Capital One: Accelerating digital transformation to sharpen customer focus
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Capital One: Accelerating digital transformation to sharpen customer focus

Mark Samuels — March 2021
The UK-headquartered credit card company has increased the pace of its digital transformation during the pandemic to ensure customer access to vital services and enhance its data-driven business model. CTO Joe Soule shares the lessons learnt.

Joe Soule, chief technology officer at credit card giant Capital One Europe, says managing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has led to a whole series of changes for the organization — not least a break-neck speed digital transformation that has supported a huge operational shift from the office to the home.

“We solved problems that for 11 years we thought looked too hard — and then, in 11 days, they got done. We hadn’t thought about what it was to have a remote, work-from-home operation — now the whole front and back office can basically work from home. That’s a story that’s common across companies but it was a real big moment for us,” he says.

Soule is right to suggest that companies in all sectors have been through a similar transition. Almost half (47%) of IT leaders say Covid-19 has permanently accelerated digital transformation, according to research from recruiter Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG.

However, the challenges facing highly regulated financial services firms are particularly acute. In terms of Capital One’s operational activities, the company already had the basics in place when it came to remote-working capability, particularly for those employed in senior roles. The challenge came from switching the bulk of the company’s workforce to home working.

Soule and his IT colleagues had to deal with the risk perspective that comes from introducing remote working for roles that historically have not been considered safe to work from home. That process meant exploring the control frameworks that sit around certain roles and putting in place systems and processes — around capacity management, planning and resiliency — to help negate that risk.


“ Joe Soule, CTO of Capital One Europe  =
Joe Soule, CTO of Capital One Europe

“We had the genuinely new elements of remote working, of which operations and third-parties offshore were probably the two biggest parts of that. And then we had the issue of scale, which is about the fact that, while we had people work from home before, we’d never had all our people working remotely all the time,” he says.

Supporting that transition often involved some radical solutions. Soule says the initial move to lockdown was marked by “Ubers in lines outside the back door of the head office as people took their setup home.” Over the following weeks, the IT team helped to ship out “a proper home-office setup,” from cloud-based applications to high-quality screens and on to health-and-safety-approved chairs.

“That was all about how we create all the interactions with our systems remotely from the front room, kitchen, bedroom or whatever it might be. Once we realized we were in it for the long haul, we basically made sure we shifted the workforce tech that was needed for people to be productive,” he says.
Robust core

When it comes to productivity, Soule knows the firm’s processes better than most. After rising to the position of senior director for technology, he left Capital One UK in 2016 after 12 years with the company to broaden his IT leadership experience. After a two-year stint as CIO of Close Brothers Motor Finance, he returned to Capital One as European CTO, following the then CIO Rob Harding’s promotion to chief operations and technology officer.

Soule says Covid-19 has reinforced his belief in the ability of his team to keep core processes running, whatever the circumstances. Supporting those processes has not proven to be as tough as one might have anticipated. Incident numbers haven’t risen sharply and the IT team hasn’t had to lower its ability to push through change, whether in respond to the coronavirus or to continue the company’s customer-centric digital transformation.

One of the key elements to the effectiveness of this response has been organisational structure. Engineering and delivery teams at Capital One Europe are set up as self-contained ‘tribes’ of eight plus a product owner that meet self-contained goals. “And, as entities, they’re pretty resilient to the change around them,” says Soule.

The company’s internal research suggests the IT team actually feels more engaged now than ever before; people, says Soule, seem to feel more included. He believes this new level of engagement is an interesting by-product of video-conferencing technology. It has been “a great leveler” between all the various internal and external elements that comprise the company’s technology ecosystem.

“Everybody’s just a box on the screen and everybody’s voice is equal,” says Soule. “I think the difference between a good organization and a great organization is how engaged your teams are in solving problems. And therefore an incredibly important metric for us — not just in tech, but for the business — is making sure that our people are engaged in solving the problems for the business and its customers.”
Flipping channels

For the first six months of the pandemic, that focus on the customer involved shifting away from broader aims that were identified at the start of 2020 towards fresh concerns, such as resiliency and capacity. “You dial up those parts of the organization that need to really look after the customer and respond to the kinds of things that they need; making sure they can get hold of us, making sure they can pay us, for example,” says Soule.

Having established a new structure for remote working-led customer support, the IT team has largely pivoted back to the business’ original plans — technology plans for 2021/22 that Soule says are largely  intact.

“Capital One cards”

However, he also recognizes that working to keep in contact with customers during the pandemic has taught the IT team some new lessons. Just as the coronavirus brought challenges for the Capital One IT team, so the company‘s customers had their own financial issues to contend with. Like other financial services groups, the credit card company was inundated with client queries during the different phases of lockdown. As wait times on phone lines extended, many customers flipped to other communication channels, such as web and mobile.

Soule says there will be a continued push on digital enablement during the next two years as the company looks to support the continued extension of these channels. Yet despite this switch, voice remains a “very sticky” 8% of the Capital One’s engagement with its customers. People who can’t get through to the company on the phone didn’t just reach for their mobiles, says Soule, “many switched to web — whether using a chat option, a secure inbox providing functionality, or functionality on the website. So some of our agenda has been influenced by our experiences of dealing with the pandemic,” he says.
Data-hungry organization

The impact of reacting effectively to such challenges will continue to influence business strategy going forward. A key consideration in pandemic-impacted economies will be how Capital One lends money successfully and safely — and data-led insight will be essential to that.

“I think we’ll become even more avaricious of data,” says Soule. He expects Capital One to both make the most of its information and to take advantage of data increasingly available through open banking.

“For a digital business that knows its customers only through data, we’re going to want even more, either through directly interacting with the customer or through what’s out there in the world. That enables us to ensure we understand a customer‘s situation better before we embark on a relationship. So data will be a huge part of our move forward,” he says.

Soule says the continuing focus on all things data is a continuation of the company’s successful technology strategy. Capital One Europe issued its first credit card in 1996 and has since become one of the UK’s top 10 card providers. However, as a start-up organization, it was not afforded the opportunity to build face-to-face relationships in the same way as its bricks-and-mortar rivals.

“We had to build our relationships through what we understood of the people through data. From that, our information-based strategy was born and that’s still core in how we think of ourselves as a business and where we choose to invest,” he says.

First published March 2021
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