Episode 36

Enhancing Engagement with Personalized Insights and Database Experiences with Jessica Austin Barker, Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer at TIAA

We invited Jessica Austin Barker, TIAA's Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer, to join host Anthony O’Donnell on this episode of Life Accelerated and discuss how TIAA has embraced a design-led approach to client interactions and innovation in the retirement services sector.

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Time Stamps

  • 04:32 Starting with solving basic customer problems
  • 06:29 Improving customer focus through immersive client experiences
  • 10:39 Experience with data platforms and increasing data acumen
  • 12:10 Striving for personalized experiences in financial advising
  • 15:18 The core principles of being an AI-first company
  • 17:55 The importance of customers and facilitating digital and human intersection
  • 22:15 Why design is crucial for creating great experiences


Jessica Austin Barker, TIAA's Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer, sits down with host Anthony O’Donnell for this latest episode of Life Accelerated. Jessica’s acumen, honed through her tenure at Intuit and now as a leader at TIAA, is steering the financial institution toward new horizons of client engagement.

Jessica brings a profound understanding of the complexities in the financial and retirement planning sectors and a commitment to bridging innovative digital strategy with a personal touch vital to these industries. The episode guides listeners through TIAA's emphasis on capability building, the responsible implementation of AI, and the crucial balance of digital and human elements in sensitive fields.

Hear insights invaluable to the industry as you navigate toward smarter, more impactful approaches to digital evolution within your organization.

Key Takeaways:

    • A design-led strategy that actively involves multiple disciplines allows for the reduction of constraints in thinking, encourages customer-focused innovation, and is crucial for creating exceptional client experiences.

    • Reimagining the client experience has been spearheaded by implementing organizational changes, developing capabilities in data and analytics, and re-engineering a company ethos where employee participation plays a pivotal role.

    • AI offers prospects for increased efficiency and personalized financial advice, but there's a clear need to humanize digital spaces, given the sensitivity of retirement planning.

It's one thing to say you should be more customer-obsessed. It's another thing to help people do that. We use our employees internally as our beta users when working to improve the client experience so our employees are also participants of our experience.

Jessica Austin Barker

Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer, TIAA

Our Guest

Jessica Austin Barker

LinkedIn Website

Jessica Austin Barker is the Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer responsible for driving TIAA’s digital-first client experience and how we serve our clients through financial wellness, advice and analytics.

Prior to joining TIAA, Jessica served for 22 years in roles of increasing responsibility at Intuit, a global technology platform whose household-name offerings include TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, Credit Karma, and Mailchimp. Most recently, she was Vice President, Consumer Group Customer Experience, Intuit’s senior-most executive responsible for TurboTax customer success and retention. Earlier, Jessica held roles in product management, marketing, and business development for Intuit, and she began her career in management consulting with Deloitte Consulting.

Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance from the University of Texas at Austin. She is actively involved in giving back to her community, including serving as an advisor to Support Young Athletes, a youth-led charity organization.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell, and this is Life Accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, more commonly known as TIAA, is a century old financial institution with deep roots in serving educators, healthcare personnel, and the nonprofit sector.

Founded by Andrew Carnegie, the organization's mission is to ensure Americans retire with dignity. Today, that vision is driving the company into a new age of innovation.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer, Jessica Austin Barker, about the design led approach that's reshaping how TIAA interacts with its diverse clientele and the organization's plans to harness the power of AI.

Jessica explains that TIAA is blending the lines between technology and the human touch in financial and retirement planning. She also shares insights into TIAA's quest to reimagine financial advice, centering the client experience and cultivating a co creative environment among their associates.

Here's my conversation with Jessica.

Jessica, tell us a little bit about TIAA, what the company is, what its lines of business are, what its distribution strategy is, where it fits in the market today.

Jessica Austin Barker: Well, TIAA is about a hundred year old company dedicated to helping Americans retire with dignity. And it really started by Andrew Carnegie, who had observed that we had this amazing system of educating people, but yet the educators were not really set up to have a secure retirement.

