Hosted by top 5 banking and fintech influencer, Jim Marous, Banking Transformed highlights the challenges facing the banking industry. Featuring some of the top minds in business, this podcast explores how financial institutions can prepare for the future of banking.
How Bank of America Personalizes Financial Wellness for 67 Million Customers
Financial institutions have struggled engaging consumers with budgeting and financial health tools. Bank of America's approach has been to address financial wellness by building an omnichannel platform that allows consumers to set goals, track progress, and get answers to financial questions easily.
These efforts have resulted in Bank of America being the first financial institution to be certified by J.D. Power for financial health support.
Our guest on the Banking Transformed podcast is Holly O’Neill, President of Retail Banking at Bank of America. She discusses how a holistic framework for supporting the financial health of its clients includes simple, transparent products, high levels of personalization, financial education, and access to human support.
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Jim Marous: Hello, and welcome to Banking Transformed. I'm your host, Jim Marous, owner and CEO of the Digital Banking Report and co-publisher The Financial Brand. Financial institutions have struggled to engage consumers with budgeting and financial health tools. Bank of America's approach has been to address financial wellness by building an omnichannel platform that allows consumers to set goals, track progress, and get answers to financial questions quickly and easily. These efforts have resulted in Bank of America being the first finance institution in the country to be certified by J.D. Power for their financial health support.
Jim Marous: Our guest in the Banking Transformed podcast today is Holly O'Neill, president of retail banking at Bank of America. She discusses how a holistic framework for supporting the financial health of clients includes simple, transparent products, high levels of personalization, financial education, and access to human support. The J.D. Power Financial Health Support Certification program was developed in collaboration with the Financial Health Network. And it focuses on measuring and understanding customer experiences through the lens of financial health. Bank of America was the first financial institution to receive this award for their outstanding levels of customer satisfaction and their emphasis on financial health and their offerings. So welcome to the show, Holly. Before we start, could you provide our listeners with a short background on your career at Bank of America?
Holly O'Neill: Sure. And thanks for having me, Jim. So I have been at the bank my whole career, 25 years. And I've been lucky enough to spend time in many businesses across the company, in our global banking and markets business, in our global wealth business and now I lead our retail banking business. So I've worked with companies with high net worth individuals, and now with our retail clients, the mass market segment. And it's certainly been an interesting run over the past 25 years. Lots of challenges, lots of variation in what I've done, but I have to say this current role is my favorite because of the scale and the people that we're able to help essentially across the mass market segment.
Jim Marous: Yeah. So congratulations on the recognition from J.D. Power. I've been in this industry for a long time. A long, long time, I guess I could say. And many financial institutions talk about supporting the financial wellness of their customers, but very few actually walk the walk. What sets Bank of America's programs apart from your peers and what have you done recently that's really made an impact?
Holly O'Neill: Sure. Well, thank you for that. And we're thrilled to get the recognition from J.D. Power. We've been working with them on the certification on financial health and really what I think sets us apart from the others is a few things. Number one, we've been on the journey for over a decade, really with clients financial health, front and center. And then we surround our clients with a few things. Number one, essential solutions, easy, transparent, low cost financial solutions that give them what they need. And some examples there are SafeBalance account, our Secured Card, Balance Assist, which is a low-cost, short-term borrowing option. So we've been on that journey to simplify our solutions, make them transparent, easy and low cost. So that's one. Two is financial education. So partnering with our clients, we think it's very important to provide them access to information and education.
Holly O'Neill: And we do that through Better Money Habits, which we launched in 2013. It's a free platform to help clients across all life stages. And it gives them good information and they're easy reads. So that's two. And then three, we've been working on our own processes and policies behind the scenes. I think you've probably seen the announcements that we've made in terms of what we're doing on overdraft. And we've been at that for over a decade. Listening to clients, listening and working with advocates to really put the right framework in place.
Holly O'Neill: So when we made this final announcement back in January, this is one of the final steps in our journey, we'll have brought down overdraft fees by 97% over a decade. It's a journey. And it was interesting working with clients and hearing what they want because it wasn't as simple as just eliminating overdraft. We came up with the SafeBalance account, which works with clients so that they don't overdraft and some clients want access to overdraft. They want that to go through. So it was a balancing act as we went through this to provide solutions to a wide variety of clients and what they wanted. So it really came down to, Jim, easy transparent solutions, financial education, and then work we've done on our own policies and process.
