Holly O’Neill, leader of client care for Bank of America, on CX Decoded
CX Decoded Podcast
November 30, 2021

CX Decoded Podcast Episode 2: Holly O'Neill of Bank of America on the Great Pillars of CX

Holly O’Neill leads client care for Bank of America’s 66 million consumer and small business clients. Like all other customer experience practitioners over the last 20 months, she has faced her share of challenges in her role as Bank of America's president of retail banking. 

Today she joins the CX Decoded podcast to share the lessons learned while delivering highly personalized experiences for users both online and in-person and leading teams focusing on meeting banking customers where they manage their finances.

Some of her pillars of great CX include:

  • Treat customers as individuals – not numbers. Brands that leverage customer feedback and data can better understand individual needs and improve customer satisfaction.
  • Invest in digital. CX leaders can't forget the importance of complementing CX with in-person offerings which are equally important to customers.
  • Lead with empathy. Ongoing training is critical to help employees retain soft skills as they help clients navigate unique challenges. More importantly, always lead by example. A company that values the well-being of its employees is better able to create a culture that carries over to client interactions.

O'Neill shared these and other strategies with CX Decoded in our latest podcast.

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Rich Hein: Hello again and welcome. We're back here at CX Decoded. And I'm here with my co-host, Dom Nicastro, senior reporter at CMSWire.

Dom Nicastro: That's right, Rich, very excited for this one. Great to be here, of course. And you know, we're always talking about creating great customer experiences, especially digital customer experiences on this podcast, of course, and on our website, CMSWire.com. And we've got a great guest Rich; we're always trying to get the practitioners who are in the trenches. And we've got one who lives and breathes this each and every day at her practitioner role at a major global bank.

Dom: Holly, how are you?

Holly O'Neill: Hi, guys, I'm great. How are you doing?

Rich: Great, Holly, thank you so much for joining us today. I mean, as president of retail banking at Bank of America, there's just so much to unpack with your role in financial services. You deal with something very near and dear to everyone, money. So add to that you know, all of the customer data and behavioral data that your organization must be collecting. And it seems like you've got quite the balancing act going on.

I mean, on one hand, you've got to deliver experiences that delight your customers, and of course, deliver the goods then on the other side; you've got to keep all of their data and money safe. And to me that sounds like you've got a lot going on; some pretty unique things when you talk about marketing in general, are there other things that are unique to financial services?

Holly: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head: money is personal to everyone, no matter how much you have, you know, a little or a lot. And clients really look to their financial services providers to entrust their money to them and make it easy. So you know that experience is incredibly important, because you have to have the trust, and you have to make it easy. And one of the journeys we're on is to also create and make it a really personal experience. So make it custom. So no matter how many clients we have, we want every client to know that they have a unique and personal relationship with the bank.

Rich: So could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role and how you got into customer experience?

Holly: Sure, I have been with Bank of America my whole career. So, 25 years. And I started in our global banking arm covering financial services as companies in our institutional space. And I spend some time in our global wealth business. And about five years ago, I was given the opportunity to work in our consumer business.

And for me, it was a great opportunity to take what I had learned in very custom sophisticated businesses, and bring it to scale, bring it to our 66 million consumer clients. And that's one of the reasons I emphasized that desire to make it a very personal experience, and custom.

So we have technology and technology gives us the tools to make it a personal experience. And so my journey coming into the consumer space was just that I learned a lot in my prior roles, and it's given me the opportunity to take that to a much larger scale in our consumer business.

Rich: So I want to talk to you about what your high-level business goals and objectives are, but before that, I am curious to know how the pandemic impacted your business and your customers.

Holly: Coming into the pandemic our strategy was high-tech, high-touch, so have a world class technology platform, but also have people who can interface with our clients and we do that through over 4,000 financial centers across the US. And we also have a leading mobile app and online experience. So coming into the pandemic, we really focused on both our high-tech and our high-touch experience.

When the pandemic hit, it was a supercharge into the digital experience. And we really double clicked on our digital capabilities, because clients were not able to walk into our financial centers. So we were at a real advantage coming into the pandemic with a leading digital platform. And for those clients coming into pandemic who may have been a little hesitant to use digital really did step into that space. And they did so in a big way.

So the pandemic is what I would say a double-click in digital. And we continue to focus on our both our high-tech and our high-touch strategy. But we are even doubling down even more in delivering that amazing end-to-end experience in digital.

