Building a front end with curb appeal

BMO Financial Group’s roots go back to 1817, but the venerable financial institution isn’t too old to learn some new tricks. Take for example its CustomerConnect project, winner of the Gold Award in the Customer Centricity category at the 2007 Canadian Information Productivity Awards. The project is a great example of a large scale Agile development in action, and its implementation offers many lessons for IT shops of all sizes.

CustomerConnect was born out of the desire to enhance the productivity and revenue generation of BMO Financial Group’s frontline business employees within its Personal and Commercial (P&C) bank branches across the country. Having already replaced the technology behind its teller system, the company was now intent on changing some of the processes supporting staff in sales and customer service roles, performing transactions such as loans, mortgages and lines of credit.

“We talked through the project as an organization – both technology and the business,” said Dave Revell, Senior Vice President, Technology & Operations, Corporate Technology Development. “CustomerConnect was going to be used by 16,000 people in different regions across the country so getting it right with the employees was something that really resonated with everyone. We thought that we could do this better in an Agile environment, where we could kick the tires as we go along.”

Comfortable that they would be able to work through whatever technology issues might arise along the way, the joint decision was taken to go with an Agile approach.


BMO Financial Group was not a neophyte when it came to Agile development. The company had already used it on some multi-million dollar projects. But with a 60 million dollar budget, CustomerConnect was the first large-scale Agile project the company had undertaken. And as such, it meant that a lot of things would have to be done quite differently than they were in the past.

“We had to dramatically cut through the bureaucracy of decision-making that is sometimes found in large companies,” said Revell. “In order to do this we had dedicated teams from the business seconded to the project and co-located with IT resources, including a fully dedicated business and technology executive.

The integrated business/IT team focussed on the monthly production of deliverables that were subsets of the overall project deliverables. Rather than having each module subjected to a lengthy signoff and approval process, the business team was empowered to make the final call. “We went through an interactive process of coming up with a new set of deliverables every month. We involved all the staff groups at head office and did customer focus groups across the country because of regional differences,” said Revell.

“It was a bit of a leap of faith for the technology organization,” he admitted. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re spending 60 million dollars on this project and we have to put this thing all together and integrate it at the end. Dear God, I hope it works!’”

Not to worry. When all was said and done, Frank Techar, President and CEO, P&C Banking Canada, said, “Based on improved customer experience and capacity creation, CustomerConnect was one of the most successful technology projects I’ve seen during my career. It’s making a real difference in allowing us to meet and exceed the needs of our customer.”


Before CustomerConnect was rolled out, customers walking into a branch faced a time-consuming process if they wanted to do different things, such as set up a chequing account and obtain a credit card. The customer’s name and information would have to be taken redundantly, leading to frustration and lost business. And to make matters worse, the customer’s information could be captured differently by different systems, leading to data quality problems.

With its redesigned front end, this cumbersome and problematic approach has been replaced with a streamlined process that the company calls its ‘Customer Welcome’ offer.

“When the customer comes in now, we take the information once and it propagates through all the back-end systems,” said Revell. “And in the background there is some automated decision technology that does all the necessary pre-approvals, so when the customer signs up for a chequing account, for example, she is pre-authorised for a line of credit, if that’s something she’d like. And we can offer her a Mosaik MasterCard to go along with it.”

CustomerConnect also provides a more seamless interaction between the customer, the branch and the call centre. Now when a customer wants a new service or has a problem that needs following up on, all the information is captured in one way and is available to staff on other channels.

“Once you’ve swiped your card and you’re identified as a customer, staff in the branch will know of an interaction you have had with the call centre,” said Revell. “They know the opportunities you may have spoken about and they can pick up the conversation seamlessly and recognise what your previous interactions with the bank were.”


In the early stages of the project, the company spent a lot of time up front, understanding the business problem.

“We weren’t just designing technology to go over top of the existing process. There was significant business process redesign,” said Randy Oswald, Senior Vice President, P&C Development. “We asked our front-line employees questions like: What flow would you like to have when you’re dealing with a customer? What would make the most sense to you, forgetting about what you do today?”

The upfront mapping and storyboarding phase was critically important because it involved both documenting the ‘as is’ processes, including the technology limitations around them, and mapping out the ‘to be’ processes.

“At some stage, as we started to flow into requirements, we wound up with a very robust set of storyboards. Before we developed a line of code we knew that this is how the process should change, here is where the opportunity is to shrink it, and here is the transitional flow, including a rough view of what screen images will look like or what that experience could look like,” said Revell. “That whole upfront portion made a big difference. It really helped us to be able to define what we wanted before we started development.”

