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Innovating for Customers

Oct 11, 2011 / Technology

Making life easier for customers – that’s the key principle underlining the innovative products and services that emerged as winners in the 2011 BAI-Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards. Spain-based “la Caixa,” Australia’s UBank, New Zealand-based ASB Bank and Citibank U.S. all introduced innovations that improved convenience and ease-of-use for customers.

“la Caixa” won the Most Innovative Bank of the Year Award for developing first-in-market products and services focused on a model of universal banking. “la Caixa” has a strategy of multi-channel operations that enables the efficient combination of cutting-edge technologies with high quality employees to provide the best and most complete service to the greatest number of clients. “la Caixa’s” culture of innovation includes an innovation framework and processes that are supported by all levels of management with an organizational strategic plan focused on leadership and growth, both nationally and internationally. “la Caixa’s” management model allows for innovation across the institution within the product portfolio in order to meet the ever-evolving needs and preferences of customers.

UBank won the Product Innovation Award for its online home loan product known as UHomeLoan, launched in February 2011, which enables customers to complete a home mortgage refinancing with just a few clicks, taking out most of the paperwork and hassles associated with that activity. Customers can submit their application online and receive a decision of whether they can continue to the next stage in under half an hour. Other key benefits for users of the product: loyalty discounts and fully transparent tracking of the progress of loan requests. UBank reports that over 95% of its customers to date have submitted their full loan application online.

The Service Innovation Award was captured by ASB’s Virtual Branch on Facebook, an application that enables real-time, secure and private one-to-one conversations with the bank’s banking specialists on its Facebook page. The service is free to all members of the public, wherever they can access Facebook, and is staffed by up to nine specialists depending on how many customers are on the site at any particular time. Customers or non-customers can ask anything from how to apply for a home loan to changing currencies for an overseas trip. As the company put it, “ASB took the branch to where the community is, making it easier and more convenient for customers to do banking and have conversations with our specialists.”

Citibank’s Smart Banking branch, by contrast, is a physical branch with virtual characteristics. It provides a new way to serve customers by assembling an array of interactive technologies within the walls of the branch, such as a “sales wall” (touch screens that enable customers to easily obtain information about products and services), video conferencing and a “work bench” (touch screens that provide access to accounts so customers can complete their banking tasks at their own pace. While customers are in the branch, they can enjoy the “media wall,” a large, multi-screen LCD system displaying the latest weather, news and financial data. As a new kind of branch built around the way customers actually live, Smart Banking branch won the Disruptive Innovation award.

As can be imagined, developing these innovative products and services required much hard work and a willingness to take risks. Below we provide interviews with executives at the four winners who detail the processes involved. They are Anna Curzon, general manager, Internet Banking at ASB Bank; Isidro Faine, chairman of “la Caixa”; Chris Kay, head of ventures, Citi Ventures at Citibank U.S.; and Alex Twigg, general manager at UBank.

Q: What are the key challenges you faced in developing your innovative product and how did you overcome them?

Curzon: ASB’s Virtual Branch on Facebook, a world first, meant that the project was breaking new ground and there were often no precedents to turn to when issues popped up. We really had to adopt a truly collaborative approach, getting the right people onboard, to ensure creative solutions could be developed quickly and deployed smartly. By bringing together a cross functional team representing a number of teams within the bank – Marketing, Internet Banking, Contact Centre and the branch network – we launched the Virtual Branch in very short timeframes and delivered a successful outcome.

Faine: “la Caixa” bases its activities around three key elements, employees, customers and technology, with the aim of consistently developing innovative services to help our customers, as well as the bank’s employees in their day-to-day operations.

In this regard, “la Caixa” sees innovation not as a mere project, but one of the fundamental mainstays of the bank’s corporate culture. This ongoing innovation has seen “la Caixa” implement consistent technological improvements, making it a leading operator in online banking, mobile banking and electronic banking, not only because it has the largest customer base in Spain, but because of the high-quality and accessible services it offers to users.

Kay: Designing a new experience for the customer required that we reexamine and question how we typically do things – reengineering and simplifying processes, designing new experiences based on deep customer research, new staffing models, new products and services and a crisp technology layer to deliver a simple user experience. The level of complexity required committed cross-disciplinary teams – including our Citbank Japan team, our innovation and venturing unit and Citi’s technology experts – all of whom worked collaboratively to ensure success.

Twigg: UBank is effectively an eRetailer that sells financial services. Our philosophy on developing new products and services is to build and deploy them within the culture of an eBusiness, not a traditional bank. We understood that creating a great online user experience was crucial to the success of the UHomeLoan. It is the little things that matter.

Q: How does this innovation help your company?

Curzon: ASB is always looking at new and innovative ways to better serve our customers and to make the service experience the best it can be. New Zealanders are increasingly using social media and it has become an everyday part of many of our customers’ lives. By adding Facebook and other social media channels, customers and potential customers can choose to connect with ASB in the ways they are most comfortable with, whether it be by branch, the contact center, mobile banking, ASB’s FastNet Internet banking or now the ASB Virtual Branch on Facebook.

The Virtual Branch on Facebook has enhanced ASB’s relationships with customers, just as we do via traditional conversations that take place in our branches, and it’s an amazing way to bring back the “personal touch” to our electronic services.

The Virtual Branch on Facebook has been very successful in helping ASB to lead the way in social media and our efforts are now recognized on a global scale. The innovation supports our vision to deliver unbeatable service to our customers and helps build a culture of innovation at ASB Bank giving our people the confidence to look for solutions that really aim to address customer needs.

Faine: We are convinced that innovation is a strategic element of solid and long-term economic development, as in the current global environment creating economic value can only be sustainable if companies optimize their ability to generate new ideas that will find demand in the market, sell these ideas and adjust their service offer to changing market conditions.

Therefore, we at “la Caixa” aim to promote the innovation ecosystem and involve employees in this culture, as it is these employees who are at the heart of the organization and who are in contact with customers and their potential needs.

Kay: Our Smart Banking branch teams have seen significant growth in customer satisfaction and acquisition. We’ve also benefited through productivity improvements and increased external recognition in Asia and the U.S.

Twigg: UHomeLoan is crucial to the progression of UBank into a full-service bank. As we add new products and services, we aim to deliver these with an element of innovation which sets them apart from what is available on the market today. What is probably most pleasing about the launch of UHomeLoan is that over 95% of customers applied online. This surpassed even our highest expectations. However, it is fundamental to creating the type of operating model which allows UBank to offer our customers outstanding value.

Mr. Cline is managing editor of BAI Banking Strategies. He can be reached at [email protected].