So it started off with. TIAA serving higher ed, mostly universities, and then extended into other areas of non profits, you know, including healthcare.org's, and K-12. I will also share, because you did ask me about just the customer base, you know, in our model and the question you asked around distribution, we sort of talk about clients in three forms, first being the end participant for whom we are the retirement provider.

So if you're an employee of one of the universities, the hospital, so you're the retiree, the participant, as we would call it. And then we also have clients who are serving that are The institutional clients. So the institutions themselves that are partnering with TIAA to be the provider and the record keeper for retirement and our products, of course, that we serve for retirement.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. So a good introduction begins with talking about the company and then talks about the person. And I find your background really relevant, really interesting. We always ask how your career has prepared you for your present role. And in your case, you spent quite a bit of time focusing on what you might call making an intuitive customer experience for a complex, highly regulated process. Tell us about that.

Jessica Austin Barker: Sure. So prior to TIAA, I basically grew up, if you will, at a company called Intuit, which you may know is the makers originally of Quicken and then many other products, including TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, et cetera. And in particular, when I started looking at this opportunity with TIAA, there was a lot of analog to what we do in TurboTax.

It's likewise a highly regulated industry. And fundamentally, it's about. Taking the complex and simplifying it in a space. That's not unlike retirement and finances. You're working with folks who honestly often are not the experts and they don't necessarily want to be the experts. There's a lot of inherent fear, uncertainty, and doubt because it's complex.

The consequences are material. It's your money. And so there's actually quite a lot of analog and the journey that I had been on for many years at Intuit and largely in the consumer tax business was with TurboTax to then what I saw as a challenge and the opportunity in this grand challenge space of retirement.

Anthony O'Donnell: Okay. So you've spoken about what it means to re imagine financial advice in the digital age. So maybe you can talk to us about how you came to TIAA and the challenge that you faced in achieving that objective.

Jessica Austin Barker: TIAA is an amazing organization, extremely mission based. As you know, this challenge to secure retirement for Americans is probably one of the biggest challenges we have facing us as particularly longevity is going up and people are living longer and not really understanding that part of the reality of what's to unfold with a retirement.

And so in coming to TIAA, there was a recognition that As a hundred year old company, we had created some client experience gap for ourselves and some debt there and really needed to, I'll call it re engineer how we were working, starting with our culture, starting inside out to become more client centric, to take that passion that everyone has around our mission, but then how do you start to apply that in different ways of working in different capability building that we needed and really start to drive forward our aspiration to delight our clients through our experiences.

Anthony O'Donnell: So you went through a kind of diagnostic phase. What were some of the main things that you found there that you felt you needed to address in order to reimagine financial services or financial advice?

Jessica Austin Barker: We started really, you know, with the fundamentals, which I'm sure you've probably heard from others, which is for me, especially being very, very customer backed.

The first thing that you have to do in my view is really first answer. What are the biggest customer problems that you're solving? So are we clear on what are the challenges? What are the problems? And of course, what are the opportunities ahead? So really getting organized around that, as I'd mentioned across our different client, audiences.

So declaring that, which then allows you to really think about how you organize end to end around those customer problem sets. So you can create a culture and a organization where you can allow people to fall in love with the problem and really sort of start to live it viscerally day in and day out with autonomy of those teams to go solve those problems.

And so that was the aspiration is let's get really clear on the problem. Let's organize everyone around that. And then let's start looking at. What are the capabilities that we need that we just don't have today to solve those problems? Fundamentally, that was sort of the framework that I looked at everything through.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. So it seems that you're telling a story of a company that was extremely mission focused, but you had to kind of reorient the mission towards a different kind of goal. Maybe you could elaborate a little bit more about the organizational change that happens when you're reorienting to the customer.

Jessica Austin Barker: Yeah, you know, I'll start with for me again. There's a bit of the, how do you win the hands, the hearts, the minds. So one of the things that we noticed is we did not have, I'll call it the kind of rigor and the repeatability around getting really, really close to the customer. So everything from then realizing, um, We need to re engineer some of the operating rhythm that we have.

