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04/13/2013

Insider Insight, Volume I: The Financial Sector

Author: Brice Le Blévennec

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François Gillon is head of e-Channels at Deutsche Bank Belgium, in charge of defining the bank’s overall digital strategy.

 

I met François at his ‘Porte de Namur’ office to discuss what’s happening in the financial sector on the digital front. It quickly turned out that my perception of banks and bankers was stuck somewhere in the eighties. Forget about grey men in dark suits who are more technophobic than your grandparents. A new generation of e-bankers is out there; they are young, creative, and they’re probably working on the next technology in the market, while you’re reading this interview.

 

Mr Gillon, as someone who has seen the transformation of a bank from the pre-digital era, what was it like for a bank to immerse itself in a new world of fast-evolving technologies?

More and more, banks need to think like start-ups in terms of how fast they can understand clients’ needs and come up with adequate solutions. They have learned that they have to be agile, not only on the business level but also when it comes to IT. Technology is evolving fast and it is key to select and implement the ones that allow you to deliver a better customer experience. Delivery times also matter. If developing a new mobile app takes 12 months, by the time it is released it is no longer relevant.

This is even truer when it comes to mobile applications than to [web] online banking. Apps need to be updated very frequently, almost on a monthly basis, as opposed to online banking enhancements that often occur between 2 and 4 times a year. Users are becoming more and more demanding; they get used to their new features very quickly and they are waiting for the next ones.

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I see both a Blackberry and an iPhone here on your desk. Are you a high digital consumer in your spare time as well? Can I tell my readers that I found a fellow-geek?

(laughing), maybe I am! It’s just that I’m really passionate by how technology can improve people’s lives. I especially believe in mobile and its way to deliver immediate content and make our lives easier.

I’m curious by nature so I always try to understand the next technological trends. I follow closely a whole range of forums and wiki sites on digital, I even volunteer to try new beta technologies… When I come to think about it, I’m a client of six different banks in Belgium just so I could experience their digital services. For me, the only way to understand technology from a consumer’s perspective is by consuming it myself!

We keep hearing about the financial sector in the context of the current crisis. But what are the sector’s main challenges when it comes to its digital services?

One of the main challenges of our industry is that banks became a pure commodity; to the extent that it has become hard for clients to even differentiate one bank from another. They all offer similar services at similar rates. When the service and the price are similar, banks’ ability to stand out is geared toward improving the client’s experience.

The competition is developing over which bank offers the best service, adapts to the clients’ needs and understands their priorities. So our next challenge is really about how we build this unique experience of added value. We see it in the development of branches and call-centres which are more and more experience-oriented. When it comes to digital services, my role is to ensure they are highly efficient, effective, insightful, and even enjoyable.

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 You are describing the use of technology to enhance the user’s experience. What are the main digital trends which you recognise in the financial sector?

If you examine clients’ interactions through the bank’s call centres or branches, you will notice they are highly qualitative because clients get personalised recommendations provided by skilled advisors who know whom they are talking to. Online banking services, however, are mainly transaction-oriented, offering the same information and services to all clients. Banks do recognise that there is a shift in touchpoint usage towards the digital channels, especially among younger clients. They are therefore aiming at raising the level of service of e-channels to that of the traditional channels.

One of the principles which guided us in the conception of our next generation e-banking services, as coined by Forrester Research, is called CARS. It abbreviates the necessary characteristics of the future digital experiences, namely: customised, aggregated, relevant, and social.

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So how does each of these values translate into concrete services?

Customisation is not only about showing the client personalised information, but also contextualising the content to where it makes most sense. Aggregation is about grouping all the information that matters under one roof (or into one dash-board). Some banks, like Citibank in the US, went as far as allowing their clients to integrate information from accounts they have with other banks, into their Citi’s online banking. Relevance is about making sure I offer the client information which is likely to be of interest at this point in time. If the client just signed a mortgage, there is no reason to try to offer her a new one… Finally, when it comes to social, there is still great room for development. In the meantime, we see banks offering their clients insight on how they are performing financially, in comparison to other individuals of a similar social background; or banks encouraging their customers to spread a good word about their banks, using social networks.

