Melissa Macfarlane is not quite what you’d expect from a Chief Digital Officer. For starters she lives in rural Kaikoura where broadband is spotty at best, she commutes to Auckland for three of the four days a week she works, and in her spare time helps run a café with her husband.
So it both was and wasn’t a surprise when she told me: “I’m not really what I’d call a ‘techie’”.
It may seem counterintuitive coming from the person who oversees the bank’s digital transformation, but it’s actually a reason she was attracted to the role in the first place.
“I haven’t come up through the technology stream, I was always customer facing. But that actually helps me be that customer advocate, always putting that customer lens on and trying to understand how we can solve customer pain points.”
With her one year anniversary in the role coming up in October, Melissa is well aware of the speed in which digital has changed, and continues to change, banking in New Zealand.
An agile approach
Never has digital innovation been so important as it is now, and Melissa is aware of the challenges the bank faces.
The solution, she says, is to think of the bank as a 200 year old start-up and be more adaptable to change.
“For smaller companies it’s a lot easier. They don’t have the legacy systems we have, so we have to be a bit more innovative than most in finding different ways of pushing through problems.
“That is that mind-shift from ‘oh we can’t do that because’ or ‘we’ve tried it and it’s never worked’, to having that tenacity to actually solve the problem.”
A perfect example of an agile approach is the new ‘prototype branch’ Westpac are going to be trialling in Britomart, Auckland in September.
“The purpose of that is to play and to move things around, it’s all very modular. So rather than investing in a whole new branch and then realising six months later that we got it wrong, actually let’s use this to watch people interacting with our ATMs.
“You can survey customers and ask them what they want, but there’s something to be said about actually watching them engage, because half the time they may not actually know until they’re experiencing it at the time.
“That’s the beauty of the prototype branch, and it will help roadmap all future branches.”
More to digital than apps
With the word “digital” in her job title, you may automatically assume Melissa’s main role is overseeing the bank’s apps and website. And while that’s certainly part of the role, the world of digital banking covers so much more.
“Digital for me is not just about technology, it’s about making things super super seamless, removing all friction from the process, getting rid of paper.
“Ultimately that’s what customers want, and it’s what our bankers want so they can spend the time having great quality conversations about the things that matter with our customers.
“By helping to digitise the elements of the transactions and services of the day-to-day, we’re going to be able to really wow our customers. I see our role as really enabling that.”
In fact, it’s these smaller, more personal victories that really stick in Melissa’s memory.
“It’s not really the big things that I think back and remember, it’s the little things you see that really matter. The little anecdotes that come through.
“When we launched Te Reo on the ATMs, anecdotes from customers were like ‘Wow, how refreshing, how cool. You know what, I’m going to tell all my friends.’
“It’s those little moments that mean a lot more to me than the big projects that keep landing. It’s got that emotional element to it.”
The future of banking
As mentioned above, there has perhaps never been a more exciting time in the world of digital banking. But with so many potential roads that it could take, how does the bank know which course to chart?
“For the day-to-day stuff it’s easy. We’ve got so much dig data available to us we can prioritise where we know there’s a pain point, how many customers it affects, and how often it happens, and so that trumps all other elements on what we’re going to do because our customers are telling us, it’s super simple.
“What’s harder is with all of these new technologies coming through, it’s really hard to know which ones are going to stick, which ones are going to transform banking in the near and long term.
“We have a digital ventures team who are 100% focused on scanning and ideating some of these emerging things. Things like AI combined with big data to have really quality conversations with our customers, that’s here and now and that’s happening.
“Things like blockchain and biometrics we’re starting to build in, we’re playing with the technologies so that we can learn how it can be applied.”
The best of both worlds
Putting a halt to idea that you need to be in the office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, it’s not just technology that is flexible and agile, but also Melissa’s working arrangement.
Although her desk is in Westpac’s Auckland head office, her home is not exactly a short stroll away.
“A couple of years ago my husband and I were looking at opportunities to run our own business, and so two years ago we bought a restaurant on the Kaikoura coast.
“I absolutely loved what I was doing at Westpac at the time and I didn’t really want to give up my career, so I had a courageous conversation with my boss at the time Karen Silk and said “can this work?” and it was a no-brainer for her, she was great.”
Melissa now works 4 days a week, one of those from home and the other 3 in Auckland.
“It gives me the best of both worlds, and in a roundabout way it actually makes me better at the job now because I know what it’s like to run a small business in rural New Zealand, so I’ve got a customer focus.”
It’s a reassuring thought: the person whose job it is to make sure the bank’s digital world runs smooth will be using Westpac’s digital channels as much as anyone, so has even more incentive to make sure everything is awesome.