USAA Federal Savings Bank traditionally has occupied an unusual position that almost requires it to be an early adopter of digital financial services. Its military-heavy customer base always is on the move and often in geographic circumstances that don’t allow multi-channel banking.

As such, the San Antonio-based institution had to add Web and mobile-banking services such as payments and deposits before most other banks did.

That makes the $99 billion-asset institution an inadvertent window into the future, allowing a view into the frontier of digital financial services and its accompanying growing pains.

This week, the bank reported a dramatic spike in mobile use. The number of times the bank’s customers used USAA’s mobile tools grew 127% in 2011, and customers downloaded the bank’s mobile and Apple Inc. iPad apps 1.6 million times. They also used USAA’s apps more than 2.5 million times to shop for a new vehicle and auto insurance, nearly a 50% increase from 2010.

The bank says that nearly half its customers own a smartphone, and the nature of their military jobs is rapidly creating an environment in which the smartphone will be the entire point of contact for the majority of the bank’s customers.

To respond, USAA recently debuted person-to-person payments on its Android app, enabling customers to pay most others with an email address or mobile phone number. The bank plans to add this service to the Apple iPhone in the next couple of months. Other new features include a USAA rewards credit card that enables users to view and redeem points via their mobile device.

Moving ahead, the bank, which has a mix of browser, Android, iPhone and Windows apps, plans a new marketing and sales strategy that will specific to the mobile channel. It’s also plotting expansions to its mobile payments aimed at simplifying user experience.

Neff Hudson, assistant vice president of emerging channels, on Feb. 13 spoke about these plans, how the maturation of the mobile channel affects the institution’s strategy, and the lingering uncertainty of contactless standards that is making the bank reluctant to choose a specific technology to enable handset payments.

What’s driving the growth in mobile-banking use?

Hudson: The biggest force behind what we’re seeing is the consumer adoption of the technology itself. Nearly half of the public now has a smartphone, and that usage is higher in the USAA customer base. In the past few quarters, it’s seemed that everyone that’s wanted a smartphone has purchased one.

Has this expansion in use continued into the new year?

Hudson: The growth is increasing even more. In the past week, we had 6 million log ins. It’s clear to us that sooner rather than later, mobile will be the primary transaction channel for our members.

How does this maturation change your strategy for mobile?

Hudson: The strategic implications are huge. Mobile has been a customer service platform thus far, but people are starting to do initial searches for products and services on their mobile devices now, which impacts the content that goes into the channel.

What is your response to these changes?

Hudson: In 2012, we are building our sales and marketing infrastructure on mobile. It will be different than what we are putting onto other channels, because these devices are so intimate, they are more personal devices. So that impacts what you put on them in terms of marketing.

You don’t want it to be intrusive and too marketing heavy in the messaging. You are much better off using an opt-in approach [consumers decide to receive messages, which are tailored to their relationship with the bank]. Our sales and marketing platform will be more of a services-based approach, based on the financial services needs of individual members. It’s a tall order and it will take time to build in a way that doesn’t affect customer experience.

How are you enhancing payments capabilities?

Hudson: We’re looking at how to create value as the phone becomes a payments device. The early stage stuff is expanding our person-to-person payments capabilities. We have two forms of P2P–a partnership with PayPal and a member-to-member payment network.

We are making that a single interface to simplify execution. We also recently introduced our mobile rewards redemption service, which saw five million redemptions in a matter of a few weeks.

Are you adopting a specific technology for your contactless payments, such as NFC or barcode?

Hudson: I think that’s the billion-dollar question, what kind of tech wins there? It’s really a matter of what customers and merchants will embrace and how the payments ecosystem will adjust to that. We’re hedging our bets and piloting the different ways that mobile payments can be executed.

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