Gavin Michael believes people not only like change — they have an appetite for it.
At least when it comes to their smartphone.
That's one of the main reasons that, when Michael became the head of digital for the retail unit of JPMorgan Chase in 2013, he decided to start the company's digital revolution by overhauling its mobile app.
"Think about the number of apps that are updated on your mobile phone through the course of a month," Michael said. "Customers are trained and are being trained to be receptive to change. So we started there, harnessing that energy, the passion, the appetite for change and decided to use it as a big signpost to our customers of what to expect."
He said the message with the refreshed mobile app was that from now on all of Chase's digital offerings would reflect four key tenets: they'd feel simple, personal, human and cohesive.
Since the release of the app in April 2014, Michael and his team have sought to make Chase a trendsetter in the financial services industry. The app has been continually updated with new functions that add value and improve the ease of use. The bank is always on the hunt to remove a step from the process or show customers that Chase knows them and their preferences. Another new app allows its Chase Freedom cardholders to redeem their cash-back rewards and offers other features.
Last June, it was the first large bank to adopt Touch ID for customers who use Apple devices. By doing so, it set higher expectations for the entire industry. Very quickly, the technology went from being a rarity in banking to a yardstick. By yearend, big banks were judged by whether their customers could log in with their thumbs.
Chase also revamped its website, starting with a new home page last summer and continuing with new account pages being introduced to customers this year. It was the first major redesign of the site in a decade, and everything was built in-house, from the ground up.
On the payments front, the company introduced Samsung Pay, and announced last year that it would introduce Chase Pay, its own mobile wallet, in 2016.
Importantly, Michael's team can show that what it is doing matters — the company says that its digital customers cost 50% less to serve and are less likely to defect to competitors, when compared with branch users. That's a big deal, given that it has roughly 24 million mobile users, more than any other bank.
Much of the success Chase has had as a digital bank can be attributed to these initiatives and the customer-centric underpinning that Michael and his team have placed at the center of everything they do. That's why Michael is the 2016 Digital Banker of the Year.
Though innovating with the customer in mind has always been a part of how Chase operates, "we've amplified it in the digital space," because it matters to customers there most of all, Michael said. "For habitual customer use, it has to be easy all the time," he said. "If it is hard for the customers, they won't come back."
Assembling the Team
Michael's role at Chase was created to unite the website and mobile teams — which had evolved separately. Now those 1,500 employees work together on digital banking.
Before joining Chase, he was the chief innovation officer of Accenture, where he said he learned the power of disruption. "What is seen as a threat is really an opportunity," he said.
At Chase, he has brought together a versatile group from the worlds of design, product, data analytics and engineering. In his first few months on the job, he brought in some key recruits, such as Tim Parsey, a senior vice president at Yahoo, to help him oversee Chase's digital transformation.
That effort entailed changing the way the bank approaches innovation, embracing agile design, so the team could move quickly and nimbly, rather than treating everything as a massive undertaking.
At the time, the digital managers chose "simple," "personal," "human" and "cohesive" as the principles that would inform everything they do, and those principles are still shaping Chase's digital offerings, Michael said.
Setting the Bar
When Chase began allowing its customers to log in to the mobile app with a thumbprint last year, the bank raised expectations for the whole industry.
It wasn't the first bank to offer this option. BBVA's Simple, American Express and Discover, had incorporated Touch ID in late 2014, months ahead of Chase.
But somehow, it mattered more after Chase came along, perhaps in part because of the bank's sheer size. Observers say that all the credit shouldn't be attributed to its heft, though, as the bank also does a great job of creating awareness among both customers and noncustomers.
"They are like Apple in that regard. They may not be the first, but they make sure their users are intimately aware of what they're doing," said Daniel Van Dyke, an analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research. "They've built an image of themselves that says they're innovative."
Of course, much of that is due to Chase's advertising and marketing teams and their focus on putting technology at the center of many of their campaigns. Van Dyke estimates that the company spends as much as 10 times its big-bank peers to make sure its customers understand its digital products and services.
With the kind of reputation Chase has built, Michael and his team are responsible for staying true to that message.
That doesn't mean being first to market with the newest technology, it's about being "right to market," instead. To be "right," Michael relies on the customer — they'll tell him what they want.
Testing Touch ID
In June 2014, Apple announced that it would soon let third-party app developers use the application program interface associated with Touch ID. Before that, it was only used by Apple's own apps.
By yearend, Simple, AmEx and Discover had adopted it. And customers began demanding that larger banks like Chase adopt it.
"'I want to use Touch ID' was the most requested feature," Michael said. "So we wanted to get it to market in the right way, but as quickly as we could."
Given their size, the big banks had to tread carefully, Van Dyke said.
