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Can DBS Make Banking Joyful?

Via Forbes : “When one of our guys came up with the idea that our purpose should be to make banking joyful, I nearly threw him out of the room,” said Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, who runs Singapore and Southeast Asia’s largest bank.

Gupta was describing the bank’s transformational journey to become more customer-centric. When the effort was launched half a decade ago, it first focused on process improvements, and later evolved to customer journeys.

After remodeling some branches to be more tech savvy, he was surprised to receive an email from a customer who described her banking experience as, well, joyful.

Since then, this quixotic thing about trying to make banking joyful hasn’t seemed as farfetched after all, according to Gupta. In fact, in the last few years, the notion has “gained resonance” in the bank, and subsequent phases of the transformation plan have focused on aligning the bank’s front and back office staff and processes with delivering not just performance improvements, but such joyful outcomes.

“We’ve had some early successes in embedding our services in customer experiences,” Gupta said, noting that its consumer-facing Home Connect app re-imagines locating, researching, and getting a mortgage as a unified experience when it comes to buying a new home. Last month, DBS also commenced a beta test for DigiBank, which allows utilities and telcos to embed its banking functionality in their platforms.

Digitizing its internal processes has also yielded gains, such as reducing cycle time in trade finance from 5 days to 1 day, and cutting the number of people who are involved in the process by more than half.

But is it joyful?

“It’s as much about transforming our organization, and how we execute,” Gupta admits. “The reason we’ll outperform our competition isn’t because of tech or IP, but because our people believe in what they’re doing.”

This insight has guided the way Gupta structured his approach to innovation, forsaking a stand-alone department or incubator for two teams of employees that have responsibilities for identifying, exploring, and socializing change. A customer experience group serves as an advocate across the bank, while a small innovation group similarly works with operational units to translate those insights into actions.

“Their job isn’t to find the next new thing as much as open minds to discovery,” he said. This also includes inviting startups to participate in hackathons, using the bank’s vision for joyful experience as the anchor for development (and its established back office as the “pipes”).

DBS is helped by the fact that it is the dominant force in Singapore, which Gupta calls “a fantastic place to experiment” and, conversely, by its somewhat small size and footprint — 21,000 people spread across 18 markets — which lets it be agile.

While it faces competition from fintechs, Gupta believes banks continue to have an advantage, noting, “Trust is still a huge deal. It emerges from loyalty, and from consistently excellent service over time.”

For the same reason, he doesn’t think banks can completely forsake the need to have some physical presence, at least for now

“We believe having some terrestrial presence and real-world branding, albeit small, might still be important to make sure people understand we are real, and not something that exists in air.”

This gets at the issue of brand recognition, since much of the digitization and embedding of functionality removes overt occasions to promote the bank’s name.

“Our model is Intel INTC +0.00%,” Gupta explained. “We want customers to appreciate that there’s ‘DBS Inside’ their best experiences, whether at a physical branch or on their smartphones.”

I come back one more time to the joyful thing, and it elicits a chuckle from Gupta.

“Almost three-fourths of the world would rather go to the dentist than to a bank. If DBS is successful in making it less of a painful chore, then we think we can create a very different kind of bank, one that is a joy to bank with.”

Jonathan Salem Baskin is president of Arcadia Communications Lab.

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