Dom: We've seen so many stories, Rich, about how the CX teams had to collaborate differently, asynchronous conversations vs. synchronous. And that's still going on today. So it's fascinating to hear that Holly, how you guys have adapted.

I wanted to get into some of your core pillars of what you see as the core pillars of CX kind of the theme of this podcast, and one of them is creating personalized experiences, right? We're all trying to do that. How are you and your team approaching them?

Holly: We do have a handful of core pillars, personalized experiences, are one of them, right? Customers want us to know them. They want us to use the data we have on them to get in front of what they need. So how do we predict what they need next and anticipate what that next best step is. So that is our No. 1 pillar on delivering a great personalized experience, is to really lead the client to what is that good and right next best step by creating a personal experience for them.

Rich: What kind of technologies are you using? You were talking about next best steps. And the reason I bring it up is because AI is being used in so many places. And I was curious to know about the technology you guys are using to make those kinds of decisions? Or is that still being handled by people?

Holly: Good question. I'm glad you asked. So we have Erica, which is Bank of America's AI driven virtual financial assistant, which we deployed a few years ago, well before the pandemic. And through the pandemic, Erica actually had over 200 million interactions in the first 18 months of our launch. So we are using AI to help us deliver that personalized experience. Erica is embedded in our mobile app, and that's one of the big ways we are really investing in that personalized experience.

And so with Erica 99% of our clients are actually able to find the information that they need without calling and without the need to call our call center, which from a client perspective is a much easier and smoother experience. I don't know about you, but I would much rather get my information if it's available on my phone vs. having to call a call center and wait to talk to somebody and walk through that.

So, Erica is really our foundation as to how we're delivering that personalized experience.

Rich: I have to tell you personally, that I do it all online. So I can't even imagine going to the bank unless I absolutely had to go there for something which is why I asked earlier about how the pandemic impacted you. And I imagine that there are still many people who prefer the in-person experience of the bank.

Holly: Sure, they do. I mean, we obviously have over 4,000 physical locations across the country. And those are also foundational for our clients to walk in and get the advice and guidance that they need when they need it. So the foot traffic into our financial center as we're now coming out of the pandemic has certainly increased.

And for us, it will always be a dual strategy, both technology and people, to deliver to our clients what they need when they need it and with what channel they want to interact because you're right. Some clients do prefer the in-person experience over digital, or a combination of the two, which is probably the model that we see the most.

Rich: And I imagine that the personalization strategies would be different for each kind of customer. Would that be correct?

Holly: Absolutely. So whether you're a customer in our wealth management business, or you're a customer in our consumer business, we create the experience based on what you do with us. And that all part of delivering the personal experience, you know, whether you have a mortgage with us, deposit account, a checking account, an auto loan or a card. It will all be teed up to you in a way that's custom based on what you do with us.

Dom: Yeah, that personalization conversation is so fascinating, because you know, Holly, as a reporter for CMSWire, I'm working on a story that talks about intent-based personalization vs. rules-based. And I think we started as digital marketers and CX pros with the rules-based, you know, if they click on this, show them this website, if they click on that, show them this. So real basic rules-based personalization, but sounds like with Erica, and AI, kind of taking it to the next level, and really do in that true like, one-on-one personalization. So do you see, it's still a mix of that in the BoA system, like a mix of rules-based vs. intent-based personalization strategies?

Holly: Yeah. But I think it is definitely more of an intent-based strategy for us. Really looking at the client's whole picture that end-to-end view of the client, and then delivering to the client, what we think they need vs. just, you know, a rules-based on page that they may have gone to, or, you know, a specific pattern of clicks. So intent-based is definitely a much more custom approach. And that's really what we're trying to do with Erica. And Erica is continuing to get more and more sophisticated the more experience that that AI engine has. So it will just continue to get better and better at predicting what clients need and what they want to see. Absolutely.

Dom: Absolutely. Hey, let's move on to some of those next-step pillars. You know, for Bank of America, you told us about investing in digital, and that's obviously a huge one. And another stat you shared with us Holly, was about 70% of customers are using digital, it's a huge penetration, you know, where's the focus lately for you in digital?

Tell us how that's evolved, really, since the start of the pandemic. Did you kind of learn in the last 20 months like, hey, you know what, we're better at this than we thought.

