger roadblock to adoption was customer awareness and comfort using a new technology. Mobile deposit needed teachers and evangelists. Like a growing number of bankers, Bhatt found them by training branch employees to use it, love it and promote it to customers.

Next, Bhatt's team distributed thousands of "penny checks" — literally, checks worth 1 cent — which bankers used to show customers how easy it is to make deposits with the mobile app.

"We needed to create awareness and understanding among front-line bankers of how it works," Bhatt, 39, explained. "If they feel comfortable, they can have a conversation with the customer about it."

Such efforts paid almost immediate dividends. In 2018, 14% of checks deposited at U.S. Bank came in via the mobile app, up from 8% a year earlier — a huge jump. In rankings of mobile deposit "customer experience" published by Futurion, a digital consulting firm, the bank jumped from No. 6 in 2017 to No. 3 last year — closing in on the leaders Capital One and Wells Fargo — with top scores in areas like user efficiency, auto capture function and real-time updates.

The user experience is so good now that "they really can't improve much," said Jim Van Dyke, Futurion's chief executive.

Credit the users with pointing out "what" needed to be done, and Bhatt with making the "how" happen.

"Ankit took us through a process that showed customers were put off by fixable things that we weren't even thinking about," said Lance Thornswood, head of user experience design and one of Bhatt's chief lieutenants. "And he helped us understand that we had to get our own bankers believing in it. We needed them to say, 'I've seen and used this new thing and it's pretty awesome.'

"This is something Ankit has introduced to our culture: the idea of looking at the experience itself as the thing we're creating," Thornswood added.

Altering perceptions

There's little doubt that Bhatt's obsession with customer experience is transforming the way the nation's fifth-largest commercial bank — its executives, employees and customers — view and use digital platforms.

It's also altering perceptions of the bank externally.

"This is something Ankit has introduced to our culture: the idea of looking at the experience itself as the thing we're creating." — Lance Thornswood, head of user experience design

Nothing is truly original in today's digital banking wars. Good ideas are quickly imitated. Everyone talks about personalization, the customer experience, co-creating apps with customers and turning front-line employees into digital "ambassadors."

The stakes are high and the competition from the big guys and Big Tech is ruthless. The best a super-regional like U.S. Bank can hope for is a close-to-level playing field with the megabanks and their mega-budgets.

Bhatt has worked for Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and HSBC, among others, and analysts say he not only understands what it takes to move U.S. Bank into the big leagues, he's doing it.

"Are they totally there? Not yet," said Emmett Higdon, digital banking director at Javelin Strategy & Research. "But they're thinking about things the right way, and certainly Ankit's background allows him to bring some of that best-in-breed knowledge together."

'Creating an experience'

Bhatt's team has also notched some impressive successes beyond mobile deposit. Customer use of Zelle, the person-to-person payment app run by large banks, for example, rose 131% at U.S. Bank in 2018, compared with 61% reported across all institutions.

A record 32% of all U.S. Bank loans in a recent three-month period, including about three-quarters of mortgages, were originated digitally — up from 21% two years earlier.

With investors, management is justifying its digital emphasis as a way to "reduce costs and potentially acquire customers outside their traditional footprint," said Scott Siefers, an analyst with Sandler O'Neill & Partners. "They're accelerating their digital efforts these days and being more vocal about their success."

There's been a lot going on behind the numbers too. In two years, Bhatt has overseen a redesign of the bank's online banking site, making it a more effective driver of sales, and taken the reins on the creation of a substantively new technology stack — powered by application programming interfaces, or APIs, to enhance flexibility and responsiveness.

Perhaps most significant, he headed up a complete rebuild of its flagship mobile app, the IoS version of which was launched earlier this year in less than nine months from project start to customer launch. (The Android release is coming this summer.)

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The app is heavy on personalization, and presents things in a menu-driven, easy-to-navigate way that's integrated with other channels. "Instead of trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, as often happens with mobile design, they're emphasizing the individual's experience and viewing things through the customers' eyes," Higdon said.

Along the way, Bhatt has quintupled the size of U.S. Bank's "experience design team" to more than 150, and brought full-out Agile methodology, with its collaborative, cross-functional approach and sprint deadlines, to a team that had only dabbled in Agile before.

"We're creating an experience," Bhatt said. "It has an element of design, an element of developing code for the design and an element of connecting it to our back-end infrastructure and core database."

In the pre-Agile world, a design team might have passed off its design to the coder and so on, fostering a game of telephone that's slower and less precise. Today, those teams work together, "continuously building and testing and iterating" to meet customers' needs, Bhatt said.

"U.S. Bank has always cared about the customer experience," said Jody Bhagat, Americas president for Personetics, a firm whose artificial intelligence algorithms are used in U.S. Bank's mobile app to analyze transactions and other data to enhance customer insights. "The difference under Ankit is the speed and scale they've achieved by embracing Agile."

Role playing

Bhatt grew up the son of an engineer in the northwestern India state of Gujarat, near the Pakistani border. His father got a U.S. student visa when Bhatt was 12, and the family moved to New Jersey.

After graduating from George Washington University in 2001 with a degree in biology, Bhatt took a job analyzing operational performance models at Merck, the pharmaceutical giant. "My initial love was genetics," he said. "I wanted to be in research."

Instead, the explosion of the internet captured his interest. Bhatt left Merck for a job in Citigroup's fledgling digital unit, where he got his start, again, in analytics. In 2006, Citi's digital efforts moved from intriguing sideshow to a core part of the business, with license to plow new ground. The team was small, and Bhatt got a taste of everything — strategy, marketing, technology, acquisition, budgeting, product management.

