Putting Customers First

The way we think about customer experience has changed dramatically in recent years. For banks with legacy systems to wrangle, adapting to change does not come quickly or easily. In this episode, we’re talking with First Interstate Bank out of Montana, which is a shining example of one bank that is getting it right when it comes to customer experience. Hear from EVP and Chief Banking Officer Renee Newman, and Director of Digital Strategy and Client Experience Josh Botnen about how First Interstate has approached a top down change to customer engagement, and how that comes to life in the field.


Renee Newman is Executive Vice President and Chief Banking Officer for First Interstate. She is responsible for all client-facing channels, including the branch network, contact center, and client experience. Renee has more than 25 years of banking experience spanning commercial, retail, and wealth management at both community as well as large financial institutions.



Josh Botnen is the Director of Digital Strategy and Client Experience at First Interstate Bank.  He has over 20 years of experience in data, analytics, product management, and client experience spanning numerous industries, and is a named inventor on four U.S. patents.


Eric: 00:02 Welcome to The Finance Frontier. I’m your host, Eric Hathaway. Today we’ll be diving in and looking at how one institution is addressing customer experience. I’ll be speaking with Renee Newman and Josh Botnen of First Interstate Bank, two people who definitely have customer experience on the brain and are actively working to keep that continuity across both digital, as well as other channels.

Eric: 00:25 Renee Newman is the Executive Vice President and Chief Banking Officer for First Interstate Bank. She’s responsible for all client-facing channels including the branch network, the contact center, and client experience. Renee has more than 25 years of banking experience spanning commercial, retail, and wealth management at both community and large financial institutions.

Eric: 00:47 Josh Botnen, who’s a Director of Digital Strategy and Client Experience at First Interstate, has over 20 years of experience in data analytics, product management, and client experience spanning numerous industries, and is also a named inventor in four U.S. patents. Renee and Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Renee: 01:07 Thank you for having us, Eric.

Josh: 01:09 Great to be here.

Eric: 01:11 I understand that First Interstate has recently re-upped a campaign around “What if the bank was about you?” Which is extremely relevant in today’s financial sector as customer experience has changed the way that banking currently is managed and is going to be managed in the future, almost down to the level of the customer experience of one. So, what it is about what you guys have done differently and why did you go about the change in going down the “What if the bank is about you?”

Renee: 01:46 Eric, we are a 50 year old financial services company headquartered in Billings, Montana. And I’m going to describe a journey that we’re really on. Client experience has been something that even at our holding company board level, is very important and it’s a bit of our north star. But what we really found is that we didn’t have a lot of consistent practice even out in our field, nor did we have consistent leadership that was connecting all the dots of that client journey or the holistic client experience. So we really took a step back starting last year, and I will call out our CEO as being very innovative and really challenged us to stay relevant. So how do we stay relevant in our client’s lives? And when we looked at what we were doing we were very focused on our client experience but we were disjointed, siloed almost. And we needed a better way to look at our client experience, and what we’ve found was that people are really wanting an effortless experience. They want a human interaction and they love that sense of community.

Zoot: 03:15 The Finance Frontier is brought to you by Zoot Enterprises, a global provider of advanced decision management solutions for the financial services industry. Learn more at zootsolutions.com.

Eric: 03:34 It really doesn’t sound like a rebrand or a focus or a campaign. It’s almost a strategic move across the bank in a way. Would you agree with that?

Renee: 03:48 Absolutely, and for us what started is just that simple we want to execute well on our brand promise, has actually been a significant strategic change for the company as a whole.

Josh: 03:58 You know, we talked about the strategic shift and the organization has always been very client-focused but I think to Renee’s point it was more siloed and thought of as customer service. The definition of customer experience has evolved over the last several years from customer service to customer experience. What we decided when we started to look at the strategic shift was, how are we defining the experience? And our thinking around this was we have to think about people’s perceptions and feelings about the interactions they have on this. And their interactions aren’t just in the branch, they are through our online banking channel, through our call center, through our ATMs. Those are all touch-points that a client interacts with on a regular basis. And their experience isn’t just defined on what happens.

