The year 2020 changed the way much of the world lives and does business. Scott Johnson, vice president and head of product at Western Union Business Solutions, is working to understand the full effects of the pandemic and how it will shape the future of international payments.
“2020 was a challenging year, and much of 2021 will be challenging too. Our priority is helping businesses out of the pandemic to support them in growing and remaining viable,” he said.
Although he does not know what post-pandemic reality will look like, his team is focused on anticipating needs of customers in the B2B space to improve international business payment processes, and studying global trends is a necessary function of the job. According to Johnson, new technology and business practices around the world resulting from the pandemic have the potential to strengthen global ties. One example, he says, is the rise in businesses hiring remote workers.
“Companies are now empowered to hire from anywhere in the world, and it has potential to impact international payments because we may see increased demand for payments to different countries than we’ve seen historically,” he said.
According to Johnson, understanding his customers’ pain points will always be the best way forward. “Good product development requires a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. We look for real customer problems we can solve, then get creative and look at new tools and current capabilities to solve those problems.”
Although the cross-border payments landscape – and its pain points – can be complex, Johnson says most of the payments industry boils down to just one thing: desire to move money faster.
“We can trace it back to the introduction of faster payments in the United Kingdom. From there, many central banks have entered the instant payments space. As an industry, we are all pushing forward to make it happen,” he said.
Johnson notes the potential for faster payments leads to many other advantages, like the ability to carry more data with each payment. Enough data, he says, can take invoices from a mostly manual process to automating the entire workflow. More data also means added transparency surrounding international payments.
“It takes more visibility to make end users comfortable with moving money across borders,” he said. “Transferring funds internationally used to feel like a black box, where your money disappeared for a couple days… now the data offered by modern application programming interface (API) driven payment technology makes international payments more transparent and simpler.”
Johnson says widespread data integration has been made possible by transformations in the industry like cloud-based systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Open banking is another area he expects to evolve as third parties, like tech companies, receive banking data and use it to create new customer experiences.
Despite the progress, Johnson acknowledges the work still needing to be done in improving international payments, such as finding solutions for complicated routing rules to drive cost efficiency. Receiving money internationally is complicated, he says, because there is not one ubiquitous system in place for routing money. Instead, banks are linked through a correspondent system, which can make moving money more inefficient and costly.
There are also considerations like foreign exchange (FX) rates, which may shift between the time an invoice is received and when it is due. Johnson and his team are developing products geared toward FX risk management to model exposure to FX markets, helping businesses reach the right hedging strategy and price goods effectively.
Through these challenges, Johnson remains focused by continuing to listen to the businesses he works with. “The first, second and third most important lesson in product management is finding real customer problems we can solve. There’s no ‘if we build it they will come’ approach.”
The world of international payments will continue evolving and advancing with changes of technology, business and more interconnected economies. “It’s a continuous cycle of improvement to build better and better tools to help our customers improve their business processes,” he said.
Johnson says the best thing the industry can do is to stay open minded through this change. “In the industry, we come in with our own biases. Our challenge is to look beyond that and focus on the big picture to make sure we find the best ways to help our customers get their jobs done.”
Scott Johnson has worked for various Western Union (WU) business units for nearly 20 years, including Paymap, Speedpay, Custom House, and Western Union Business Solutions. Scott was part of the integration team for WU’s acquisition of Custom House, which was eventually renamed Western Union Business Solutions. He has served in several strategic Operations and Product roles since that time, and he’s currently the Head of Product for the business unit. Scott has helped launch multiple products during his tenure at Western Union Business Solutions, including WU EDGE, the Mass Pay API suite, NGO GlobalPay, and GlobalPay for Financial Institutions.