Using Tech to Boost Retirement Savings and the Client Experience: TIAA

Jessica Austin Barker

An expert in organizing and leading cross-functional teams, Jessica Austin Barker, TIAA’s chief digital and client experience officer, plays a key role in the financial services organization’s extensive technology transformation that kicked off two years ago.

It focuses on digital and emerging tech, such as artificial intelligence, to “elevate the client experience” and set people on “the right path for saving early” for retirement, she says.

“Technology is the lifeblood of client experience,” Barker asserts in a recent interview with ThinkAdvisor. “Tech enables you to scale, and it will allow advisors to scale themselves through providing technology and tools.”

TIAA, the retirement plan provider for institutions largely in the area of higher education, emphasizes “helping people understand what they need to be prepared to live through retirement and how … they can ensure that they have some commitment of lifetime income [annuities]” during those years, Barker says in the interview.

When Thasunda Brown Duckett joined TIAA as chief executive officer in 2021, she created the post of chief client experience officer. Barker was hired to fill it the following year.

She had had years in a similar role at Intuit, where she worked for more than two decades and was ultimately promoted to vice president of consumer group customer experience.

In the interview, Barker explains how she has organized TIAA into functioning in a horizontal mode, as opposed to working silo-style in departments.

The new way, she says, provides a “horizontal client experience,” wide-ranging, easier and with greater efficiency for retirement saving.

Barker spoke by phone from San Diego, where she is based. Here are highlights of our conversation.

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THINKADVISOR: How does your team partner with TIAA’s broad technology function?

JESSICA AUSTIN BARKER: Very closely. Technology is the lifeblood of client experience.

TIAA is going through a massive technology transformation, and we’re making tremendous progress.

We’re addressing our technology foundation to get to a great place, while at the same time leapfrogging and investing in emergent technology capabilities so that we’re able to apply those to solve problems for our customers.

We’re investing in areas that feature technology, whether it’s the digital experience, where we can take advantage of the metaverse, or it’s leveraging large-language models and AI.

How does digital make it easier for people to plan their retirement?

Digital will help reach more Americans. Tech enables you to scale, and it will allow advisors to scale themselves through providing technology and tools.

With tech, now they can spend their time focusing more on some of the real value they can bring rather than taking up their time with manual [operations].

So it will allow us, over time, to enable more efficient operating experiences and a platform for those who are advising in person.

But you can also bring that same kind of advice to everybody in a digital way with education and tools that allow scenarios that are personalized.

 What are the challenges?

There are things that are already under way. The biggest hurdle is getting the attention and engagement of people. 

The opportunity that we’re focused on is education and helping engage people in how doing a little [saving] today to make such a difference in helping get people on the right path for saving early.

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When did TIAA’s transformation start?

When Thasunda [Duckett] joined as our new CEO. Largely, our transformation journey with respect to client experience started when I came onboard.

My role was a new one that Thasunda created to elevate client experience.

It’s to advance our digital capabilities and lead and orchestrate the “horizontal client experience” to show that we’re getting out of what organizations can fall into, which is more of the siloed and channel focus only.