"We got to play a lot of roles," he said. "There was an exciting sense of empowerment."

That background turned Bhatt into a sought-after commodity. Over the next decade, he did stints as head of digital at HSBC, director of mobile strategy at American Express, vice president of mobile at JPMorgan Chase, and chief operating officer of digital channels at E-Trade Financial, never spending more than three years in any one place.

In 2017, Gareth Gaston, U.S. Bank's executive vice president of omnichannel, was looking for someone with a "bold vision" to turn the bank's digital efforts into a differentiating force, and found Bhatt's customer-obsession a match for his own. "I believe he has the drive and background to build the world's best digital experience," said Gaston, Bhatt's boss.

Bhatt seems unfazed by the expectations. He is by all accounts a humble leader — a guy who doesn't seek attention, preferring to defer credit to others. He's won over his team with a personal, easy-going touch.

It's not unusual, colleagues say, to find Bhatt's team prepping a PowerPoint presentation at a local bar. Earlier this year, as his team pressed against a tight deadline to push out the new mobile app, he surprised everyone by telling them to go home for the weekend and recharge.

"People appreciated it so much they came back on Monday and worked even harder," Thornswood said. "Ankit makes you want to do a better job because he treats you well. People want to please him."

That doesn't mean Bhatt is a pushover when it comes to advocating for his digital vision. More than once, colleagues say, he's stood toe to toe with bean counters arguing for the better (higher-cost) option.

"I've been in conversations where he's held the line and said, 'It's not OK to sacrifice faster delivery to save a few dollars,' " Thornswood said.

Bhatt's argument: "The experience is the key differentiator of what we're doing. If it's going to cost more, it's worth it, and here's why."

The "why" is Bhatt's true forte. He's a data junkie who's at ease discussing "ethnographic research" and the need to "observe customers in their natural habitat" to inform decisions and provide ammunition for convincing the folks controlling the budget.

As digital blossomed, it threw off an ever-evolving set of experiences and new expectations. The only logical way to keep up was to study and analyze customers. "Ankit isn't encumbered by today's way of operating," said Bhagat, the Personetics executive. "He's redefining the entire digital experience for U.S. Bank by taking an intensive, fact-based approach to customer research, and using it to shape the design."

Research focused

Bhatt's top challenge, launching a new mobile app, illustrates the value of research. The old app wasn't bad — rating 4.8 stars out of five in the app store — but had grown stale. "We were making incremental improvements," Bhatt said. "But the experience was just on par with competitors. We wanted something more."

To inform the remake, Bhatt's team tested, tested and tested again, gathering feedback from 5,000 users in various ways — surveys, usability tests, branch intercepts, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, "digital diaries" and in-home visits. Bhatt estimates that researchers spent time in more than 400 customers' kitchens, observing them banking.

More than once, the feedback sent designers back to the drawing board. Before the app's launch, for example, designers thought a hip, new icon, with an off-center logo that created "visual tension," would be an attention-getter.

"We thought it was a brilliant piece of design," Thornswood said.

"We were making incremental improvements. But the experience was just on par with competitors. We wanted something more." — Ankit Bhatt

But in focus groups, "customers said no. It didn't hit on the attributes that were most important to them: simplicity, speed, trustworthiness," he said. "So we changed it."

Designers were similarly excited about an early iteration of the app itself, but got a thumbs-down from the masses for not going far enough on the personalization front.

"They said, 'What you've got here is just table stakes. You already know so much about me, we expect you to really personalize this and anticipate my needs,' " Bhatt said.

The learning shaped many of the new app's features, including a "money mentorship" dashboard that uses AI to analyze a customer's spending habits in real time, tracks cash flows and reminds them of upcoming payments due.

Another feature tracks customer spending on a business trip. "Now, rather than typing everything into a spreadsheet, they can go to the app and see what they spent in Greece," Bhatt said. "We took a need we discovered and created more value."

The new app also comes with myriad technical improvements, including a new sales process embedded in the app that can, for example, seamlessly prefill the customer's information on a loan application. In contrast, the old app transferred customers to a mobile website that treated them like relative strangers.

At the same time, a redesign of the bank's website has boosted mortgage originations sharply, with digital applications powered by Blend, a technology provider, which prefill with customers' data and allow them to upload documents and e-sign through a secure portal from their kitchens. "It was a customer need," Bhatt said, "and we're seeing results of satisfying that need in sales growth."

Zelle was another challenge. The peer-to-peer payments app was plagued early on by, among other things, a too-difficult enrollment experience and customer reticence. U.S. Bank became one of the first banks to embrace a new enrollment scheme.

Bhatt's team backstopped the push with an in-house "hot potato" sweepstakes that gave front-line bankers incentives to "zelle" friends, family and each other. Employee use was tracked, and those who used it most won weekly and monthly prizes.

As with the "penny check" campaign for mobile deposit, "if employees feel comfortable using it, they can have a conversation with the customer" and drive adoption, Bhatt said. "We believe Zelle is central to the growth of mobile adoption."

Over time, Bhatt has concluded that the bank's digital efforts are more about helping customers manage "pain points" in their daily lives than offering financial tools.

"Account and money-movement capabilities are just enablers," he said. "We need to make it easy, and we need to add value for them by personalizing the app to provide real-time information and insights that they can use to manage their daily finances."

Will Bhatt be there to see U.S. Bank's efforts through? Given his history, it's a fair question. He's two years into his tenure, nearing his longest stay in a decade.

"Ankit's a high-demand individual, so I don't take him for granted," Gaston said.

Bhatt, not surprisingly, says he has no desire to leave. "As long as the organization is committed to creating value for customers, I'm in," he said. "I love it here."

The feeling appears to be mutual.

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