Holly: Sure. Yeah. I mean, we knew digital was a big investment for us, even pre-pandemic. So that was not new. The pandemic gave us certainly an acceleration for many clients in that space. So we continue to invest in Erica, we think that's going to be foundational to what we do.

Last year, we introduced life plan, which is a tool to help clients set and track short- and long-term financial goals. And we have about 5 million clients who are engaged with that tool, the life plan tool.

And then you know, we're constantly tuning our mobile app and online to make that experience easier for clients. So making it easier for clients to get answers to their questions. So we're constantly going through both of those platforms, to just make it as easy as we can for clients from an experience perspective, not sending them searching for something.

Erica really is our help button in the mobile app, you can ask Erica anything, whether you speak it or you text it. And Erica can lead you into that section of the mobile app where the information is retained based on your questions.

So that is something that our digital team is always working on. And they're getting actually real-time feedback from clients in the mobile app, based on what clients are saying. So as clients are navigating through that mobile app. We have page-level feedback that goes to people across our digital teams that we can see and hear real-time what clients are saying about their experience.

Rich: So how do you then actualize that data? Is there like a formalized process in order to make that actionable?

Holly: Sure. Yeah. It goes to our digital team, which is really one group. I'd like to say we've kind of deep-sixed the department concept, so we are really trying to bring the entire consumer team together and the digital team really operates as one.

They're hearing and seeing real-time if clients are suggesting an improvement, something that would make it easier for them, and they're then evaluating what they can do to make it better. They're reaching across the aisle to our product team to really drive through that feedback.

So, that's one of the things culturally across our consumer business that, as a team, we've worked really hard on is taking that feedback and pulling it up so that we can make those end-to-end improvements whether it's, you know, an improvement in digital or if it requires our product team to engage our marketing team, or our operations or client-service team. We dissect that feedback, in real-time, to make sure the right experts are engaged to making that feedback actionable.

Dom: Digital team. That caught my attention, Holly, the digital team that you work with. How would you describe them as a unit? Are they more like IT people? Are they like marketing people? I think a lot of organizations, Rich and I are working on this, are trying to define who owns the technology? Who owns the customer technology? Who owns IT? Who owns the martech, digital marketing? So how would you describe that digital team?

Holly: So we just brought together our digital and our marketing team under one leader. So David Tyrie is a peer of mine; he leads both digital and marketing, so they are one team in and of itself. They then partner very closely with the tech team who does the hard development, coding, and takes those requirements that the business team designs and puts it into action.

So we just recently brought digital and marketing together under one organization and one leader. And then that team works pretty closely with what you would consider our traditional technology team who is designing, executing and implementing the actual technology solution.

Rich: So was that a reorganization of what you were doing previously? Because you said earlier that you weren't working through departments any longer.

Holly: I think of departments as very siloed. And I think, you know, the way we really try to operate is as one cohesive unit, whether you're on a digital team or a product team. There is a lot of flow back and forth between those two teams. That was my comment on departments.

My comment on marketing and digital coming together. That was a recent reorganization. So about six weeks ago, it was announced that digital and marketing would be managed on one team, under one leader. So that was reorg. 

Rich: So Holly, before we move on regarding teams, I still have one more question. I mean, I mentioned earlier that I feel like financial services has this balancing it has to do between protecting customer data from fraud and all these other things, and delivering great customer experiences.

I'm interested to know like how closely do your CX teams work with security operations and developers? Are these people embedded in those teams? Or is it another silo in your organization? I'm just curious to know how that all fits together?

Holly: We actually have a very unique fraud team that actually reports in to me, and they care for that security for our clients. So as we are out there every second of every day, surveilling and monitoring our clients accounts, they're doing everything they can to protect those accounts, communicate with clients when we need to, and make that experience really seamless and easy for our clients.

This is truly one of those moments that matter. If you've had a card get compromised in a data breach. There have been several high profile data breaches. We take that very seriously, communicate immediately with our clients and make sure we're taking the right actions to protect them. And we actually, in the fraud space, we get very high marks from our clients from an experience perspective in the fraud space.

Rich: Yeah, that is incredible. I'm kind of curious to know when you break down into teams, though, are these people like working hand-in-hand with your like your CX practitioners?

Holly: Yes, they are. So every team across our consumer business, and I include fraud in that, measures their experience. So when we have a client who's experienced fraud, we actually measure just like we do a client who walks into a financial center, how they rate their experience with us. So they are in and of themselves CX practitioners.

