How bankers, techies and interns made mortgages mobile

By Penny Crosman for American Banker,

Imagine getting most of the way through the typically arduous process of extending a mortgage through nothing more than a mobile phone.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Toronto last year rolled out its Hello Home app that lets homebuyers complete much of the mortgage process by snapping photos of completed forms.

“We grab 75% of the information we need through photos of the documents,” said Aayaz Pira, senior vice president of digital at CIBC. “The rest they can thumb into the phone. The only time you have to see someone is at the end when we take your wet signature at your lawyer’s office.”

Users of Hello Home are assigned an e-mortgage specialist in the bank’s mortgage contact center with whom they can chat about questions or around rates.

The app was initially created in a six-week sprint by Pira’s team in conjunction with the tech team, mortgage team and marketing people. The first generation was available in four months.

Hello Home is just one of several things Pira accomplished in the last year or so. Under his direction, CIBC has also added several app features, launched an innovation hub, established a fruitful fintech partnership and got senior management to buy-in to a multi-year digital banking innovation plan. For those reasons, Pira is one of our Digital Banker of the Year finalists.

Aayaz Pira, CIBC's senior vice president of digital.
Get uncomfortable

“We take our banking people away from the Toronto financial district we call Bay Street to open up minds and be really creative,” says Aayaz Pira, senior vice president of digital at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

Observers say the work on projects like Hello Home are an acknowledgment of the need to make digital channels a place for sales.

“Clearly, online and mobile are more than just ways to make it convenient for customers to monitor and manage their money and savings accounts,” said Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research. “Many banks are saying, ‘What can we do with mobile to open accounts?’ That is a real struggle for many institutions on many levels.”

Hello Home was developed in a digital innovation hub called Live Labs.

“Live Labs is my CIBC digital baby,” Pira said.

In the lab, traditional bankers are thrown together with digital and tech team members and young interns, and asked to rethink customer experience for all parts of the business. It’s housed in the Mars Discovery District, a Toronto “urban innovation hub.”

It’s meant to operate as a tech startup, living outside CIBC’s walls but serving all parts of the organization to rethink client experiences using technology and innovation. New ideas are tested here that might not otherwise gain support using traditional business case measures. In addition to the mortgage app, the bank’s Apple Watch app was developed there, as was a savings goal feature the bank recently launched in its mobile app.

In addition to serving as a research and development facility, Live Labs is intended to attract and retain tech talent. And it’s a way to shake up old-school bankerly ways of thinking.

“We take our banking people away from the Toronto financial district we call Bay Street to open up minds and be really creative,” Pira said. “We also have healthy collisions with startups and other organizations within the Mars Discovery District. That’s been a huge accelerator for how we think about bringing things to market.”

Every six weeks the lab tackles a new client pain point, a new technology that’s been released or some trend that might change banking in the future, Pira said.

“We talk about being an amazing client-focused digital bank on the outside and creating experiences for clients that will delight them every time they interact with us on our digital channels,” Pira said. “I think for us to be successful we also have to be that on the inside.”

Also, to help accelerate product development at CIBC, Pira created Mobile Quick Release, a mobile development team that ships new capabilities to clients every 60 days. Among other things, they’ve streamlined mobile account opening and added Touch ID to the iPhone app and fingerprint recognition to the Android version of the app in the last year.

The team recently launched natural language processing voice search. So a customer can hit the search button, say, “Pay a bill,” and they’re dropped into the bill paying flow of events. Or they could say, “E-deposit” and their phone’s camera will open for them to take a picture of a check.

Schwanhausser noted that this is another step in a direction many banks would like to go.

“The ultimate Holy Grail is when someone could talk in natural language to a device and it would feel like you’re talking to a teller,” he said. “We’re a long way away from that.” Ideally, rather than having to give a specific command, customers could speak naturally and ask for something with any verbiage. “Where this is heading is an important direction – toward that ability to be able to converse.”

Having such ambitious plans also means needing more people. Under his direction, the digital team grew from 50 people to 250 in 2016.

Still, Pira said that not everything needs to be built in-house. For instance, the bank forged a partnership with Canadian alternative fintech lender Borrowell, which offers “fast, fair and friendly” consumer loans.

Borrowell’s special strength is its speed and client experience, PIra said. What it lacks is scale – it has thousands of clients, while CIBC has millions.

Through the partnership, CIBC provides its customers with Borrowell-fueled one-click loans through its online banking site and mobile banking app. The application form is prepopulated with CIBC customer data.

“We pass over all your information, and then we drop the money into your account within 24 hours,” Pira said.

“Together, we’re going to provide a lot of opportunity for Canadians to make quick loans to take care of debt or renovate houses or do whatever they need to do.”

Like many bank innovators, Pira says the key to getting funding and support for digital initiatives is winning over executives at the top.

Pira’s team put together a story of what 2020 could look like for CIBC if the bank made “meaningful” investments in digital channels—what the customer experience would look like and how that would affect the bank’s net promoter score and overall profitability.

The team told the story of what the bank would like in 2020 through partners and executives at the bank, going all the way up to the CEO and board.

Then it asked for specific funding each year to make that story come alive.

Was it hard to come up with those numbers?

“This wasn’t something we did overnight,” Pira said. “This was a good eight to twelve months’ worth of work. It was done with support of many others in the organization. When you get everyone lined up and say we believe this can drive lots of value for our clients and our bank, it’s hard to say no.”