Revell said that the amount of time and money spent on the upfront requirements was more than the company had expected and budgeted for, but that it was well worth it.

“One of the things we learned about large-scale Agile development was that the upfront requirements are more intense and more interactive than they are on other projects. There’s this intense interaction on a monthly basis as you’re looking at things and trying to find out, ‘Is this what you meant?’ There’s a lot of iterative work and then a lot of work bringing in people from the field to look at what you’re developing.”

The good news is that the heavy up-front investment is offset by money saved on other pieces of the project, because of the exceptionally high quality of the work being produced. In the end, CustomerConnect came in on time and on budget.


Following many months of iterative development, the company began pulling everything together, piloting CustomerConnect in different regions and then testing the results. Then it was time for the cross Canada rollout.

“We put together the rollout plan, identifying a certain number of branches in each region that would be affected and when the rollout would take place,” said Revell. “Then a SWAT team would hit them, which included people from their own region who had become local experts on CustomerConnect. They would help to do the deployment and the training. Later on we’d go back to those regions and they would have their own set of knowledge experts in the system.” Revell said that the rollout went smoothly in part because the company had developed a kind of methodology that enabled it to gauge how much change a branch can absorb in a given period. The methodology is run by the business and includes both technology and non-technology components.

“The challenge has always been not to choke branches on so much stuff that productivity would be impacted,” he said. Now the company builds a calendar that looks at what’s going to get implemented in the branches over the course of the year, and plans are scaled in relation to the amount of impact they will have on the employees.

“We listed CustomerConnect as a large change initiative, based on the amount of people that needed to be trained and the effort involved,” said Revell. “During the rollout, we geared the amount of change hitting the branch to make sure it would be below the threshold that could be absorbed. That meant fine-tuning the timing of things like new programs, product launches and communication campaigns.”


As the project was such a large one, a scorecard was used to keep track of all the things that needed to be measured.

“If you’re trying to save a certain amount of time per day, you can’t go out and measure that at every individual branch,” said Revell. “We had key processes that we expected to be improved out of this where we could put in links to indicate reductions in time. We also did things like tracking the number of hits against a database. For example, because we’d integrated various processes, the hits on our customer information file went down 25 percent.” He cautioned against waiting until the end of the project before trying to figure out how to measure it. Before the project begins, he advised, you have to figure out some of the things that are going to be measurable, as well as some of the things are going to be testable.

“In our P&C bank business right now the biggest thing we’re working on is a rejuvenated and re-energised approach around getting more customer-focussed,” said Revell. “Ultimately it’s improving the experience for the employees who are serving their customers – reducing the time they must spend in dealing internally with the bank and giving them more time to have conversations with the customer.” It is estimated that the project has given frontline employees an additional 40 minutes a day to engage in meaningful customer conversations.


Given the chance to do a large project over again, most IT executives would come up with a pretty long list of things they would do differently. In the case of CustomerConnect, Revell’s list is a short one.

He said that because of such things as budgets and timing issues, the project was planned in phases, each with a discrete set of deliverables. Moving on to the next component will, to some degree, mean restarting.

“We’ve built a tremendous platform that we can grow on out in the branch. The challenge for us will be to determine how best to build on this platform. If we can chunk future work into a continuous stream of small deliverables that continue to build on the program there’s no doubt we’ll see the bank move even further along its journey as a leading customer-focused organization.”

SIDEBAR: Making a big Agile project work

Having successfully completed a large-scale Agile development project, BMO Financial Group’s Dave Revell offers some tips to other IT executives facing similar tasks.

1 You can’t do this apart from the business, by throwing requirements over a wall. The collocation and mingling of team members is critical. This includes people from the business, technology, process designers, and other partners. You’ve got to put everyone together.

2 Before you start casting around to find the perfect technology solution, get clarity around the business objectives. Work with the business to understand what the problem is that you’re trying to fix.

3 Take a process view when you look at things. Rather than just layering technology over an old business process, which may not have been designed correctly in the first place, find out if that process really is the best way of doing things, given the opportunity for it to be redesigned.

4 Empowerment of the business/technology team is essential. You have to give them the authority to make decisions on their own without having to go back to the bureaucracy.

5 On an Agile project, everything happens much more quickly and in a condensed period of time, so you have to have all the resources there. You can’t have them coming in and out at different times.

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