Jim Marous: It's interesting. I had Jennifer Tester on the show a couple weeks ago. I've had other organizations on, talking about financial wellness. And honestly, as a legacy banker from way back, the whole idea of financial wellness and doing what's right for the customer, we talked about it a lot and it's a good feel good, but the reality is we made the consumer do most of the work. And in many cases, providing budgeting tools and financial education content. It's great, but it really requires a commitment from the consumer in many cases to find it and to use it. And that's not easy. How does Bank of America collaborate with the consumer to go beyond just tools and content to really making this so that it becomes an ingrain habit? Because the reality is, from my perspective, now more than ever, this is a differentiator and an engagement tool if implemented correctly, as opposed to making the consumer do all the heavy lifting.
Holly O'Neill: Yeah. No, I agree. And that's something we work on. I mean, number one, Jennifer is a partner of ours and one of the stakeholders that we've been working with along this journey. So she's provided a lot of value to us. So we ingrain it in a whole host of ways. One, we try to get all of our channels surrounded with it. So when I talked about better money habits, our financial centers, our call centers, they all have access to that. So they can share it with clients. If they're having a conversation about something, it can be a follow-up item. So we really try to do it in multi-channel. So, as we work with clients, we look at it in our digital space with our people, call centers, financial centers. So we really try to surround everyone with the concept of financial health and with all the tools that we have. We actually launched... We have a tool called Life Plan, which helps clients set their goals. It's in our mobile app.
Holly O'Neill: Our financial center specialists are trained in it, so that no matter where a client is, if they've started a Life Plan, they can talk to a specialist about it, an RM, or a relationship manager or relationship banker in our financial centers. So we really try to integrate the experience with the tools that we have, the specialists that we have. Digital gives us such a great ability to scale. We have 66 million clients, so you've got to use that to scale. And that enables us to get everything to our clients. And then we support it with our specialists and our teams.
Jim Marous: It's interesting, we wrote about in the Financial Brand, we wrote about the Life Plan project in the platform. And it's interesting because it really is an integrated platform and it doesn't involve a lot of work from the consumer to get that whole process started. And as you've mentioned, you're getting some scale here, aren't you? How big is that group of consumers that are currently using Life Plan? How big is it now?
Holly O'Neill: Great question. So Life Plan, we have 5 million clients who've used it. We only launched it in 2020, so it really is gaining a lot of momentum in just a year or so, especially during COVID. That's great adoption for a digital tool. And so I expect that that will go up exponentially. It's a great tool. It's simple, it's easy. We can support it with our specialists. So that is foundational to what we're doing.
Jim Marous: Now, something like that, and you mentioned that digital makes it easier, but it's also digital makes some things harder. How do you support them? How do you market it so consumers can actually find what's available? Because obviously there's a lot of challenges now coming out of COVID around financially vulnerable people, but even people that are not financially vulnerable that have to really rethink their financial wellness. How do you market the services and the projects you have, everything from the way you market the reduction of overdraft fees to Life Plans?
Holly O'Neill: Yeah. So, number one, digital is foundational to what we do. And we found during COVID it accelerated, because people did not want to be in-person in financial centers. So COVID was an accelerant for digital adoption. And we really try to make that digital experience. My partner, Dave Tyrie, who runs digital across the company, our mobile app and our online tool, are second to none. And one of the ways that we try to make that experience easy is Erica. So we have a digital assistant on the mobile app and the best thing to do there, if somebody's having a hard time in the mobile app finding something, just ask Erica. So that is an assistant to help navigate the mobile tool from one perspective.
Holly O'Neill: So we try to do a whole host of things. So Erica's right there on the mobile app, all of our teams in the call centers and financial centers are trained in digital. So if somebody has a question, they can also use those tools and those specialists to help them figure it out. It's really easy to use. But we know that not everyone is at the same level in digital, so the whole system and all of our channels really do support it.