 So where is Deutsche Bank in all of this?

We constantly invest in making our online platforms as intuitive and engaging as possible; focusing on clarity and simplicity. Amazon became the ultimate online book store because of its technical model, offering an end-to-end service from easy browsing to efficient order execution. This is what we are trying to do for banking services, offering clients convenience in the way they are served, independently of the channel. Becoming a Deutsche Bank client, for instance, can now be done from our website, without even visiting the bank! Emakina helped us to explain this process in a funny and simple way by creating a digital info-graphics.

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How does your digital agency comes into the picture?

Deutsche Bank has much less branches than the major players in the Belgian financial sector. We therefore need to compensate for our physical absence by offering the best digital services which could exist. Technology enables us to overcome our size. However, we should keep in mind that technology is a means and not an end. A new feature should be introduced when, and only when the organisation is ready for it. Once we’re ready, we need to have it implemented in a fast, simple, engaging & reliable way.

One of the online tools Emakina built for us, allows clients to compare the fees they would pay at each bank. We made sure it was a complete, open, and transparent comparison, even mentioning competitors which ranked better than Deutsche Bank.

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This is again linked to the digital agency you work with. Can you tell me how you went about picking Emkina?

Emakina is very well-known in the market and enjoys great reputation, among others, for the quality of its execution and high responsiveness. It was important for us to pick an agency which would help us being agile and adapt very fast to our clients’ needs. The advantage of working with an agency like Emakina, which has a very strong footprint in the market, is its proven experience. This can be used to build a knowledge base and learn from its best and worst past practices.

When we picked Emakina, we knew we were choosing a partner and not just a service-provider. The difference is that a partner can go beyond responding to requirements but can intervene proactively to our strategic priorities and show empathy. We were not looking for an agency which would simply execute whatever we ask without challenging and asking important questions. A partner needs to understand where we want to go and propose various ways to reach that goal.

Emakina: So what are your conclusions from this partnership so far? Would you do things differently in the future?

We’ve been measuring the impact of the tools developed by Emakina, and so far we are very satisfied. The campaign which illustrated the ease of switching to Deutsche Bank has generated satisfying figures on new joiners from other banks.

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It takes time to build a high level of confidence among partners. Now that we know each other so well, we need to see how to best leverage our ability to work so well together. We need to make sure we do not become complacent about our performance. A good actor feels the stage freight even when playing for the 100th time . We also need to make sure that every project we execute together, we treat as if it is our first collaboration, treating it with our utmost seriousness and responsibility. That is a value that we try apply ourselves and that we expect from our partners.

If you imagine the collaboration between partners as a curve, you can often see it rising until reaching a climax, and then starting to decline. We now reached an intimate level of trust. We need to make sure we maintain that level!

 

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Let’s talk about the future. What kind of digital services would you like to see in 10 years’ time?

Digital services are evolving so fast that predicting where we’ll be in 10 years is practically impossible. I think, however, that our future services will make better use of our data on clients. Banks can know a great deal about their clients, even by simply analysing purchase habits with credit and debit cards, or banking activity. So far, banks have not made enough use of deriving useful insight for clients, based on this data.

Existing websites advise clients on where to make the best purchase of an item. When it comes to banks, they could offer recommendations on which payment method would be the most advantageous for a given client at a given situation (i.e., credit, debit, cash, etc.). It’s not always easy for the client to know by herself which card to pull out of her wallet. In other words, the combination of the bank’s data on its clients and the clients’ needs should bring about new finance management tools which would advise in such situations. These tools can also teach clients how to save and spend better to attain their goals.

Another example is personalised market research. Mobile operators have systems which check and match the best plan for each client. Banks should do the same and develop automated tools to match banking plans for different types of clients.

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My last question is a bit hypothetical; if you had an unlimited budget and no structural constraints, what would be your dream (digital) project?

You might be disappointed by my answer but I would do exactly what I do now. Working with constraints forces you to be creative. In complete freedom, our thinking often becomes banal as we don’t need to make any special effort. Some of the best ideas were born out of looking for solutions to existing constraints. Instead of fighting my constraints I try to find inspiration in them. Problem solving happens to be one of my favourite activities…

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