Just like you create focus on financials, you create focus on risk, you create focus on operations, also creating that discipline and focus on the customer. So for example, we had our first ever company wide immersive client experience event, we called Client Forward, and we physically deployed this at all of our sites and created a very immersive experience where we took employees through in groups of 25, almost like a museum tour curated type event where they were getting to know all of our different client types, going through all the client experiences, seeing a vision of the future and really enrolling them and how they could be part of this change.

And so that's an example of something that we put in place to inspire and activate. Our organization, then maybe those furthest from the customer, if you will, to start to see what they could do differently in their day to day to help us drive forward this client experience improvement.

Anthony O'Donnell: So the message I'm getting is that we had a committed organization, but you could say that they were mission centric or they were, if you like mission obsessed, I'm thinking of the fact that you like to use the term customer obsessed.

Jessica Austin Barker: Yes, exactly. So it's helping people. It's one thing to say, Hey, you should be more customer obsessed. It's another thing to help people do that. And so building on that event, for example, we're doing some things that continue to reinforce that drumbeat. So whether that be using our employees internally as our beta users, when we're doing things to improve the client experience, all of us as employees are also participants of our own plan, so we can simulate what that's like for real to experience changes. We're going to be rolling out to all of our participants. So we've been doing that and that's been a great way to of course, get feedback, but also enroll our employees. We've got all kinds of new training we've developed, whether it be for new hires and getting them close to customers or whether it be things we're doing to involve people in co creation, which we're doing with many of our partners so that you can allow people again, to just get their hands and start to be involved in the development of the solutions.

Anthony O'Donnell: So how's it going? You've been at TIAA now for, I guess, close to two years. What kind of progress have you seen? Have you seen that commitment be transferred to that different object, that new orientation?

Jessica Austin Barker: I think we're making great progress, which is a real testament to a lot of the employees. And again, I think just translating their mission centric appetite to what it means to be more client centric and activate that. And so for me, we've got some evidence of momentum building, you know, as I'm to your point, coming into year two, we certainly have more to do, but we have filled the gap in a lot of core capabilities that I think have unlocked a lot of insights.

So for example, we had some work to do in building out data and analytics and really wiring data as a product, if you will, which is so important when you think about digital experiences and really being able to understand behavior versus just what people say that they may or may not do. So we've been able to really make a lot of progress against capability building that again, was a bit of a catch up, I will admit, but now that we've got a lot of that foundation built, I think we've given our employees the opportunity to take us into the future.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, you mentioned data. Let's talk about the role of data in your work in reorienting the organization, both in terms of the attitude of personnel and also the technology that you need to be customer obsessed. What are some of the myths that need busting about conceptions of how data fits in the financial advice paradigm?

Jessica Austin Barker: I'll give you some examples of my experience when I joined maybe on two different fronts as any hundred year old company acquires over time, a lot of different data sets, a lot of different data platforms, which then leads to sometimes some questions around what's the source of truth, if you will. So we've had a lot of investment over the last couple of years. Some of my partners as well, and how we're investing in elevating our core data platform, if you will, and making sure that we've got really a great data set to consume, as I said, sort of the product layer for experiences. So a lot of progress has been made there.

On the other side, I'll talk about data in terms of it's one thing to have it and use it in your product experiences to personalize and to be able to, of course, get to more mature things like use of AI models. But the other piece of it is how do you build data acumen, which I think is a big part of how you build client centric strength in your organization for decision making. And so we have invested and again, made a lot of progress in the ubiquity of data access across the organization and allowing people to self serve through data dashboards. That was not something that was really part of the muscle of the organization.

And over the last couple of years now, not only have we developed and published many, many self serve dashboards across the business, but of course, driving adoption is the behavior change and the culture change that you want to see. And it's. Really unlocking and unleashing people to feel like they have what they need to make much more informed decisions and be able to do that much more quickly.

So I'm excited for the progress we made in that space.

Anthony O'Donnell: And how much of a challenge was it to get the data in the right condition for these purposes?

