Mobilizing Citibank: A Tale of Trials and Tribulations

Earlier this week, Citibank provided some perspective on their mobile strategy and their renewed focus on a better delivery of “traditional” customer service.

In the ever evolving landscape of mobile technology providers, Saucalito, CA based mFoundry received a vote of confidence for its ability to develop mobile client applications. One might think Firethorn and Obopay were not so lucky and jump wrongly to conclusions (especially when considering the recognition of Obopay by the World Economic Forum). Yet, this week was really not so different for many others in the land of the startup with its ups and downs.

So, why should we take notice? Because, in spite of its recent woes, Citibank kept alive a program of investments in innovation initiatives, at a time when most of their competitors seems to forget the very notion. The changes at Citibank highlight the struggles of building “mobile money.” There are several lessons to draw from Citibank’s announcements.

First, just as with web-banking a decade ago, integrating mobile into a bank channel strategy is a tale of trials and tribulations. As MaryLou Dowd pointed out in her interview with the American Banker, “Mobile banking is not a direct duplicate of online banking. A customer on the go has different needs than a customer sitting in front of the browser.” Any Silicon Valley venture capitalist would have been happy to share this insight several years ago, since it fueled countless investments in local companies. Little though would it have mattered, as it takes experiencing the difference in order to appreciate it. Hence the importance of trying and investing in various options as Citibank did and too few financial institutions seem to understand.

Second, it is hard to remain committed to innovation when your core business is under deep restructuring. In the recent months Citi is reported to have focused on consolidation, including merging its internet and mobile groups. In parallel, Steve Kietz, the Citi representative at the helm of Mobile Money Ventures, has left the company. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to picture the turf battles and internal fights that occurred in the process, all of which are text book ways to undermine innovation. Let’s hope that Citibank, the giant too big to fail, is not joining the masses of companies too big to innovate.

Third, Citibank’s decision does underline a trend I have observed in mobile financial applications: unlike what was thought when Firethorn offered its Telco centric wallet, mobile money will not emerge on its own, but will be part of re-engineering commerce and banking. Mobile money is not about a new form of “old vs. new economy,” but the expression of a channel to acquire, service and retain clients in existing markets with existing back-office functions in new ways. The case of USAA taking check deposits directly at the iPhone thanks to check imaging is exemplary in that regards. I am expecting in the coming months announcements from similarly forward thinking merchants.

This brings us back to Citibank and its goal of servicing better its clients. The real test of their strategy will lie with their ability to aggregate the multiple aisles of the “financial supermarket” into store fronts that matters to their target clients. We are barely in the first inning of the mobile money game. Let’s hope that beyond alerts and mini-statements, Citi will continue to recognize the importance of experimenting to build a mobile experience relevant to the mobile generation; unless of course it aspires to be the bank of the Sandy Weil generation.

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For 20 years, Patrick Gauthier has been developing, selling and deploying new technologies in particular for payment and commerce, in private and public companies ranging from start-ups to global organizations.

 

Most recently while at Visa, he lead a number of high profile product deployments such as Smart Visa and Visa Contactless/PayWave. He was also responsible for Visa International Innovation program driving new strategies and business models for mobile commerce, account holders identification and authentication, and payment data security. In parallel Patrick managed Visa’s Corporate Venture and Alliances program investing in a number of companies that are shaping the evolution of commerce and payments.  Prior to Visa, Patrick held various Sales Management, Product Management and Engineering positions.

A native of France, Patrick holds a Master’s Degree in Telecommunications Engineering from Telecom SudParis, and lives in California. Patrick has served on a number of Boards as director, observer and advisor, including mFormation, mTLD, Arcot, Inside Contactless and Upek, each leaders in their respective fields. Patrick is also an appointed member of France’s Conseil du Commerce Extérieur.

Patrick Gauthier can be contacted at patrick.r.gauthier@sbcglobal.net or twitter: prgauthier.

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