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A stylized line drawing of two life-size smartphones open to a money-transfer app, with credit cards poking out from the top, as if being swiped. On either side of the phones are two people, one standing, one sitting, using their mobile devices.

Beyond the public health crisis, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on personal finances, causing poverty levels and inequality to rise globally. One trend that has emerged as a result is the growing role of digital money transfers among people who may not otherwise use those services. It’s created a need for financial sector brands to step up and help by democratizing access to their services via mobile phones.

Western Union is doing that. From the earliest days of the pandemic, innovating the company’s services to meet new patterns of consumer demand was an urgent matter. Many of its 150 million customers worldwide depend on money transfers to pay for food, electricity, medication, and other necessities. Meeting the moment with solutions required Western Union to accelerate its own digital transformation.

Jay Jaffin was just starting his role as Western Union’s chief marketing officer when the pandemic arrived. Recently I talked to him about the company’s rapid pivot to digital this past year, his biggest learnings, and what the future holds.

In side-by-side green circles are two black-and-white headshots of Mike Henry, managing director of U.S. financial services at Google, and Jay Jaffin, chief marketing officer of Western Union.

You stepped in as CMO just as COVID-19 was emerging, and I can’t imagine that a global health crisis was what you’d envisioned for your first 100 days. How did you navigate those early moments?

Jaffin: Our company mission is to enable financial transfers between people anywhere and everywhere; we had a responsibility to continue to deliver on that. Western Union’s typical customers are migrants seeking a better life — not just for themselves, but for their families back home who rely on fund transfers to meet basic needs.

The pandemic’s economic stressors created a situation where more people suddenly needed to send money to family and friends around the world, many of whom rarely use financial services. So we had to figure out how to continue to show up for customers while also ensuring everyone’s health and safely.

Almost immediately, it was clear that with retail stores temporarily closed, digital would need to play a larger role in delivering service to customers. That created a need to act.

What was digital’s role?

Jaffin: Digital was critical in a few ways. First, for continuity of services. Secure, touchless, digital money transfers were a safe, reliable way for people to send funds where they needed to, so we leaned in there.

Hearing from customers helped us focus our messaging on two key ideas: digital convenience and staying safe through contactless funds transfer.

Second, we increased our use of digital media to reach customers and build a feedback loop. We set up virtual war rooms, met with our executive team daily to strategize, and spoke to customers every week to keep a pulse on their needs. Hearing from customers helped us focus our messaging on two key ideas: digital convenience and staying safe through contactless funds transfer.

How did you evolve for digital convenience and safety?

Jaffin: Evolution meant expanding the ways in which customers experience the brand digitally. For example, we began offering an option for telephone money transfer. And on our website, we added new support and wayfinding tools to ensure customers could quickly and easily access information.

We also innovated to make our services more inclusive for customers by creating new ways to send funds digitally and offering real-time digital account payouts. To ensure those approaches were safe and secure, we partnered with governmental organizations to find new and secure ways to verify customers.

Were there tools or technology that were particularly helpful in your transformation?

Jaffin: We engaged with tech partners like Google almost immediately to refine our go-to-market strategy. Data and insights gave us the ability to make important strategic decisions in the throes of what could have been a panic.

Becoming digital first meant we needed to deliver fast, frictionless experiences, especially on mobile.

Best practices were also key. Becoming digital first meant we needed to deliver fast, frictionless experiences, especially on mobile. Improvements that we made to our app’s digital customer experience, for example, helped it become one of the most downloaded apps among our peer set in 2020.

You’re now a year into your role as CMO and leading through a prolonged global crisis. What are the biggest lessons you learned?

Jaffin: Western Union has a culture of innovating to meet customer needs, and the past 12 months have shown us that quick pivots can drive lasting change. My team and I had thought of the future being digital, of course, but the pandemic really forced us to make it a reality for the business. Our digital-first crisis response is helping us evolve into the future.

COVID-19 has brought countless challenges, but it’s also caused us to focus all of our efforts around customers and reground ourselves in our mission.

Lastly, how do you see digital continuing to drive your services in the future?

Jaffin: It’s important for us to continue trying new technology that gets us closer to customers and their changing needs, like advanced analytics and other tools. Strategic partnerships — working with platforms like Google — is a critical piece of that.

As consumer expectations continue to evolve, digital will play an ongoing role in helping financial services brands deliver value to their customers and drive business growth.