So we pull those scores and that performance up at the total consumer level, to make sure that all of these teams are delivering a great experience no matter what it is, right? Whether clients experience fraud, or a client's getting a new mortgage, or a client's walking into a financial center, we measure the experience our clients have on each one of those journeys in a very quantitative way.

Rich: Yeah, we can all empathize with that, which actually brings me up to my next question, which is around empathy. Throughout the pandemic, I think that word was thrown around quite a bit. And you know, rightfully so, everybody had to change their tone and the way they were working with their customers. Can you talk a little bit about how, as a CX practitioner, your team's had to put that into practice?

Holly: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think I go back to measurement of the experience, right. And we talked about empathy, a lot, across our teams; it's actually one of the reasons that about four years ago, we installed a very robust client feedback system across the business, because, you know, we have more than 60,000 people working with our clients across the space. And we needed to mobilize each and every single one of them to think about the experience that they were providing to each one of those clients every time they came in, right?

And just think about the scale of the business. We've got 66 million clients. We do over 10 billion transactions a year. We have over 60,000 associates that interact. We need to make sure that every single time they're delivering that great experience, which includes empathy, right, really meeting the client where they are, empathizing with them, making sure they're getting it right, making sure they're resolving whatever question or issue or solution they need.

So empathy is a core part of delivering a great experience to clients. And as I started, it's one of the reasons we installed a program across the consumer business, which we call voices, which is our client feedback system. And one of the main objectives there was to mobilize all of our teams to want to deliver that great experience each and every time.

You know, it's been very successful, I don't think you're at one meeting, or having one discussion across this business without talking about what the client experience will be. So it's been very successful in that way. And it really has turned the culture to be one that is very client-focused and focused on delivering that great experience to clients each and every time.

Dom: Yeah, and having all these digital properties. So many teams, so many internal players helping so many customers, I'd love to know a little bit more about what your training is, like, you know, we're always trying to learn more, we're always trying to pull away from the day-to-day, which is almost impossible for a lot of orgs, you know, to pull out really step back and provide that training that's needed.

So looking at that, how does you know, BoA and CX teams and marketing teams, approach training?

Holly: Training across the consumer business, we developed what we call The Consumer Academy, probably four to five years ago, which is solely responsible for training all of our teams' experience. Client experience is a cornerstone to their training curriculum, which really is ongoing, right. Not only does it happen when you first start with the business, but it continues as you develop your career as you move into unique and different roles.

So the academy, The Consumer Academy, is really world-class when it comes to training, focused on not only the skills, but the career development of people coming into the business. And we worked very collaboratively with them around client-experience training.

How do you train people to deliver a great experience? We use some virtual reality in some cases. We of course, do role-plays and people have to meet the mark when it comes to experience. So the Academy is a key partner in helping us do that across 60,000 people and they've been a key partner in helping us to deliver what we've had to deliver over the past few years.

Dom: Consumer Academy I love that, I love that term. Reminds me of the old movies Rich, Police Academy, but not similar, right?

Rich: Hopefully they're taking a little bit more serious.

Holly: It's a little more discipline. I think there was some reference to one of the service academies though it's pretty rigorous and very disciplined, more like a service academy than the police academy.

Dom: Right. Right. I can imagine Holly standing in front of a bunch of her team members saying, what do you do when someone says representative? And no one answers and you're like...

Holly: That's right. Now I say, what do you do when somebody says department? It's all one team, and the academy truly does deliver exceptionally trained individuals, and career development is also key to what they do as well. Because moving our teams and giving them a variety of experience across the business, really does enable them to be better trained. So if we're able to give somebody experience in a financial center, and then on a client-service team, and then they move to mortgage, they really have a collection of experiences across the business that position them really well with our clients at the end of the day.

Rich: We're always trying to connect customer experience and employee experience. And I'm curious to know, if the academy is also like a talent pipeline of sorts?

Holly: Of course, it is yes. In fact, I gave one of my leaders over to the Academy, and I've taken folks from the Academy to work in the business. And I certainly subscribe to employee engagement and employee satisfaction leads to client engagement and client satisfaction. So if you don't have a happy employee, it's going to be real hard to engage them with clients.

So I am a very big subscriber to that. And here, a satisfied employee always gets more opportunity, they're more engaged with our clients, and really deliver a much better experience.

