When Michelle Moore was asked to expand beyond overseeing call centers to leading the digital efforts for Bank of America, she was perplexed.

She isn't a technologist — her 14 years at the bank have been in a mixture of consumer and finance jobs, with a stint on the commercial team.

" 'Hey, we'd like you to run digital.' Wow, I don't know anything about digital," she recalled thinking. "I play the Wii with my kids. That's about all I know.

"I had a flip phone for way too long — I feel like I was the last person to adopt the iPhone and that was because my friends kept telling me, 'Are you serious with that phone?' "

Her luddite tendencies aside, Moore had a willingness to learn new businesses and an obsession with customer perceptions. She might not have understood tech, but she understands people.

Her direct reports, particularly those three hours behind her on the West Coast, often arrive to an inbox with at least a handful of notes about what she has read that morning in app store reviews, customer satisfaction reports and surveys. She wants to figure out what fans of the mobile app like about it and how to keep them, and what is frustrating the critics and how to win them over.

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"'Hey, we'd like you to run digital.' Wow, I don't know anything about digital. I play the Wii with my kids. That's about all l know."

Her focus at first had been on the two extremes in the ratings, which range from one to five stars. But now she hunts mostly for reoccurring comments — like the ones about a new feature in the remote deposit function that automatically snaps a photo of a check. The bank considered it an upgrade, but many customers complained. A manual option soon followed.

"I used to study the 'fives' to see why they liked us and the 'ones' to see why they hated us," Moore said. "But you have to pay as much attention to the twos, threes and fours. Look at everyone and study why they didn't give us a higher score."

Moore's particular skill set might be exactly what Bank of America needed. Its reputation in digital banking has been solidly "also ran" for much of the iPhone era. Its products were adequate, but not spectacular. It wasn't a fast adopter. Digital banking was a channel where people could do basic banking tasks, but it was just one of multiple channels, seemingly no more or less important.

Michelle Moore, Head of Digital for Bank of America.
Connected
Digital banking "is not just an expense play, it is an experience play, it is a revenue play, it is a building connections play. All roads lead back to mobile," says Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America. Kent Smith

During Moore's two and a half years as head of digital, B of A's active mobile users increased by about 50% to 22.2 million. Today, about 22% of bank's sales happen online or on the app.

B of A has committed to making sure that nearly everything customers can do in a branch can be done on its newer, more user friendly app. And when they do need to go to a branch, about 30,000 of them set up an appointment via the app each week. The branches have about 5 million visits weekly overall.

After getting the features on the app caught up with others in the industry, Moore and her team began looking for additional ways to improve it. They want to catapult it from a tool to transact to an everyday essential that is integrated into people's lives.

To achieve that, they are adding features, such as a map of places where customers can save money by using their B of A card and a digital assistant that uses artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to provide the type of advice that typically would be reserved for wealth management clients.

When the digital assistant — called erica, which is a play on "Bank of America" and spelled with a lowercase "e" — rolls out later this year, it will be among the first ones available in the banking industry. B of A sees it as a way to combat disintermediation from a slew of competitors.

It's for all of these reasons that Michelle Moore is American Banker's Digital Banker of the Year for 2017.

Customer focus

Moore is based in Charlotte, N.C., but several key members of her team, like Brent Reston, head of digital sales, are based in San Francisco.

By the time Reston gets to office in the morning, his inbox could have between five and 10 emails from Moore related to what customers are saying about their experience using Bank of America's digital products.

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"If something takes us a year to build, it is going to be obsolete. It's starting to feel like nine months is pushing it."

"For her everything starts with the customer," Reston said. "I prepare for every meeting knowing that is her No. 1 priority."

Charles Liu, chief of branch transformation, ATM innovation and market planning for B of A, used words like "maniacal" and "obsessed" to describe her interest in customer sentiment. "She challenges all of us to be better," he said.

Moore has been particularly influential in the effort to make all the channels work together seamlessly using technology, according to Liu.

It seems like every bank is pursuing an omnichannel strategy, and B of A has more resources than most to make everything look and feel the same across channels. But Moore's part in the process is about making sure that the team considers "how would clients really use this?" at every junction, Liu said.

Though that should be a focus of any business, banks often fall short in that regard. Fintech startups have built much of their value proposition on the idea that they are removing the pain points consumers have.

In a way, Moore's focus on the customer experience makes her role a logical extension of what she has done before.

Before becoming head of digital banking, she served as the "client experience executive" for the consumer banking business. As she describes it, the role was about reshaping how customers view B of A — at the call centers and in other channels — by finding ways to show them that the bank cares.

"Coming out of the financial crisis, the industry's reputation was horrible and my job was to help clients understand we aren't evil," Moore said.

Building digital tools that help them — such as the budgeting tools that were part of a recent update to the app — is a tangible way to accomplish that.

"If you stopped someone on the street and asked them what they want from their bank, they'd say, 'I want my bank to have my back. Help me help myself. Prevent me from spending money I don't have,' " Moore said.

B of A's digital savvy is paying off, particularly with millennials, said Jim Miller, senior director of banking at J.D. Power.

"I think it was very easy to be a critic of B of A in the past," Miller said. "They are still having a harder time with older people, but with younger people, due to its digital offerings, it is one of the top-performing banks from a satisfaction perspective."

Becoming agile

In the early years of mobile banking, Bank of America was similar to lots of other banks, said Ken Hans, a partner at Blackstone Technology Group.

"There was a rush to get the foundational plumbing in place — to get it tactical and practical. Once that was there, some banks took their foot off the gas," Hans said. "But this channel needs to continue to mature and be fed."