Jim Marous: Bank of America has a huge headstart where it comes to voice banking with Erica. How is that channel being used from a financial wellness perspective? How do you see that all melting together in one way? I know it makes simplicity of banking better, but what other ways are you using Erica to actually push forward the whole idea, the whole concept, the whole platform of financial wellness?
Holly O'Neill: Right. Well, you can certainly ask Erica about tools and solutions that we have. So Erica can be an education mechanism. In addition to the fact that Erica can tee up better money habits. So, we are really driving Erica to be very predictive and giving clients the information that we think is relevant to them. And I think that is a really important next step for us. We have a lot of data on clients and we are on the path to really giving them a very personal experience. If we think they're vulnerable, we'll tee up better money habits, or some section of better money habits that we think would be relevant for them. We can do that through Erica or the mobile app.
Holly O'Neill: Email can be challenging because you get so many emails, so you really have to catch the attention of the client. So, we're really trying different ways, Erica included, in order to do that. Since I've been in this role for six months, that's probably top three on the list of what we've been working on in terms of really understanding where our clients are and pivoting so that we can present the information that is relevant to their personal position.
Jim Marous: Well, it's interesting because consumer behavior has changed so much since the pandemic and even before that, but the use of voice becoming integrated in everything from the way I look at my TV and my entertainment, to the way I do text messages now, instead of typing them in. But most importantly, I think what's interesting is that I often talk about the GPS of financial services. And a good GPS system uses voice to tell you where to go, how to avoid the pitfalls, how to get to your destination better. And that's really what Erica has been positioned to do, hasn't it? As you said, you're trying not to anymore give them the rear view mirror, having Erica tell you, "By the way, yesterday you had an overdraft." To instead having Erica tell you, "By the way, you may want to deposit some funds based on your previous behavior so that you can avoid overdrafts in the future." Correct?
Holly O'Neill: That's exactly right. So Erica's positioned that way. And I would also say Life Plan is positioned that way. So if a client uses Life Plan and sets their goals, all of that will be integrated and come together. We'll have that much more information about a client so that we can tee up the ideas, the information, the next best step that they really want to go for. So that is the whole concept and that's the strategy with Erica, because that gives us scale.
Jim Marous: There's so many aspects of financial wellness, but obviously every consumer is different. I reference a lot of times what happened when you saw that people took a decision to forego their mortgage payments for a few months. Well, half those people maybe needed to forego their mortgage payments, so they could actually put food on the table. While there's a whole other segment that may have forgone the mortgage payment, realizing there was no financial negative to that, and they could build their savings accounts. How does Bank of America leverage data, analytics and digital technology to build a more personalized financial solution for their consumers at scale?
Holly O'Neill: We use the data and analytics to understand where our clients are, what they're doing, how their patterns have changed in order to build that into solutions, how we interact with them, what we do in digital. So that data and analytics on clients feeds into everything that we do because that provides insight as to where they are. And through the pandemic, we certainly had been watching clients, their account balances, how they were doing. And it's really interesting because coming through the pandemic, you mentioned that their savings accounts did grow pretty significantly and at all levels of the wealth continuum. We saw growth in accounts for the mass market client grow even more than those in the higher network segment. So it was very interesting to watch. And we use that data to really understand the patterns of clients and what we need to do in every category, solution development, digital, how we interact with them in financial centers and call centers.
Jim Marous: So you really try to present an omnichannel experience obviously for your customers. How does Bank of America balance both the high-touch and the high-tech aspect in order to provide better customer care, but even more importantly, better financial wellness support?
Holly O'Neill: Right. Well, high-tech and high-touch, both are really important. So high-tech online mobile, that gives us scale and real time ability to interact with our clients. So as we talked, it allows us to give them real time alerts. Your balance is low. Was this your payment? So there is a whole suite, hundreds of alerts that clients can set up so that they know real time. So that's really important to financial health. And clients who are living paycheck to paycheck day to day, week to week, can use those alerts to better position themselves. So a lot different than when I was living paycheck to paycheck, coming out of school, you had to balance your checking count, and you had to call to see your balance. And that's just not reality today. You pick up your phone, you know exactly where you are. So that's the high-tech piece.