Jessica Austin Barker: It was, and it continues to be for some of it, especially again, with a legacy of a hundred year old company. So it's like anything else, you've got to put the framework around it and work down the list of priorities around the data sets, eat the elephant one bite at a time, if you will.

So it'll be, you know, a continued effort and then you're really never done because you've got to maintain and of course, keep this quality data source ongoing. I think the other interesting maybe myth and thing that I had to uncover coming into this industry, being insurance, being a business to business model, if you will. There were also, I call it well intended, but legacy perspectives around our ability to use and get data from our institutional clients on behalf of the experience that we're providing, of course, for their employees, the participants. And there was some pretty strongly held conviction that these institutions just will never give us data.

They don't want to give us data. They want to make sure it's secure on behalf of their employees, which on the surface, of course, sounds okay. And then if you imagine walking away from the conversation and leaving it there, the implication, of course, is we can't personalize experiences. We really are two hands tied behind our back in terms of being able to advise someone of how they're doing against their retirement goals and their progress against that.

So I share this to say, one of the big things that's had to happen is a bit of questioning some of the truths that were held prior, because interestingly, we found out as we started to really push on that and started to have conversations with our institutional partners, that wasn't the case. And of course, there was expectations around how we secure the data, the use of the data, all of those things you would expect.

But when you talk about the benefit that you can deliver. When you actually have personalized insights and data based experiences, which of course, you know, you expect these days, I expect it's just what we have, then it's a win win. You reshape the conversation. So I think that has been a big area of focus, of kind of re questioning and re examining how the world's changed and how maybe perspectives of old would have moved forward at this point.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. So what you've done is you've reshaped your partnerships with your customers. Just like you had to reorient internally to deliver that customer obsession, whatever you'd like to call it, that customer centricity. You also had to reorient your partners to buy into and participate with you as partners in that endeavor.

And it meant a greater deal of intimacy than they were accustomed to.

Jessica Austin Barker: Yeah. And interestingly, really the, maybe we've even had a recent conversation around. So I think that was part of it. And the beauty of the business that we happen to be in at TIAA and working on allowing people to live with a secure retirement, I think the beautiful part I love about it is it's completely synchronized with what it is that their employer is setting out to do.

So again, it's a win win it's we're all serving the same outcome. It makes these conversations, I think much easier. And when you can just demonstrate the benefit from the customer's perspective in the customer. Everybody quickly aligns.

Anthony O'Donnell: All right. So I would have had to brought up this topic one way or another, many of the things that you've been talking about, including things like decision automation, make it even more relevant.

How does AI fit in with your initiatives?

Jessica Austin Barker: We are embarking of course, on being an AI first company. We are relatively early on our journey. But that being said, I have a few really core principles. You know, we've got a very strong AI policy that we established to ensure that we're approaching this responsibly again, especially as a regulated organization and the context that we're in is very important.

So while we want to work fast and drive innovation in the space, we've got to be very responsible. So this responsible use policy was set out. We have initially focused. I'd say over the last couple of years on applying AI internally, first and foremost to, I know what many organizations are doing, but how do you then use AI to help automate processes internally and really drive the quality up, drive the efficiency up?

So that's been application number one. We have some use cases that we've applied AI as we've started to embark more on the customer experience. And again, that's going to be the place that will, of course, leverage it to accelerate, but we'll have to do that with judiciously and really intentionality, particularly when you think about the space of advice and again, our context, we have to be really thoughtful about how we leverage AI and ensure that the output is the intended output, of course.

And so that's how we're pursuing this.

Anthony O'Donnell: It seems like we're headed for a watershed moment. This all happened very fast and it's still evolving extremely rapidly at the high level of development of the technology and the regulators are still coping with this, but it's clear that it's another one of these technologies that are going to be extremely relevant to what you do, I would imagine.

And I guess what I'm asking you is how you feel like you're getting to a point and it's hard to say precisely when it's going to come, where this is going to become pretty normal, even as it continues to evolve.

Jessica Austin Barker: Yeah, I think absolutely. And I mean, I'm not going to pretend to be out ahead of where it's evolving.