Dom: Holly, one of the things we discussed before the recording was making interactions impactful and not transactional. What do you mean by that? Can you share some examples from BoA's perspective?

Holly: Sure. So impactful transactions, building those relationships, treating somebody like a person and not a number. And positioning yourself to be that trusted advisor, or somebody that you can really look to for guidance, and really gaining that credibility quickly with clients, I think is really, really important. That's how you build trust, you know, acknowledging that somebody has been with the company for 20 years, acknowledging them by their first name, providing them that next best step. Those are ways, I think that you can make interactions a lot more impactful for customers vs. just going through the motions and just doing what they say.

So making that human connection. And you know, I often say to folks who deal with customers on the phone that you can hear on the other end of the phone when somebody is smiling, and you really can when you think about it. And so that always comes through. And that's a much better experience for people, if they're interacting with somebody who's engaging them, who knows them by name, who's acknowledging their loyalty with the company, who is giving them that next best step, you know, a solution that may be a better fit for them or an opportunity that they see. Really engaging in that two-way dialogue, I think is key and making the transaction more impactful and more of an engagement vs. a transaction.

Because we all know, with technology, the simple transactions are all being done by technology. So it is giving us a finite set of interactions to really make an impact and an impression on clients. And we've got to harness those opportunities to make that impact.

Dom: This whole discussion can be summed up with what's the pillar of listening to that customer and making it actionable.

Holly: So feedback is cornerstone to this, good feedback and bad feedback. So I referenced earlier our voices program, which is our program to get that feedback from customers. And we do so at every level of the experience, every client journey we're out there serving our clients. Last year we got over 10 million feedback surveys back from our clients. That's a lot. And that gave us both quantitative information on the performance of our teams. And it also gave us qualitative information on things that we could be doing better.

So I feel very good about the platform and the program that we have in place to get that feedback from clients to make sure we're constantly improving the business.

Rich: At such a scale, I hate to go back, but I want to know about the technology that actually makes that possible. Are you using AI to do that? Or is that still being, I mean, I know you we have CDPs, we have a number of different marketing ways of handling this, but when you're talking about handling feedback with scale like that just blows my mind.

Holly: Yeah, so we do use some AI to get the qualitative feedback to create data out of it and make it actionable. And we obviously have a platform that we use for the surveys to deploy the surveys to clients, make it easy for them to give us the information. And then as we take the information back, we use AI to search for themes, and again, to make that information actionable. And we share that across the business. And we use that as we're making our annual investment decisions as to what we need to invest in while we want to change. That is one of the key inputs to that process.

Rich: So Holly, we like to play a little game on the podcast called Hot or Not. We're going to share something in our industry and you just tell us if it's hot or not. Just in a few words, if it's a part of your CX strategy, how are you using it? We're keeping it short and just want to hear your thoughts. So here we go.

Holly: Okay.

Rich: Artificial intelligence.

Holly: Hot. We've talked about it several times. Erica, is our virtual AI assistant deployed across the business, so definitely hot.

Rich: Your website, how important is that to you, as opposed to your mobile app?

Holly: Can I say warm? 

Rich: Fair enough, yes.

Holly: Our website is critical, but more often than not people are on their phones. They're using their mobile app. Website and online is critical. At the same time, that mobile app is just on fire.

Rich: Email marketing, hot or not with your organization?

Holly: Hot. We use email as a cornerstone to communicating with clients and providing them information that they need, dependent on, you know what they do with us. So I would say still hot.

Rich: Okay. Social media?

Holly: Hot, from a perspective of making sure we have our fingers on the pulse of what our clients and others are saying about us out in the market.

Rich: And finally, customer data platforms?

Holly: Very hot, understanding what our customers are doing, customer data platforms are more and more important for us as we move forward.

Dom: All right, listen, let's wrap this up. Because this has been so valuable. I mean, there are so many points, anecdotes, real stories, data, that people who are interested in getting better at CX can learn from, but I do want to wrap it up by asking you, Holly, let's bring it all together.

What's the big picture on your plate for 2022, what are you drilling down on, what's the like the top-level goal, what's something you're really looking to get out of next year?

Holly: Next year, driving home the personal experiences for clients, through digital, through our listening platform, and with our teams providing empathy as they're delivering those personalized experiences. It's all about our clients feeling like a person and not a number, like they're getting a unique experience every single time they come to us, whether they come into digital or whether they come to us in person.