Josh: 04:53 So as we thought about how do we need to approach this and the research that we did, it’s about understanding where those touchpoints and interactions happen, and where there’s friction in those journeys. Clients come in wanting to accomplish something, and if we can understand how to make that as effortless as possible, whether that is through digital capabilities or through technology, or through processes and procedures, our people sit behind all of that, they need to be … those three things need to be working in concert to deliver that effortless experience that we’re trying to shoot for.

Eric: 05:41 So was there a reason that this customer experience refresh came about?

Renee: 05:47 As we looked to expand across six states we were entering into three states that didn’t know First Interstate Bank from Billings, Montana. They knew First Interstate Bank from the California entity that then sold to Wells Fargo. So part of it was really how do we ensure that we’re getting our message across, and how do we ensure our message will be heard and received? And then through that also I would say it’s the quest to be relevant. So you’re right, we have the bigs that are out that are gaining market share because of their online execution and their large dollar spends around technology. We can’t compete with that so what can we do? So for us, again it was that a-ha moment, we need to tie it all together. We need to ensure we’re executing well in the branch, we need to be early adopters with our technology, and we need to look to constantly evolve and meet the needs of our clients.

Eric: 06:52 So speaking of technology, what specific types of technology are you using to expand that reach and really allow an easier customer experience?

Josh: 07:05 That’s a good question Eric, and I’ll speak to that a little bit. We wanted to approach it more from a platform perspective and look at building out an ecosystem that allowed us to have a better perspective on our customers. One of the things that we engaged in late last year and we’ve rolled out our first iteration of an online mortgage application prequalification flow is on the Salesforce platform. So we engaged with Salesforce and we are leveraging not only their financial services cloud, but their communities portal that allows us to build these contextualized experiences for our customers on a platform that allows us to extend across lines of business and not just as one solution for mortgage and one for credit cards and try and bring it all together in a back end CRM to understand the full picture of who that client is. That platform really allows us to engage with our customer across multiple channels, multiple lines of business in a way. And then have visibility that really gives us more freedom to talk to them and interact with them on a more personal level than we would otherwise through siloed channels.

Josh: 08:28 So that’s one area where we’ve really focused. And then I think it just a little more technically focuses, is going to more of a services-oriented architecture that allows more robust integration through APIs and whatnot so we can provide more real-time interaction, real-time feedback from the customers. And that’s a transition. We talk about these transformative efforts we’re going through, that’s truly the case is a 50 year-old institution where we’re rebuilding the ship while we’re sailing.

Eric: 09:03 Yeah and it brings up a great topic when some of these major changes take place that it happens all the way from the top down. But one of the difficult things especially in older institutions like yourself is that new technology versus legacy systems. So as you have seen the customer drive higher demands around customer experience and you’re starting to implement new technology, have you found it difficult to implement that new technology and integrate it with the legacy systems or are you having to do sort of a complete replace?

Josh: 09:36 Yeah really good question. I’ll talk a little bit to the technology aspect but I think there’s a cultural aspect too. From the technology side, figuring out how these things plug and play together, it’s a challenge. Some of that is, okay well how can we extract the complexity that exists on some of our core banking platforms from what the client has to actually experience. What we want the client to experience is less of that complexity between the data pass in between the systems and integration that needs to happen and try to move our center of gravity more into an integration layer, and then really where the client engages with the banker is in this engagement ecosystem that we want to build out.

Josh: 10:23 So recognizing that we can’t fully replace all that back-end technology, but understanding that there’s probably a way for us to work with some of it and leverage it into an ecosystem that our clients engage in, we can make changes there relatively quickly. I mentioned Salesforce, we basically start ticked off the project to build that online mortgage application flow in January. We had something out in April which is actually really quite fast for a 50 year old bank but we’re trying to shift our mindset to a more agile mindset and say, infrastructure-wise and from a technology perspective we need to get to this place where we can move quicker to remain relevant and to compete.

Renee: 11:07 So it’s leadership matters, is how I would open the comment on cultural perspective and you’re absolutely right, the message has to come from the top down. Speaking again to our CEO, he realigned his executive team at the beginning of last year. So from my role being responsible for all client-facing and delivery channels, it’s the first time in the company’s history that one leader has responsibility for all those groups. I think, again there’s no intent but it became disjointed and siloed. Now, we have very clear roles and responsibilities and we’re all strategically aligned on the same page. We’re all saying the same thing, we are messaging to our teams the “why” behind our efforts, and that is from the CEO down to our senior leadership team and down to the field. You can’t have transformation from a technology perspective without having the leadership buy-in and strategic focus.