"There was a lot of uncertainty around it," he said. "Would regulators be OK with banks using Touch ID?"
Being cautious, Chase decided on a step-up system. Customers can log in with their fingerprint to do basic, internal things, but must enter their password if they want to send money to a friend, for instance.
The bank released Touch ID to its iOS customers in June 2015. In April, it rolled out fingerprint authentication to its Android users, with that rollout tied to the release of Android's Marshmallow system.
Winning the Talent War
To move quickly, the designers, developers and engineers of the Chase digital teams in Silicon Valley, New York and Delaware connect via telepresence every Friday afternoon to discuss what they're working on.
"Agile design is as much about culture as it is about everything else," Michael said. "So, our teams present this week's version and maybe someone will say, 'I like that' or 'Why does that look like that?' It is a collaborative discussion. And it gives people a sense of pride — they get to show what they are working on."
Earlier this year, Chase brought the Silicon Valley vibe to Manhattan. It opened a 125,000-square-foot tech hub on the city's West Side to house its New York-based tech teams. Previously, the 700 workers were spread out around the city.
The campus is what you'd likely expect — few offices and lots of open space, but with comfy corners for employees to relax and recharge. Inspirational phrases like "get a little better every day" mark the entrance. It's possible to write on nearly every wall. A few scooters are available to help people get around. Those design cues come from the startup world and can help with recruiting techies and millennials.
"They have committed to winning the war on talent," Van Dyke said, citing the Manhattan office as an example. "It is a problem for banks — how do you attract young people away from companies like Facebook?"
Making the Experience 'Human'
Michael said his team continually looks for ways to reduce the number of motions customers have to go through in order to transact. Updates to QuickPay, its successful person-to-person payments system, are set for a June rollout and are expected to make its use easier. For instance, customers will no longer need to select a default pay account — the bank already knows which account its users are likely to use. Of course, they can still change it, but the need to designate a default is going away.
"This takes one step out of the process," Michael said.
When Chase customers log into the mobile app, they see an image of a local landmark and a greeting, both tied to the time of day. Michael said that, when the app launched, a lot of the immediate feedback on social media was about the greeting. "Those emotional elements are just as important as all the other pieces that we use in creating the experience," Michael said.
It is perhaps hard to place a value on those sorts of elements. They certainly add to the aesthetic of the app, but do they really add value? Do users care that the Chase app told them "good morning" and showed them a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge, particularly when they might be worried about their low balance?
Those touches add more than one might think, says Sam Kilmer, a senior director at Cornerstone Advisors. In the last five years, Chase's retail deposits increased 61.5%, to $562.3 billion, as of the first quarter. The company did this during a time when interest rates were low and attitudes toward big banks were dismal.
"The 'human' component of their strategy is the one that strikes me as the most important. Just go back a few years, the big banks didn't look so human," Kilmer said. "What the mobile device has done — and what the debit and credit cards didn't do before — is allow the bank to make the experience easier and more human to the person using it. They've managed to make the brand more human even though you're interacting with fewer humans."
'AI Is the New UI'
The next frontier for Chase and the industry is making the digital experience personal — as in, making customers feel as if the bank truly knows them when they log on. That will largely rely on artificial intelligence.
"The phrase that we've started to think about is 'AI is the new UI,' " Michael said. UI is shorthand for user interface, a design style focused on making things simple for the user.
"Whether it be Messenger and the bots, the virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana or Siri — these are all ways in which I'm able to interact and I'm able to think about how these ecosystems come together," Michael said. "I think it is a natural evolution of where we go."
He said Chase's efforts in AI are an expansion of its personalization efforts, in that the goal is to make the experience predictive. That could show up in things like the way it orders the accounts its customers frequently use, how it schedules frequently made payments or what it does to help with a savings goal.
"Let's make your life easier by understanding how we tailor the services," Michael said.
Feeling the Familiar
The digital channels are only going to get more important, as revenue from branches is expected to decline. That burden on the bottom line will shift to online and mobile banking.
If delivered well, Chase's digital services could keep the bank relevant among a wave of smaller rivals and appease millennials, the notoriously fickle and quick-to-complain generation who expect everything to work easily and want it all to happen now.
All of that makes what jazzes Michael all the more fascinating — he geeks out to a blue spinning wheel at the ATM that tells the user the machine is thinking.
He likes it because it is the same spinner on the website and the mobile app. It is a small thing, but a big thing — it means that people see Chase as one entity, so the branch employees, the developers who work on the app, and the team overseeing the website have to think of the bank in the same way.
"It is supposed to feel the same. There is imagery that feels the same, and now we're getting down to those very fine details that make cohesive experiences," Michael said. "We want what is happening in the branches, what is happening in the ATMs, what's happening online and what's happening on the mobile app to feel like they all belong together."