Holly O'Neill: The high-touch piece really are teams that can support a client if they have questions, more complex needs, or really want to walk through something. Something as simple as how to set up an alert. So if they want that capability in high-touch, our teams in the financial centers, we have over 4,000 of them across the country and our client service teams on the phone, are all set up to assist the client with that or more complex needs. And so they each have their role and then really important that they're integrated. So we know exactly what somebody's been doing in mobile so we can anticipate what they might need. So we've done a lot of work in that category over the last several years using that data in digital. As an example, if somebody calls in and we've had a suspicious transaction, we know that they've had a suspicious transaction and we can ask them the questions immediately to make sure that it was in fact their transaction. And so really narrowing the two is where that integrated experience comes in.
Jim Marous: So I mentioned that financial wellness is not just a feel good. It's a good way to do business, but it's also a way to increase profitability and revenues. But one thing we referenced was the fact when the government assisted checks came in, savings accounts increased significantly. But in the last two years, we've also seen tremendous amounts of, I'll call it dis-remediation of funds and attention to alternative financial providers, the FinTechs and the BigTechs. And Bank of America is certainly isn't avoiding the situation. We're all losing customers in the traditional sense. I know Bank of America from working with them in the past, how much you track almost everything every one of your customers do. Is this financial wellness focus really important from the perspective of getting some of these customers back that have tested FinTechs and BigTech firms that have specialized solutions that you're trying to address now yourselves?
Holly O'Neill: Yes. We look at that data a lot as any company does. We have a healthy view of what our clients are doing with these smaller competitors. You're right, they're very niche competitors. They do very specific things. And that's where I think Bank of America has an edge. We can wrap the whole client with financial wellness in all categories, whether it's their daily operating account, lending, setting goals, setting plans. So it all comes together in one picture. And that's where I think we're really differentiated. We have not lost a material amount of clients to the FinTechs. Certainly I would call it, people are testing them, but we haven't seen a big Exodus because I think that wrapper of financial wellness around our entire client is incredibly important.
Holly O'Neill: It's a long term relationship. It's a long term view when you're setting your goals, setting your path, you partner with a financial institution that will be that long term partner and see you through every life's stage. That's our goal and I think that's the long game here and we'll stick with that. And to your point around business and profitability, partnering with clients and setting them on a long-term path, that will in the long run enable long-term profitability because we'll stay with the client for a long period of time. And that's the whole goal. We have to prove ourselves every step of the way, but it's the long game with these clients and being prepared to partner with them as their profile changes, no matter how it changes. So that's really the strategy. It's pretty simple.
Jim Marous: So Holly, Bank of America is the behemoth of legacy banking organizations. And as a result, you have the most legacy back office. What are you doing internally to make the back office as digitally proficient as what may be the outward view of what the bank looks like. If we know, if you don't fix the back office and make that more automated and more streamlined, it's really hard to make the engagement process that way. So what are you working on right now to make the back office faster and better?
Holly O'Neill: Sure. First of all, it's been an enormous focus of ours for several years. So knowing that we have to simplify the process for clients, and that includes the back office. So number one, organizationally, I am connected at the hip with our head of operations, Tom Scribner. And we really look at our process end to end. So if we are redesigning a process, I'll talk about our mortgage process for a minute. It really is an end to end process all the way from sending that mortgage application in, to getting your approval and then ultimately closing the loan. So that goes from front office all the way to back office, and that's how we look at the experience. So organizationally we're aligned. Two is, it's been a mindset shift for our teams. Challenging the status quo.
Holly O'Neill: It's not okay to have all these handoffs because that increases the time for the client to get something done. So we've spent a lot of time on mindset shifting of our teams, designing these processes. It's not okay to send it through 10 steps when you can look at it with two steps. And then finally, I'm going to come back to digital. On a lot of these processes, we're trying to close gaps and make it digital end to end, so that's the mindset. So, for example, you go in to get a mortgage, not only should you put your mortgage application in, you should provide all the documentation, you should get your approval and then you should get the money, all in digital. That should be the goal because that's what's easy for the client. It's not easy to start somewhere and then have to talk to a specialist and then shift channel.