And AI has probably thought about it more than I have. They already know the answer. But yes, I think absolutely. I mean, you've got to keep up, right, for us to be able to ultimately compete, whether it be how AI is going to change how companies are operating. Transformed internally, or, of course, how it unlocks innovation and capability that's for the end user, you've got to get in the game.

And so, yeah, I anticipate much more to come that I couldn't even articulate today in terms of where this is going to push us all. But obviously a lot of exciting opportunity.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, another theme that's related to AI, but not exclusive to AI is as we build up all this technology, as we employ technology more in all our business processes, especially those customer facing processes, is there a danger of dehumanizing the interaction between the company in this case, two companies, right, and the employee.

Jessica Austin Barker: I'll give you my opinion and it's just that. So we will learn through obviously experimentation and hypothesis development, actually with the folks that matter, which are the customers in the end, but. I am a big fan of the intersection between digital and human. And I think we all can kind of imagine things that make complete sense to be fully automated and digitized and it's best for everybody involved and it's a preference.

And then we can imagine that it may be harder to imagine that they'll never need to be any human moments and connection. And especially again, if you go back to this context of retirement. And the emotional element of that, I think when you start talking about, as you know, money and finance and retirement readiness, you get sort of invoke emotions, everything from shame because it's holding up the mirror, maybe the past decisions made or not made that people have a lot of sensitivity and emotion around, and it doesn't feel good all the way to You know, obviously those that are much more on top of it and precise and it's no problem.

It's more operational. But I think when you think about just the realities of the gap that exists today and Americans being ready for retirement, largely speaking, this is something that comes with a lot of concern and emotion. And so for that reason, I personally feel like we're always going to need this marriage of the digital with the human.

Anthony O'Donnell: I completely agree, but I wonder whether it's not such a clear dichotomy, the human and machine, the two are intermingled in a way. For example, I had a very unpleasant experience with a human the other day. And I'm also frustrated that there's not enough automation in some of the self service processes.

I think we've all screamed, speak to a representative into a phone. I guess what I'm getting at is how do you humanize the digital experience? And doesn't that involve just the human input in shaping automation?

Jessica Austin Barker: I'll share a couple of things when you just reminded me in that question. For example, when you look at work that we're doing in the advice space, as many have talked about advice has a bit of a history of being something's financial advice that was available only to those with wealth.

So many have, of course, have been working on how do we make advice more ubiquitously available. And so then you start going down the path of, well, what's the role of digital advice, you know, robo advice, all these things. And so in developing those to tie back to your question, what we have found to be extremely helpful, of course, is doing field follow me homes where you're going and listening to what the advisors are doing, what the financial consultants are doing, and then leveraging that creativity that humans have and that ability to ebb and flow based on inputs, and trying to figure out how you can then programmatize that, if you will, and extend that back in a digital context. And then, of course, vice versa, how do we get more predictive when we see behaviors happening in the digital experiences that may send a signal that say, ah, someone's losing confidence. And at this point, we should really get them to a human to allow them to get across the finish line successfully.

So bi directionally to your point, how can these things learn from each other? And I'll share one other thing from my past that is on my mind as I'm now in this new space, and I feel like there's a applicable analog TurboTax years ago when I first started was a do it yourself only software program, right?

And over time, you know, became the market leader, led the industry, et cetera. So then you start asking yourself, all right, well, how can we now provide services to those who prefer to outsource and do it for me and go to an expert, drop off their stuff, can't be bothered, sign away. So this history of one way or the other, to your point.

It was either digital or it was fully humanized and outsourced. And fascinatingly, if you fast forward and you know, anyone can take a look at this at the TurboTax site. Now, one of the biggest unlocks in being able to address customer unmet need and ultimately being a real success to the growth of the company was when we actually stopped having this vanilla versus chocolate concept and saying, it's either one or the other, the market doesn't exist in between.

So just one or the other. And blended the two and actually had this transition from digital to points of having human interaction versus completely one way or the other. So I share that to say that's the headset I have as I'm leading the teams and working in this space here at TIAA.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, there you go.

