This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of OnWindows
Andres Wolberg-Stok is far from your average banker; in fact his early career had nothing to do with finance. While he was studying industrial engineering in Argentina, he began work as a columnist at a domestic newspaper in Buenos Aires. He eventually joined Reuters as a foreign correspondent and international news executive, with postings in Latin America, London, Brussels and Madrid. He socialised with heads of state and ministers, had tea with mass-murderer military dictators and was once driven – blindfolded and at gunpoint – around the capital of Paraguay.
After 18 years of living life on the edge, he decided to take his career elsewhere. It was 1999, and the dot-com boom was at a high. “I was offered the position as the chief content officer at LatinStoks.com, a four-country, 30-person, trilingual financial services Web content start-up operation located on Wall Street and in Mexico City, São Paulo and Buenos Aires,” Wolberg-Stok explains. “Citi was looking to take a stake in the outfit, but then the dot-com bubble burst and the start-up went belly up. Thankfully Citi decided to hire me anyway… I never looked back.”
Since then, Wolberg-Stok has held a variety of digital roles at Citi. He started by heading up the bank’s Internet Content and Tools division in Latin America, then took on the US business and is now responsible for emerging platforms and services globally. “I’ve been with Citi for 14 years now and it’s a real privilege to work with so many smart people who are truly out to make life better for Citi’s customers,” he says.
Indeed, it’s plain to see that creating better customer experiences is something close to Wolberg-Stok’s heart. “I’m incredibly proud of the way our team has managed to deliver a quantum leap in convenience for our customers,” he says. “Take our Mobile Snapshot solution, for example.”
Citi Mobile Snapshot allows customers to check their account balances and latest transactions without having to enter their password every time. “You just go to the app and you immediately see your updated account information, safely and without the hassle of having to type in your password,” Wolberg-Stok explains. “At the beginning, people thought we were crazy to be proposing something so at odds with the traditional approach, but it’s been a remarkable success.”
While Citi is making remarkable headway in the industry, Wolberg-Stok is quick to acknowledge that working in today’s competitive landscape isn’t without its challenges. “In the last few years, we’ve started to see large numbers of very bright people in nimble start-ups, backed by a lot of venture capital, that have set out to reinvent various aspects of consumer banking,” he says. “They are creative, they are aggressive, they are fast, and they are not lugging along the weight of banks’ large compliance-oriented structures and legacy systems. They’re digging from the other end of the tunnel, if you like. The best among them are setting the bar really high, creating simplified, elegant customer experiences.”
What’s more, customers are demanding more from their financial services provider. “Bank customers everywhere are no longer content with a ‘traditional’ banking experience,” Wolberg-Stok explains. “Their standards and their expectations are much higher, because they are being shaped by other industries’ digital services and designs. An audience that’s using native apps all day has no reason to accept that anything should be clunky or old-fashioned when it comes to banking.”
But there’s no doubt that Citi is working hard to meet all of these challenges. The company is heavily focused on digitisation which, together with globalisation and urbanisation, forms the three pillars of its overall strategy. “When it comes to digital, a major component is our self-perception,” Wolberg-Stok says. “Rather than being a bank that leverages technology, we increasingly see ourselves as a technology company with a banking license. It’s a very big shift.”
The best example of this is how Citi is opening up to external innovation in a way it has never done before. “It is no longer sustainable to assume that most innovation can come from within,” Wolberg-Stok explains. “Citi is reaching out to the developer community to fuel innovation, discover new digital solutions and learn from the experts. Some incredibly surprising, refreshing ideas begin to come out as soon as you open yourself up to external ideation.”
Citi’s Mobile Challenge illustrates the company’s commitment to discovering new ideas. “The Citi Mobile Challenge is an open competition for developers where we invite them to invent new things using our services. We held our first Challenge in Latin America earlier this year and a US-based global Citi Mobile Challenge more recently.”
But it’s not just this which puts Citi a step above the rest – its overall perspective on technology is a refreshing change in an industry plagued with outdated spaghetti infrastructures. “Technology doesn’t just play a role in today’s competitive landscape. Today, it’s what defines that landscape,” Wolberg-Stok explains. “How your customers or your prospects perceive you, and how they will size you up against your competitors is increasingly through technology. That’s one of the key reasons we are so focused on digitisation. It’s also why it’s increasingly vital to decouple customer channels from the massive industrial-grade back-ends that store data and perform core processing.”
Wolberg-Stok believes that if you want to be able to delight your users consistently, and to keep up with their evolving sense of what a great interaction should feel like, you cannot make yourself a hostage to the lumbering cycles of the data centre. “This is a bit like one of those animations about dinosaurs versus younger, smaller and more agile species that breed a lot more often,” he says. “You need to rapidly evolve the places where your customers come to do business with you, and you just can’t put up with long breeding cycles any more. Decoupling is imperative, and it involves big changes in how you architect your interfaces to liberate them and make them competitive.”
Looking ahead, Wolberg-Stok believes that more change is to come, particularly in the payments space. “We’re now entering an era where digitisation is no longer just about changing the way people manage money, but about redefining money itself. Things as basic as what money looks and feels like are changing in front of our eyes.
“Think of the way money evolved from a proxy for the barter value of things, to objects like coins that at first had intrinsic value for their metal content, to paper money and bills, to data stored on a magnetic stripe on the back of a small piece of plastic, to a small chip embedded in that plastic card,” he continues. “Now, we are witnessing the dematerialisation of even that plastic symbol. There is significant new momentum behind mobile payments, where the credentials for the value you are exchanging are no longer even held in that piece of plastic, but now in the cloud, or on a small chip inside your smartphone.”
And those changes aren’t just at the point of sale. “It’s also increasingly when you are buying something online,” Wolberg-Stok concludes. “We may still call it a card, but increasingly the plastic isn’t even needed. Eventually, I think you will walk around with an invisible shroud of value around you – you won’t even have to think about making a payment.”
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