Holly O'Neill: So that back office integration and streamlining the journey, the experience for the client is really where we are focused, end to end digital mindset. That being said, and this is another differentiator for us with the FinTechs, all along that journey in digital, no matter what it is, whether you're opening an account or you're getting a mortgage or an auto loan, we've got the specialist support underneath. So if you do have a question, if your situation is more complex, if something's not working the way you think it should, we have that specialist support all along the way on that journey. And that's a differentiator from FinTechs. We have tens of thousands of people who are there to support our clients no matter what. Digital makes it easy, but knowing that you have that specialist support sitting right next to you, I think is really critical.
Jim Marous: You've gone through this very long journey of making the customer experience better at Bank of America, and you've gotten recognition for being the top of the game when it comes to the financial wellness part of the equation. From your perspective, what is being overlooked by the industry in general, as we try to serve the needs of financial consumers better? Maybe not a problem as much to Bank of America, or maybe it is, what is being overlooked by the industry in general, that we're just not doing it as well as we should?
Holly O'Neill: Well, I think it's some of what we've talked about here, Jim. It's connecting all of our data and information and customizing that for every unique individual client. And that is the holy grail. If you're a client, that is where you really deliver. For an individual is they know that we have their back and we are giving them in a very easy way, the information, the next step, whatever it is, in digital and you also have the human support. So I think that is where the industry should be going. And within that is financial wellness. So it's implied, but I'm going to say it explicitly. Within that is financial wellness, because as you understand the stage or, and where the client is, you should be providing them that support to put them on a path to better financial wellness, whether it's education, a different solution that may be better for them, or just talking to them about their personal status and giving them the advice that they need. So that personalization is all wrapped in financial wellness for me, just to say it explicitly.
Jim Marous: It's interesting. We had an interview with Chase probably around two months ago and I asked the same question. It was interesting because they said the same thing. They said, why you think that the big finance institutions have all these people continually working on the personalization, the wrapping together, data analytics and personalization together. We still are working so hard to try to do better because we're not there yet. And they admitted that. They said, you know what? For those organizations that are listening, that are smaller than the big five, I think it's important to realize that, while we've all done fairly well using data analytics to prevent fraud, to look at risk and to even make our organizations more efficient, we have a long way to go before the consumer feels that we know them, understand them and look out for them, which is a big deal on the top burner for almost every finance institution, even a bank as financially stable and big as Bank of America.
Jim Marous: So I'm going to do a little bit of pivot here. You have a very important role at a very large financial institution. You also have an extremely important role at home. Can you share some of the challenges you face as a woman business leader during the pandemic and how maybe these challenges may have changed your perspective of wellness?
Holly O'Neill: Sure. So that's a real good question. The challenges being a woman in business. I think it's balanced. Prioritization is really important. Breaking stereotypes is also important. I've been extremely lucky in my career here to work with some pretty phenomenal people and I think to spread that would be really great because I feel like, personally, I've been provided the challenges. But the biggest challenge is balance and priority. I think for women who have families at home or other responsibilities, having a good partner there is really important too.
Jim Marous: Or multiple partners. In some cases you need a lot of people to help make that whole thing work together.
Holly O'Neill: It takes the villagers to put it mildly, at certain times. Because certainly I felt as my kids have gotten older, it all comes down at once. You've got priorities at work. Something drops at home and you just have to really quickly pivot and put your priorities in place and move forward. And during the pandemic, I think, I really did take a look at mental wellness, doing stuff for yourself so that you can then perform at work and at home. And that for me personally is a constant battle and a constant reminder because that's the first thing that goes.
Holly O'Neill: But really important that you keep trying to pull it back into the priority list as you move forward. So, one bit of advice I would give to folks is, it's a long game, keep your priorities straight. And at sometimes the balance is not going to be there in one direction or the other, but just bring it back as you can. Because at times things shift and pivot, if you have something at home or at work and you can't look at it in a silo in one week, because you have to string it out over a longer period of time.