There's that fuzzy line and a false dichotomy up to a point. This is a good segue into another topic I wanted to address with you. I know that you're a great believer in design and perhaps we've reached a point where we need to think about design more just because we have the capability to introduce design into a lot of processes.

What are your thoughts on that?

Jessica Austin Barker: Other than the fact that I just love hanging out with designers. I find them to be fascinating people. I think that design, I don't know how you create amazing client experiences without being design led and design led, just to clarify. I think sometimes you'll hear that and they think, oh.

It's only the designers. It's absolutely not. It's a practice that involves multi disciplines to contributing to the process. But fundamentally, I think the almost time about what we've been talking about, which is the role of humans without great design led approach, often you end up creating a really transactional experience again.

Well intended, but often what happens otherwise is folks who are more thinking through the operational lens, thinking through the constraint that becomes the front running team. Principle for the experience versus it becoming a, well, wait a second. Imagine what if, what if this, what is a 10 X better experience you can imagine?

And then let's go figure out how we move towards that. So it's just in my mind, the design led approach really helps minimize the constraint based thinking and sort of the inside out thinking, but instead really infuses the outside in, and that's where you get the unlock on innovation. So it's critically important in my view.

Anthony O'Donnell: So it's really a matter of taking a certain standpoint where you're thinking about the human experience, you're thinking about the customer, and you're taking this transaction which has certain constraints, certain features, but you're making sure that it's humanized. But the whole point of that is because it's a human process that to be easier or more difficult or to be more or less pleasant, you need to introduce that element.

Jessica Austin Barker: Yeah, absolutely. And as you know, there's not a one size fits all, so that's where it gets even more complex. So having the wherewithal to really think about the different audience types you're serving, the meeting them where they're at, whether that be their level of proficiency with the topic in our case, finances and retirement, whether that be their abilities, one in four Americans has some sort of a disability.

And so we are very focused on how we do inclusive and accessible design in our experiences, or whether that be. People's device preference. So all of those vectors, really how we think about the considerations of that in our design and then language being so, so important. And again, words matter, language matters, the emotion you're trying to invoke, at least for me, when I think about our aspiration, which is to delight our clients, that requires not only functionally having the experience be simple, but it has to evoke an emotion.

That is what delight is. So you want to leave people with an unexpected delight. Emotion, positive one, hopefully, which is the design thinking.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, especially when it is, as you discussed earlier, an emotionally charged situation where people might actually need a little bit of reinforcement reassurance.

Jessica Austin Barker: Exactly. So the idea of leaving people with A moment of relief or a moment of surprise in a good way or a moment of confidence or a moment of anxiety is now gone. Those are the things that we will look to to see that type of voice of customer back to know that we've not only simplified it, but we've gone beyond that and they're expressing the emotion we left them with.

And that's how you build word of mouth. You build your promoters, you know, and ultimately, um, know that you're really solving the problem you set out to solve.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, thank you, Jessica. It's been a pleasure having you as a guest on Life Accelerated.

Jessica Austin Barker: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

Anthony O'Donnell: One of the things I found most interesting about Jessica was that during her career, she spent two decades focusing on creating an intuitive customer experience for a complex, highly regulated process.

That experience, of course, was extremely relevant to her work in the insurance industry and specifically at TIAA. One of the most important tasks she faced was to take the passion that associates felt for the company's mission and apply that to working toward a modern customer experience. Jessica talks about a diagnostic process to shape planning and then the arduous work of shifting from mission centric To mission and customer centric from a more purely technological standpoint.

Jessica's team spent a lot of time building out data and analytics. And as she said, wiring data as a product in order to shape better digital experiences, based on an understanding of a customer's behavior. Like most life insurance companies, TIAA is taking an energetic, but cautious approach to AI.

However, the company has established core principles and aspires to be an AI first company. Jessica calls herself a big fan of the intersection of the digital and the human because she believes the complex and often very emotional process of preparing for retirement will benefit from an optimal combination of the two.

To find out more about tackling your own digital transformation check out equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


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