Lynn Heitman remembers the days when direct mail response rates were 20 percent. Now 2 percent is considered high.

"It was a very different time," she says. "It was much easier to succeed."

But don't misinterpret that. She's not misty about the past. "What makes the industry fascinating to me is that you have to continually reinvent yourself," says Heitman, senior vice president of retail payment solutions at U.S. Bancorp. "You have to continually improve."

Heitman oversees branded credit and debit card portfolios, which comprise 52 percent of the revenue in U.S. Bank's retail payments business. She cites leading her team through the tumult of the past two years as a major challenge. But the industry has adapted to dramatic change before, and she is sure it will emerge from the current crisis all the better.

"As difficult as these times are right now, these are going to be some of the most pivotal learning moments that you have in your career because it's a time when we are going to all take a step back, look at what our customers need and want, and redefine what we provide," she says.

Heitman excels at looking forward. Three years ago, her instincts were pointing toward a strategy that would turn out to be ideal for the current environment. After studying payment solutions from the consumer's perspective, she keyed in on the debit card business for product development.

"And of course it was well ahead of the migration we've seen after the economic downturn to folks moving more toward debit as a payment vehicle," says Cliff Cook, chief marketing officer for the retail payments division at U.S. Bank, to whom Heitman reports.

An offshoot of that effort is a new rewards program called FlexPerks, which lets consumers earn and spend points any way they want using debit cards, credit cards or both. "A real core message of what's happened in the consumer's mindset is they want to be in control," Heitman says.

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