Bank of America aims to be ‘mission control’ for digital banking customers

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As Bank of America designed its latest digital planning tool, it took inspiration from an unlikely place — the Apollo space missions.

David Tyrie, BofA's head of advanced solutions and digital banking, said the metaphor came as the result of a focus group held in Houston where a participant said he needed a bank that gave more guidance. The customer compared financial services to astronauts headed for the moon, where pilots needed constant updates from mission control to land successfully.

"He said, 'These darn financial service firms, all they want to do is stick me in a rocket and hit a green button. But if you want my lifelong relationship, you’ve got to be mission control,' " Tyrie recalled. "We're trying to be mission control. We're trying to have a constant course correction with people and be there and make sure we're acting in their best interest. Just like if you were that astronaut in the rocket, listening to the guy at command central."

That idea is central to the bank's latest product, Life Plan, which is designed to provide that guidance for customers.

During an interview with Tyrie, who took over from Michele Moore last year as the head of digital banking, he talked extensively about the goals behind Life Plan and gave an update on the company's artificial intelligence-based virtual assistant Erica. Following is the edited Q&A.

Can you give me a sense of the scope of what you are overseeing?

DAVID TYRIE: My role came out of the overarching strategy for the consumer bank based around making sure we're delivering what customers want today and in the future, which is high-tech and high-touch — making sure that they are able to do things in an easy, convenient, safe way through the technology, but also that they have the high-touch exit ramps, so to speak, so that at any given point they're able to deal with people, whether it's on the phone or face-to-face.

With that in mind, I have a few different main areas that I work on. First is the digital space, online and mobile across all product and services. People like Christian [Kitchell, AI solutions and Erica executive] are part of my leadership team around Erica, and then we have a whole slew of others that are working to drive digital efforts across the board. I also have accountability for our financial centers, which is our high-touch side of things. I also have the ATMs and IVR systems.

I'm trying to focus on the intersection between the high-tech and high-touch, because I want to make sure consumers feel like they're interacting with one Bank of America, no matter how they're interacting with us.

We also have an advanced solutions team, which is a sales and servicing arm for all of these areas. For example, the chat and email efforts that go on in digital come into my organization. We have a phone center that supports people who are having technical difficulties or need to get up to speed on different products and services and solutions. I also have the consumer strategy team that cuts across not only my area but the entire consumer bank.

Is there an effort underway to pool data from all these different places from together, so that each channel can be aware of what’s going on with the customer in the other channels?

Yes, that fits within my organization as well. We call that the business intelligence team. We try to do that with three guardrails. The first is, make sure that whatever the customer is experiencing, they feel like we're doing it in their best interest. The second is to make sure the interactions they have with us are relevant and timely. And the third is to make sure the customer always feels like we're giving them a choice of next best step. We tap into that data for everything that we're doing with Erica. We tap into that data for your experience on the mobile. So let's say you're in the middle of a mortgage application and coming back to pull it out of your shopping cart. You can finish where you left off last time you were in there. We're not going to use the information we have about you to say, hey, we have a great new credit card.

We recently went around the country doing focus groups and we asked customers what a financial service firm could do to maintain a lifelong relationship. And to be candid, we were not getting a lot of great information out of the first seven focus groups we did. Then we got down to Houston, Texas, and this gentleman who hadn't said anything for 30 minutes turned to the 14 people in the room and said, does anybody in this room know what percentage of time a rocket is on track to hit the moon? Everybody looked around like, wwhat is he talking about? He said, 3% of the time — 97% of the time a rocket is actually off track. That's why NASA created mission control. It's a constant course correction. There are too many unknowns, too many variables. You can't actually see the destination. How could you aim accurately?

I'm putting my plans to become an astronaut on hold now.

That constant course correction is what allows you to go up and then come back down.

And then he said: "These darn financial service firms, all they want to do is stick me in a rocket and hit a green button. But if you want my lifelong relationship, you’ve got to be mission control."

We're trying to be mission control. We're trying to have a constant course correction with people and be there and make sure we're acting in their best interest. Just like if you were that astronaut in the rocket, listening to the guy at command central.

That seems like a good segue to Life Plan, because it sounds like that was the kind of thinking behind this Life Plan program.

It is.

I've read a little bit about Life Plan. I got the feeling it is about letting people choose savings goals, like buying a home or retirement, and then helping them come up with a plan for savings and such. Is that a good synopsis, or does it go beyond that?

It's a process, a journey with the customer. The first things we talk about are your life priorities. In the focus groups, we found out that no matter who you were, no matter what your age, you were always talking about one or two of seven things: family, finance, giving, health, home, leisure and work. Some 26-year-olds might be saying, this is about work. And somebody else might be getting ready to retire and they're thinking about health and giving. So we adopted that as a starting point to begin customer interactions. We ask people first which of the seven priorities are most important to them. The next series of questions go into your goals for each of those. If the priority is family, one person might be taking care of their parents. Another might be thinking about putting their kids through college.

Now you're getting into a very human, nonthreatening conversation about your goals. I can now figure out and help you choose what products and services best align with them. So Life Plan is a digitized way of capturing what you say is important to you, what goals you have established and how you're doing against those goals.

It seems like you need to keep people engaged in order to do those course corrections you talked about. How do you keep people going back and somehow communicating through Life Plan as you go?

Through content and education. We've organized every piece of content that Bank of America has into those seven life priorities.

How are you going to deliver the advice about what products and services align with goals? Is this going to be an AI-driven, next-best-action kind of thing?

It’s high-tech, high-touch. We’re putting that in consumers’ hands and employees’ hands. If you come into a financial center, we can pull that out together. If you talk on the phone, we could pull that up together. When I go to the doctor for my annual visit, the first thing he does is walk in the room with this big manila folder that has my statistics and where I am in my progress. Just because I'm putting that manila folder in a digital form doesn't mean I no longer need that doctor. From my standpoint, the next evolution of digital is not always a do-it-yourself, nonpersonal experience.

Is there going to be a dedicated team of people, Life Planners or something?

The whole firm. All of our customer facing folks will be have access to Life Plans. So just like when you walk into a financial center today and somebody pulls up your profile, they'll also have access to Life Plan information, if you give it to them. It's permission based.

So in a way this is a help to you: You're drawing this information from customers that will help guide your product and service pitches to them.

Correct.

Is this linked to the Merrill Lynch side too? It seems like when you're thinking about planning, investing would be part of that.

Yes. It'll work for people who are living paycheck to paycheck and need help with budgeting and saving. But it is also is going to work well for people who have more than enough to live, who are talking about saving and investing. We'll tap into the consumer bank, Merrill Lynch, and Bank of America's private bank.

Is Life Plan going to be a separate app or embedded in Bank of America’s existing mobile app and online banking?

Life Plan is going to be completely embedded into the client experience.

Is there anything new with Erica?

The customer insights for Erica that say things like, I just noticed that one of your monthly subscriptions was increased by $5, I thought you'd like to know — that's the future of Erica. Erica's usage is now starting to really pop because of those kinds of insights.

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