Reinvention of Spending

The pandemic showed the world that the future of banking is digital

Capital One's technology lead on how the mobile wallet will be far more useful to consumers than the old leather ones.

The pandemic showed the world that the future of banking is digital

Capital One's Ron Secrist discusses banking in 2021.

Photo: Capital One

What's in your wallet?

Do you even use your wallet much these days? Given that so many of us are trapped at home, the only time you probably have to reach for your wallet is if your credit card details aren't stored in some new website you're using for groceries or Christmas presents.

For Capital One, the pandemic has reaffirmed the direction the company has been moving for years, trying to replicate the experience it offers in its branches online. The pandemic has meant that most people's only connection to their bank is through their phone, and Ron Secrist, managing vice president of technology at Capital One, is expecting that digital transformations that have taken place in consumers' lives will stick around after the pandemic.

Protocol recently spoke with Secrist to discuss how the consumer finance experience has evolved as a result of the pandemic, and what changes are likely to be permanent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the pandemic been going for Capital One so far?

It's fascinating times. I remember early in the pandemic telling my team that I thought that hopefully we'd be back to work by the Memorial Day. And now I'm personally just preparing myself for longer-term remote work. I think it's going to have a profound impacts on how consumers get the goods and services they need, and how they adapt to continuing to need to distance and respond to the virus in the pandemic. And I think it will change the way people buy things forever.

We used to do a 90-minute grocery run every day. It might be still 90 minutes, but it's while my wife's watching a show or helping a kid with homework, and she's tapping away on her Walmart app. By the time she pulls into the spot out in front of the Walmart, they're waiting with her groceries, she opens her trunk to put them in and drives away. That's all fueled by a ton of digital innovation that happens on your smartphone, fueled by stored Capital One payment credentials that she has in the app that enable her to easily pay without having to have the physical transaction. And a typical commerce transaction that she's done for 20 years [has] now been reinvented into something that's far more convenient, because of the pandemic, but I think [it] will likely stick.

How much of your work this year has been an acceleration of projects you were already working on versus new initiatives to meet the needs of customers during the pandemic?

We've been on a tech journey now for nearly 10 years at Capital One to really become the preeminent digital bank. Way back in 2011, when we first implemented Agile and did an API transformation across the company, we were laying the foundations to respond to something like this, even though we didn't know that [a] pandemic was 10 years out. All of those investments have enabled us to react very quickly to a pandemic and start to build features for customers and even just react in our own operations. If you think about scaled API implementation at the company, moving to the cloud to give us nearly infinite scalability, moving to Agile so that teams are empowered to build the features that customers need when they need them, I think it's all been foundational in our ability to respond.

Certainly the pandemic put a couple of things in a new light and made us lean in with those core foundational capabilities to allow us to respond. Things like our ability to connect Capital One to other payment networks, whether that's Apple Pay, PayPal or Google Pay, we really leaned into and started to elevate our mobile experience. We've seen a bunch of uptake in PayPal connections, and Apple Pay provisions and Google Pay so that people can pay contactless. PayPal is a great partner for us, because it allows you to pay pretty much anywhere across the internet safely and easily with your stored credentials.

Most of our cloud investments allowed us to quickly scale our digital experiences so that as people had questions, or needed to log in and check their balances in the early days of pandemic, we could handle the volume seamlessly, without outages.

And then I also think that investments just in how we work, we were able to maintain stable call centers by taking our entire call center force — we had about 1,500 call-center agents working from home. And we went to 13,000 in about a week. So we were able to maintain the service levels that our customers needed. And at the same time, we did 500 [code] releases from mid-March to mid-April, which was the amount of releases we did the entire previous year, just to make sure that our customers had support. We were doing 10 releases a day, just to make sure that our information was accurate for customers. It was really a Herculean response, 100% supported by the investments in Agile, in solid technical architecture and the scalability provided to us by the cloud.

So how does that translate into the front end? I think about Capital One as being a little different than other banks out there: The experience of a Capital One cafe, for example, is wildly different than walking into your average bank. How does that translate online, especially right now, when that's really the only touchpoint most people have with their bank?

We do pride ourselves on our cafe being a very different experience, and really trying to get people in to experience us and who we are as a company. Probably for some people, [it's a] disarming experience when they walk in and they don't see tellers and that kind of thing. We try to build our digital experiences the same way: We try to bring a bunch of humanity to our digital experience. Most of the time, if you log in, you'll see us saying, "Hello, how are you doing?" just to be a bit more friendly and human, which is something that the cafes do so well.

