Becoming a product manager was actually an accident for Clement Kao. He was a biology major who started his career as a management consultant and never planned to become a product manager. As a consultant he was helping organizations work through data and analytics. Soon he transitioned into the role of a researcher and ultimately a product manager.
Today, Clement is known as the co-founder of PMHQ, a community known to connect product mentors with aspiring and experienced PMs from different parts of the world. He’s written more than 80 best practice articles and has been a featured speaker and writer for more than 70 different organizations. In the last 5 years, Clement has launched 9 multi-million-dollar products, has worked as a Product Manager at Blend, and recently founded Product Teacher. We discussed with him about the digital lending industry, the future, improving Borrowers’ experience, and his learnings as a PM at Blend.
Blend is one of the leading SaaS based digital lending platforms, and already powers 250+ financial institutions- what’s the current focus?
It’s all about making consumer finance better for everyone, including borrowers, lenders, integrators, and other third parties. We want to enable financial institutions to drive mortgage, HELOC, auto loans, personal loans, deposits, credit cards all off of Blend, we call this “standardization”.
One of the things we learned early was – Borrowers are human beings.
It’s not just making it better for the borrower. If there are inefficiencies on the lender side, it doesn’t fundamentally make it faster for them to complete the loan. So, we have to make the lender side really gorgeous, automated, thoughtful, predictive, but then when we do all of that, there are all these other blockers, the other third parties. It’s kind of this entire ecosystem that we really want to plug all into Blend and to really drive that synergy.
We’ve focused and invested hugely on Stronger Cross-sell Offers, Better Predictive Pushes for Borrowers, and Automation, Suggestions, Integrations for Lenders.
What are your top three priorities as the Principal Product manager at Blend?
- Listen deeply to my customers, help them prioritize pains, and drive solutions.
- Partner with design and engineering teams to build scalable, delightful solutions.
- Work with the business to sell and deploy our products.
Do you think borrowers’ trust has increased in digital lenders in the last 5 years?
Yes, we’ve seen a large increase in trust for digital experiences coming from established brands. Borrowers now generally prefer digital over traditional lending. That said, there’s still a large cohort in rural areas or older population who strongly prefer in-person experiences, so we still build for them in a first-class way.
Has COVID19 impacted the digital lending industry? How?
Yes, it has – the need to conduct any process from anywhere in the world has become more crucial, and the need to automate or integrate multiple flows together has become an existential requirement.
Where do you see digital lending in the next 10 years?
Consumers will still need the reassurance that they can get in-person services whenever they need it, but digital lending will empower consumers to live better lives. Whenever you need to make a large purchase, you can stop worrying about financing it, as your own lender will give you the best possible offer and set you up for success. Instead of a “race to the bottom” in terms of loan rates, we should see a “race to the top” in terms of how inclusive and thorough the end-to-end consumer experience will be.
What are the top three concerns of a financial institution today- how Blend solves them?
- Biggest concern is “how can I meet my consumers where they are”, so it’s all about driving time-to-market with digital solutions. Blend’s product solves for online, in-person, and over-the-phone apps, across all consumer finance products. Our borrower NPS leads the industry average, we’re around 60 whereas the industry is around 40. We’ve been able to deploy and roll out for some of the largest financial institutions in the US within as few as three weeks, which is lightspeed in the finance space.
- Second biggest concern is, “how do I keep my customers loyal to me”. Blend’s personalization efforts ensure that customers get rates that are specific to them. And Blend’s cross-sell efforts ensure that customers get the best deals for all of their consumer finance products.
- Third biggest concern is, “how can I evolve my product quickly”. We’re crafting a “configurable experience” platform that will enable lenders to drive A/B tests through Blend, and wire up new integrations with just a few clicks. It requires massive investment because it’s a totally new architecture for us, but we’re eager to keep investing here.
What are your major wins in improving borrowers’ experience?
We’ve enabled borrowers to be able to close their loans remotely now, which has been huge during COVID. We can keep borrowers’ health completely safe, and they can close their loans from the comfort of their own homes, on a schedule that works for them.
Another huge win is automating document collection; instead of having to scan documents into some portal or faxing it to a lender, we can automatically pull in their savings information and they never have to lift a finger.
How does the Blend Loan Officer Mobile App make the job of LOs easier ?
We conducted deep research with loan officers who were on the go, back before COVID. They have a strong need to be able to go to open houses, meet clients on the road, meet real estate agents, etc. LO Mobile app enables them to quickly create leads while they’re in the field. They can easily check the status of their loan pipeline, and quickly issue to-dos to borrowers so that they can keep the loan moving forward.
How significant is it for financial institutions to create a balance between digital and non-digital communication?
Driving omnichannel communications is huge for any financial institution. They have dozens of offerings to borrowers, through email, mail, phone, in person, etc., and it’s crucial that these experiences are consistent and are omnichannel. For instance, Blend’s open APIs enable lenders to deeply integrate with Blend so that a consumer gets the right message through the right channel at the right time. As an example, lenders have APIs to drive paper mail, and they can use Blend Events to identify when a borrower has completed a core task before sending that mail out to the consumer.
What has been your biggest learning as a Product Manager at Blend?
The biggest learning is that the goal of your product is not to get people to use your product. It’s to drive a process change that makes the world a better place for everyone. So, sometimes it’s not just the features that you have, it’s also enabling customers to understand your feature and to partner with them on deploying it in a way that works for them.
I’m really focused on driving behavioral change, not just the metrics because there are human beings on the other side of the product.
What are the prerequisites to be a successful product manager in the fintech space?
I think one of the things that scares people is, “oh, do I need to have a finance background or need to have been an ex-lawyer”. The answer is no. I was an ex-biologist and have not been in finance before. The core is to be thoughtful and mindful, and be eager to learn as much as you can.
You need to be thoughtful and mindful of information security and legal/compliance. That is, you don’t need to memorize all of the laws but you do need to partner with subject matter experts to ensure that you cover all of the bases. And, you can’t just A/B test your way to success because people are trying to run their businesses. So, you need to partner with them to find a way to deploy your solution, and to create tight feedback loops with them.
Find an unaddressed pain and turn into an opportunity where you’re going to be the core person who solves it. And that’s how you unlock a lot of value, not just for yourself, but for all the other people around you.
What is the biggest takeaway from this immensely prolific journey?
The key to success is to find pain and to turn that pain into opportunity. Every career shift and promotion I’ve had is because I found an unresolved pain that mattered to people, and then focused on solving for the pain.
If you’re a growing PM, regularly find out what kinds of pains your hiring manager has or your organization has, and find ways to resolve those pains.
If you’re an aspiring PM, take a step back and stop saying “I want to be a PM”, start asking “why does this company need a PM” and you can gear up better that way. I released a video course called Solving the PM Interview that enables you to think like the hiring company.
Watch the complete conversation on YouTube.