Eric: 12:28 One of the other things that we’ve seen as many banks are starting down that digital road and even starting to have to compete with banks that have no branches. Is part of the strategy to reduce the dependence on branches? There are two different strategies, we’ve seen some big banks go out and build more branches, other ones reducing branch network and trying to rely more on the digital. Is that a part of the strategy?

Josh: 12:51 It’s interesting Eric, we’ve seen a steady uptick in the adoption of our digital capabilities. So I’ll use online banking as an example. We moved to a new retail online banking platform in 2016 and we’ve seen adoption steadily increase. We’ve also seen quite a bit of adoption of electronic bill pay, as well as some of the other capabilities associated with that. But interestingly what we’ve seen and to Renee’s point earlier, we still see quite a bit of use of the branch and some of the more traditional banking methods.

Josh: 13:29 One of the things our customers told us in some of the focus groups we did last year was that I want to be able to do what I need to do when I want to be able to do it but I also want to be able to talk to somebody when I need to. Our contact center call volumes continue to increase, they use the chat function just as much as an email, as much as they do phone calls. We don’t think that there is this desire to necessarily go all digital for everything. I think we need to offer the capability, but if something goes wrong and they have an issue or a challenge, they need to be able to talk to somebody. And they want to get their issue resolved. We’re trying to really be thoughtful about not just moving something to fully digital for the sake of being fully digital, more to serve a specific need and meet an expectation, but know that there’s got to be some people and process behind it to back it up.

Eric: 14:28 Was there part of the strategy that was going to address specific generations, knowing that millennials are using more digital realms, they’re not afraid even about their personal information which is quite amazing, versus the older generations that maybe aren’t there. Was that part of the strategy as well as addressing each one of those different types of behaviors in markets?

Renee: 14:53 It’s definitely become our major strategy. So back to the point of we want to be able to reach our new clients or prospects where they are. So if they are getting their news online, using their laptop or their iPad or their phone, we want to reach them there. We want to be able to then have them experience First Interstate, so we are completely re-looking at how we market and how we reach those prospects.

Eric: 15:27 As you’ve re-strategized and gone back out to market have you been happy with the results, has it worked the way that you wanted it to? Or are there things that you’ve learned and had to shift?

Renee: 15:37 I would say we’re very pleased. We’re very early in our journey. So we launched internally in February, we launched our brand refresh externally in April. I think part of our strategy is that agile process so we’re able to test and tune and modify as we’re going. But I would say right now we are very pleased with our direction. We’re getting buy-in not only from our teams but in our communities. I think the message is resonating. Again, everything we’re doing is focused on putting the client in the center. And that is the message that we were wanting to get to our clients and our prospects, and our feedback is it’s being heard, and received well.

Eric: 16:28 When you talked about culture early on, Renee, I think one of the things that has been seen in organizations today is that to provide the right customer experience, it’s very important that you also have the right employee experience. And as a culture of an organization, it sounds like you guys have really focused on that internal culture so as to provide a new external customer experience. Would that be a fair statement?

Renee: 16:57 That’s a very fair statement. So we really believe that happy employees create happy clients that make a difference then in our community. Like any institution I don’t think we’ll ever be done maturing in that space, but we are a values-driven organization and that’s really what resonated with me and why I chose First Interstate Bank. I wanted to belong to something, I wanted to be able to make a difference, and I wanted to work for a company that’s corporate values really mirrored my own personal values.

Eric: 17:42 Well I really appreciate both of you taking the time today. It’s been interesting to listen to an institution that has changed from the top down internally, really focused on culture, to change the customer experience in what today is a little bit of an unknown market.

Renee: 18:00 Thank you, Eric for having us on today. We’ve enjoyed it.

Josh: 18:03 I just want to say, Eric thank you so much for inviting us. We really, really appreciate the opportunity and enjoyed sharing a little bit about our story.

Zoot: 18:16 Thanks for listening to our podcast. Summer’s here, and The Finance Frontier is going to take a quick break. We’ll see you at the beach.


Love the show? Want to be featured as a guest? We’d love to hear your questions and comments and welcome guest recommendations. Our producer Sara Tatnall can be reached at sara.tatnall [at] zootweb.com.

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