Jim Marous: Yeah. We're certainly in an uncharted territory when it comes to people that still have to work from home as opposed to working in a physical structure. And you mentioned mental health and how do financial institutions, how can Bank of America do a better job connecting the dots between a person's physical health, their mental health and their financial health. Results to all, as you mentioned, they all work together. If any one of those three, the three-legged stool, if one of those legs isn't strong, it brings down the other two as well.
Holly O'Neill: Yeah. No, it's a really good question. And I think financial health will be the lead for us with our clients and internally with our employees. Mental health and employees support through the pandemic has been, I would say really important to focus right up there. One, two and three for the company through the pandemic, its supporting associates as they work at home, supporting their mental health. Bank of America does a tremendous job providing that support to our teams. And as we continue to pivot back into the office, which we're presently doing, supporting clients in that transition.
Holly O'Neill: I'm happy to report that in Boston, the traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels. So that was one thing I did not miss, but the energy and people are getting back into the office. And I do think that is a contributor to mental health, interacting with others. So from a Bank of America perspective, it is top on our list of priorities for our employees. And we'll continue to work on the financial wellness, financial health for our clients, which as you think of a gem, financial health does contribute to mental health and how people are doing, right?
Jim Marous: That's for sure.
Holly O'Neill: If you feel you've set the right goals and you have a plan and you know where you are, that's got to contribute to a better position personally.
Jim Marous: So a little future view here, do you see the integration of physical health and financial health or banking and insurance or banking and healthcare possibly merging? We have these monitors on our wrists to tell us every day how we're doing health wise. Do you see a potential in the future where data from one can help data from the other? And maybe there can be almost a gamification of better health gives. Obviously the longer a consumer lives or the better a consumer lives, the better customer they're going to be from a financial institution basis. But in the same sense, it lowers insurance rates and everything else, these are all somewhat integrated. Do you see a greater integration of the consumer's overall life as relates to financial institutions?
Holly O'Neill: I do. And it's one of the components of Life Plan and the life priorities that we've set because it all does come together. So if you look in our Life Plan tool and the life priorities we set, health is one of them, because it all plays a role together. So my answer to your question is, yes, absolutely. We've done some of this with Life Plan and really thinking about those major components in somebody's life that are important to them, health being one of them. So I do think that that will continue. It will expand. It will grow because that's how consumers think of it. They don't think of these very individual silos, they think of how it's all going to come together.
Jim Marous: So finally, and as we look at the future, I always say, I've been in the bank my entire career on one side of the desk or another writing about it, while it's the most challenging time ever, it's the most exciting time ever. What excites you about the future? And what do you see as the greatest opportunity in the near future? Because we can't talk long term anymore in financial services and even at Bank of America?
Holly O'Neill: I'm most excited about what we can do for our 66 million clients. Partnering with them on the road to financial health. We've never been in a better positioned to do it. We've already started down that journey. But I think technology and data is an accelerant to getting that done. So that's what I'm most excited about because you're really providing, you're going beyond the simple transaction, depositing the money, transferring the money. You're really becoming a part of a client's life. And setting them on the right path from a financial health perspective. That is what excites me. And it should be across the industry. That is the direction we should be going. How do these tools and all this technology enable us to do that for our clients. And so that's what gets me up every morning and it's really exciting.
Jim Marous: Holly, thank you so much for being on the show today. I really appreciate your participation. I am going to be calling you back in the future because I think the banking industry is changing so quickly that touching base with people and saying, okay, so how's the last year gone because we don't know what's coming in the future anymore than we knew what was going to happen in the past. And what's interesting is there's so much opportunity and it's always great to talk to a leader who's so excited about the future. So I appreciate your time.
Holly O'Neill: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim Marous: Thanks for listening to Banking Transformed, raise a top five banking podcast and winner of three international awards for podcast excellence. If you enjoy what we're doing, please take 30 to 45 seconds to show some love in the form of a review. It helps us to continue to get guests like today. Finally, be sure to catch my recent articles in The Financial Brand and the research we're doing for the Digital Banking Report. This has been a production of the Evergreen Podcasts. A special thank you to our producer, Leah Longbrake, audio engineer, Sean Rule-Hoffman and video producer, Will Pritts. I'm your host, Jim Marous. Until next time, remember, financial wellness can be the ultimate differentiator in a very crowded marketplace.