Early on B of A had an app that was supposedly device agnostic, but was really intended for the iPhone and was clunky for many other devices. The app has since been rebuilt so that the experience is native to each operating system.

The bank also has consistently rolled out new functions. Its September 2015 update included Touch ID sign-ins and an accounts overview page. In the summer of 2016, B of A did a navigation redesign, added FICO scores and credit card rewards redemption, and introduced a Spanish version of the app. Before the year ended, it launched new budgeting tools and expanded the BankAmeriDeals functions to show nearby offers.

Michelle Moore, Head of Digital for Bank of America.
Breakthrough
"I think we are on the fringe of greatness in using data to help our clients," Moore said. Kent Smith

The bank had been providing most customers with the basic tools needed to transact all along, Liu said. But over the past few years it has been working to go further than competitors with the digital assistant erica and the forthcoming auto and mortgage applications, he said.

This flurry is partly because Moore saw a need to get new things ready faster and adopted what is known as agile development.

It is an approach that consists of small phases of work done in parallel with other efforts. One of the main benefits is that problems can be identified and fixed faster, as opposed to more sequential processes.

Changing the approach to development allowed the team to quickly overhaul things like credit card applications on mobile.

But the move to agile has a ways to go yet, Moore said. While the digital sales team utilizes it, the features team is still primarily working in a waterfall system — a sequential process — that is evolving toward the agile approach.

Moore said this change is essential. "If something takes us a year to build, it is going to be obsolete," she said. "It's starting to feel like nine months is pushing it."

The key is not to become so aggressive with the timetable that quality gets sacrificed. As Cathy Bessant, B of A's chief operations and technology officer, has said, failure at scale cannot happen.

Moore said much of the time savings has come from areas you'd expect it to come from in a large organization: the bureaucracy of getting a new project off the ground. Better aligning folks from Moore's team and Bessant's team helped too.

But some things cannot be rushed. "The question becomes, 'So, what three months did you cut out?' We didn't cut testing," Moore said.

Can you hear me?

Last February Moore said she was sitting in her office in Charlotte and reading an article about Siri and Alexa when she had a thought.

"Why can't our app talk to customers?" she said. "If Apple can have Siri, why can't we?"

After all, Bank of America has data on 65 million people, and customers want more personalized service. The wealth and investment business lines can afford to offer that personalization, but it isn't practical on the retail side.

Erica — which delivers its services via voice like Siri and Alexa as well as text — is intended to be a "personal advocate" for customers, Moore said at Money 20/20 in Las Vegas last year where she gave a demo.

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"Why can't our app talk to customers? If Apple can have Siri, why can't we?"

The services range from basic things like telling customers their balance to suggesting that, given their spending and savings habits, they could afford to increase their monthly credit card payment and thus save money on interest. If customers spend more than they typically do in a given month, erica is supposed to spot that trend and suggest they move money into their checking account.

Though erica will be one of the few voice-based digital assistants offered by a bank, this type of artificial intelligence — basically chatbots — is one of the hottest areas of the technology sector in general. Businesses are betting that by improving AI, they will be able to replicate many tasks currently done by humans.

Suffice it to say Moore doesn't expect B of A to be without much company for long.

"It is table stakes. If we don't do this we will be way behind," she said when asked if she considered erica a gutsy move. "I think we are maybe being gutsy with how far we've taken it, but I believe it is what we have to do."

B of A is looking to stay ahead of competitors in banking as well as all the others that are encroaching on the industry.

"Could Apple come in? Apple isn't going to get a bank charter, but they are going to push it as far as they can," Moore said. "But we have the data. We can help you. There are so many reasons why we do the things we do, but disintermediation? Yeah, that's part of it, too."

Some argue that the true value of banks is in their data, and Moore said she agrees with that "100%."

"I think we are on the fringe of greatness in using data to help our clients," she said.

The bottom line

Bank of America tripled its tech budget last year, then held it steady in 2017. But it wasn't that top executives refused to increase the budget, Moore said. The digital team already had its hands full with its mobile plays for auto loans, home loans and erica. "If someone said, 'Do you want more money,' I don't know that I would have been able to use it," Moore said.

She also gets more cooperation than flak from the heads of the business lines. Many of those people will see their businesses disrupted by digital, but are working with Moore to facilitate it nonetheless. They are essentially aligning themselves on the side of the disruptor.

In the company's first-quarter earnings slide deck, digital banking got its own page, brimming with stats and fever lines going up.

"It was page 14," Moore said.

For many banks, digital is often viewed through a cost-savings lens. Bank critics like Brett King, founder of the neobank Moven, have warned that if banks don't begin to think of mobile as a revenue driver, they are going to be out of business.

But Moore's focus on usability is ultimately meant to increase sales.

When she moved into her role, digital sales were not part of the operations side of the digital team. Moore had sales moved under her purview because she believes the features teams and the sales teams needed to work more closely to create better overall digital experiences.

"Sales is really more than sales," she said. The goal is helping customers find the right solution. So they need to be able to research everything that is available. And the bank has to make things easy for them to do and easy for them to understand.

Sales have grown along with customer use of digital channels. Digital went from 15% of the bank's overall sales back then to 22% at the end of the first quarter. Moore's goal is to get it to 25% this year.

Moore said she sees mobile as an "entire business."

"We have 22 million users. It is not just an expense play, it is an experience play, it is a revenue play, it is a building-connections play," she said. "All roads lead back to mobile."