Title: Senior Vice President, Internet and Mobile Banking

Institution: Wells Fargo

Latest innovation: Person-to-person mobile payments

It'd be easy to understand if Innovation were sidelined at Wells Fargo this year, given the recession and the massive IT project facing the bank - integrating Wachovia's 3,300 branches and customers in 21 states.

But under Secil Watson's watch, online innovation continues unabated. And, unlike most other U.S. banks pursuing the same advances, Wells' handles nearly all development in house, allowing it to maintain the seamless customer experience that is central to Watson's mission at the bank. "We believe in the long run what will differentiate us is having a very integrated customer experience," she says.

In the past year Watson's efforts included an expansion into person-to-person payments, advances in online and mobile banking, and research into next-generation payments applications.

The market gives these efforts high marks, with Wells' online efforts credited with many "first" and "best" accolades. Of late, both ABI Research and Javelin Strategy & Research give Wells Fargo their highest marks in online banking, well above most of its big-bank peers.

These accomplishments notwithstanding, you'll find no chief innovation officer at Wells; the bank deliberately eschewed the R&D model that concentrates innovation in one group, instead empowering its product managers to research, develop and make a business case for the next generation of their products. Wells' "secret sauce," Watson says, is its user-centric design methodology. "We are literally following the customer's lead."

That's more than a mission statement. Watson has been assiduously monitoring customer needs and preferences since she arrived at Wells seven years ago to develop the bank's Web site as an Internet sales channel. Her success at that put her on track to head up customer experience, with responsibility for retail mobile banking and money movement within the online and mobile channels. "Everything we consider starts with how would customers react to a change, whether that is a new service, revised screen design, or other change," says Jim Smith, head of the Internet Services Group at Wells. "Secil is always pushing for the insight behind the facts; she is inquisitive."

Watson's latest foray into following customers' lead has led to mobile person-to-person payments capability, introduced in September. Only about a third of the largest 40 banks offer mobile P2P, Javelin says, with core service providers like Fiserv, Fidelity and S1 scrambling to get their offerings into the market to meet customer demands for more payment services. Wells also plans to incorporate reward programs and promotional offers into its mobile banking line-up. "We want to make mobile part of a robust relationship, not just a service," Watson says.

As customers adopt new channels, Wells is taking steps to help bring control and consistency to the delivery experience. Its policy going forward is to ensure that any new payment or other type of service designed for the online channel also supports the mobile channel. And by leveraging existing technology, Wells can also minimize the incremental costs of pushing out into new channels.

The execution half of Well's commitment to customer-centric development is fulfilled in Wells' lab environment, which enables extensive testing within a controlled, cost-efficient framework. It lets the bank leverage existing architecture to support smaller pilots with a clear exit strategy. Currently in the lab is an application called SettleUp that lets users split costs for shared expenses, send reminders about who owes what, and collect and track payments.

Even with these customer-facing developments coming out of Well's lab as well as recent mobile, online and P2P advances, merger conversion work is still a primary goal for Watson and her group for the next year.

"It is very essential that we focus on our Wachovia customers having a really good experience as we go through the merger," she says, adding there's new ground to be tilled in the nuts-and-bolts of a technology merger. "Part of the innovation will be fueled by our desire to get the best of both banks' functionality."

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