The other thing we try to do is, with all the investments in technology that we have, we really try to use what we know about the consumer to tailor and customize that experience for you. Gone are the days where everybody just sees account balances and are done. Our app is changing and is unique for nearly every single customer who logs in. We know with the data we have about you and what you've done with us in the past — we're not using any external data, so there's no kind of Big Brother thing — we're putting things in front of you that we think will help you along your journey to your finances.

I think where we're headed is to try to make it so that your interactions with us are smooth and as frictionless as possible, which means less of "I'm going to the app to pay my bill" and means way more of "I'm bringing that to you." So [when] it's time to pay your bill, you probably know the last amount you paid, and I'm reminding you of that, I'm making it super easy for you to do that same transaction again. Or if you've accidentally swiped your card twice, or maybe tapped your card twice, I'm telling you that and I'm giving you an easy way to solve that. I'm really trying to bring insights to you that you can act on.

I think the future is more of that, with our mobile app at the center, but we're guiding you in micro-moments versus expecting you to come to the mobile app and do that on your own. It's similar to our cafe experience: You come in, there's coffee, there's people you can talk to and learn about things. But they're more there to help you in your decision-making process. That's what I want to have happen in our digital experiences, where when you download them, you set it up the first time and then we're they're just always constantly talking to you, showing you that we have your back and making sure that when you have questions, we're there to answer them for you.

I've heard from others that during this time that new demographics — especially older and younger customers — have started turning to digital. Have you thought about creating an experience that's simple enough for everyone to use, from a hardcore Apple Wallet user to someone who's just logged on for the first time?

It's something we have a lot of passion for here. All of our digital products are ADA compliant. We take testability of our products very seriously. We do thorough reviews to make sure that every single person possible can use the product. And we take customer feedback very seriously. And when we find some things that might not be working for a group of people, we try to remediate those as fast as we possibly can.

For any teams that make our mobile app, we go through rigorous in-person research as well as A/B testing. Once we get through in-person research of a diverse sample set of our customer base, inclusive of all age ranges, all demographics, we look at those same things at scale, to make sure that there's no performance characteristics that just look odd when we do it.

Our whole goal is to make sure that every person who comes to our mobile apps finds them intuitive and human [and] feels like they know what to do. And if not, there are things in place to guide them to where they need to go, versus just kind of figuring it out. I have found, over the years, that there's a different bar for banking than there is for social media apps, which may be more about entertainment. We have to make sure that people can get to their money and understand it. If you look at our app today, the first thing you see are your account balances. And they're in nice, big, large fonts so that they're very easy to see if you want to learn more about it. It's a tap to get to it. The other thing we've made pervasive at the bottom of our app is our intelligent assistant, which allows you to tap on it and ask a question. It's a chatbot, but we've really tried to make sure that if you ask it a question [it] knows exactly where that is in the app, and will take you to it.

Are there tools that people have been leaning more heavily on during the pandemic?

I was surprised at how many people hadn't already connected to one of the payment services, whether that's PayPal or Apple Pay or Google Pay, and how much uptake we've seen on that. I think just as more shopping has gone online, both with the traditional online retailers and my example of going to Walmart for groceries, there's more shopping that has taken place online. We've definitely seen more and more people using those third-party payment providers as well as some of the ones we provide, like virtual card numbers, which is an extension that you can download to give you a virtual card number to allow you to pay safely with a single-use card anywhere. We've seen a huge uptick in the usage of those tools.

With online shopping, our Capital One shopping services have seen a bunch of uptick. That's people trying to find ways to save a little bit of money on top of the purchases that they need to make. At first I thought that maybe people, especially in the early days, would be hunkering down and saving a bit more, but as the pandemic has worn on, it's been clear that people still need to find a way to shop, and then enjoy saving a little bit of money as they do it.

I think the pandemic has done nothing but continue to solidify how central mobile is in our lives. I think I've been surprised by that. Because you would imagine, being home all the time, I'm maybe a bit more desktop-centric. But I think what we will continue to see is mobile just become more and more central to people's experiences, both with Capital One and in shopping. I think lasting behavior change will be there and that most people by the end of this pandemic will think of their bank via their mobile experience, not via their desktop experience and certainly not via their in-person experience. And I think most companies need to make sure that they're building for experiences that can only be done on mobile. Because I think that's where we'll be.

That brings me to a very important question: Are you going to have to change your slogan to "What's in your mobile wallet?"

Oh, that's a good question that is above my pay grade.

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