Insights from Asian COO leaders on future-proofing platforms and operations

The pandemic has forced many financial institutions to accelerate the digitalisation of operations. Whilst this fast adaptation to digitalisation has brought speedy success to many, there is still a long way to go for banks and other financial institutions when it comes to positioning and preparing themselves for the future and the next generation of clients to come.

To explore the topic, Apiax joined a panel of Chief Operations Officers (COOs) in Asia to discuss future-proofing their platforms and operations and the development of digital tools in the APAC region. The webinar also touches on how to boost relationship managers’ (RMs) capabilities, how to improve the overall client experience, and what COOs are prioritising for 2022 and beyond—some of which will be outlined in this article. 

Challenges and strategies for future-proofing platforms and operations 

The last two years have impacted the wealth management industry greatly. That said, honing down the best digital tools to fit company practices and processes, combined with the new and emerging client needs has been a challenging task, as expressed by the panel. And it is often in the hands of COOs to pick out the right technology with which to curate and execute bullet-proof strategies and well-thought processes and do so in a timely manner. 

In the webinar, the COOs from Asian financial institutions (FIs) outlined major challenges they have come across and the strategies they implemented: 

Talent hunting in a competitive market

Attracting and retaining talent when competition is fierce between banks is a challenge many COOs share and is imperative for Asia’s wealth management future. As Sonjoy Phukan, Global COO Bank of Singapore, expressed, “the question is how to retain existing talents and motivate them, especially when there are other places they could go”. 

“There is an increasing challenge in attracting tech talents and we see this market friction remaining”, Long Doan, COO at BNP Paribas Wealth Management Asia, explains. “Banks are no longer as attractive as we used to be as the economy is far more diverse in the region these days, and there are more competitors to attract these key people”, Long Doan added. The ever-growing restrictions around mobility that the pandemic brought about affect work permits, shrinking the talent pool even further.

A big part of retaining talent is to support employees with continuous training to better help them understand and cater to new client needs. “We need the technology to support our growth plans, and we need automation to make us more efficient, especially with the costs of compliance, checks, and controls today“, Carol Chan from Lombard Odier Asia explained. “We need the right people in the right structure. We want to create a more agile organisation, and as part of that, we need to keep upskilling and training team members upgraded continuously” she added.

Combining the capabilities of talent and technology can help retain talents. As Alan Blanchard, Head of Business Development UK at Apiax puts it: “People often have in mind cost-saving goals and revenue increases and risk reduction, and there is nothing more frustrating than the technology stopping people from doing their job. And if that is the case at a bank or other organisation, people will then quickly decide they’re going to go work somewhere else” he added. 

The importance of being agile

What also brings success to a company is its adaptability and agility to situations that even the best talent and technology cannot always deliver. When asked what agility means to her, Carol Chan from Lombard Odier Asia explained that “being agile means being adaptable, flexible, being able to accommodate to demands, and being able to also accommodate the regulators’ demands”. Adaptability and the time to deliver are equally important, she continued, as “sometimes technology cannot deliver things at the speed that we want”.

Being agile can also help banks in the way they deliver their offerings and services. Sonjoy Phukan from the Bank of Singapore shared how the way they used to carry out processes has changed in the last few years. “If I look back a few years ago, the number of things we used to do versus the number of things we can do today is completely different. Having a structure in place where business and technology work together, from product ownership, funding mechanism, objectives, and key results, I can say we are agile at a delivery level, but I now want to do it at the scale of the organisation”.

For Jeffrey Wong from Hywin International, the main business strategy is to grow products with platforms and through that create more shareholder value. “We blend in our middle office, back office, and that way orchestrate different product occurrences. We need to be able to design a process and the product offerings in the institutional space”, Jeffrey Wong explained. “And to keep family offices within our agile platform we selected providers, third party distributors in an agile flexible area so we can reduce the number of capitals we are in”, he added. 

Scalability and how to implement it 

Banks need scalability to offset rising technology, people, and compliance costs. Meaning that if a process is not simple it is therefore not scalable. This is particularly important when scaling platforms, Jeffrey Wong affirms. “At Hywin International we have 130k clients that we manage on a daily basis and we still see a lot of human interactions for high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs), which involves a lot of ‘hand holding’. And with mass segments, we need more scalable platforms”.

On the implementation of scalability, it was reiterated how FIs must first fully understand the client and build from there. “We need to ensure that in our banking environment, we have straight-through processing for more plain-vanilla products and solutions, whilst we focus skills and talent on the more complex processes, the higher touch point products,” Carol Chan explained. “You have to look at your STP rate, how complex that process is, and simplify. The key is to make your processes simple”, she added.

Understanding client needs and improving customer experience

Every client is different and the client experience is unique to each one. “We need to understand our clients’ needs today and prepare for the future. We need to deliver what they want and not impose what we want”, shared Carol Chan, COO at Lombard Odier Asia. 

To ensure accurate delivery of products, platforms must develop and improve as client needs grow and evolve. Using technology to revolutionise the offerings and efficiencies of RMs allows them to be more client-centric and focus on adding value to their offerings, a view that many of the COO panelists shared. “Any transformation has to be linked to the satisfaction of clients. Spending a lot of money is fine only if at the end our clients are happy with the platform”, Sonjoy Phukan from the Bank of Singapore added.

Client expectations around the platform are growing and banks need to keep up and develop their offerings. “Technology is really vital to elevating the RMs capabilities, efficiency, and satisfaction, and to boost the end-client experience too,” expressed Sonjoy Phukan. “It is important we elevate the experience internally and externally. It is not one or the other, they are connected. We need automation, personalisation, and bespoke solutions. In our model, the RM will always remain central to the operating model but increasingly empowered with technology and data, which translates to a better customer experience”, he added.

For example, if you take over the scheduled transfers (ST), the product becomes a commodity, technology becomes a commodity, we are all probably dealing with similar tech stacks and similar products. I think what you want to be able to provide is the ability to serve the client in the best possible manner, to provide the best CX. In order to do that, we have to make our RMs as productive as possible”, added Sonjoy Phukan. 

Boosting client relations through productivity

Sonjoy Phukan explained how the Bank of Singapore is improving its front office productivity to allow their RMs to have more time to focus on clients. “We are spending time with our RMs to understand how they spend their day, identify pain points, close them off, and act to save a certain amount of time every day. By adding these things up, RMs will start to see the benefits, and therefore clients will start to see the benefits as well. Underpinning all of that is technology and data, a basic enabling infrastructure that we need to build together” he explained. 

The same goes for client relationships. “If you want to know your clients really deeply, you need to spend time with them. The product is mostly commodity, it is the relationship between the bank and the client that is important”, Sonjoy Phukan added.

It’s not only the productivity of the team but also the productivity of the support function that leads to better client experience and satisfaction expressed Long Doan from BNP Paribas Wealth Management Asia. “The technology is improving so fast that if you don’t modernise the IT backbone, sooner or later your solutions to improve employee and customer experience are outdated” he explained. On the other hand, IT can only do so much and cannot always manage the complexity that financial firms have to deal with.

Personalised data and platforms

To ‘wow’ clients banks will often use personalised data, content, analysis, products, and ideas to enhance their offering. However, this is not always so straightforward when trying to make data relevant and timely. At the Bank of Singapore, Sonjoy Phukan explains how they “send the data to the RMs first so they can know what’s going on because they are essential to the transaction” as this personification of content and data is crucial to creating better client experiences.

Moreover, banks are seeing increasing demand from clients and from employees on what they expect from a platform. “The paradigm has slightly shifted, and we are still trying to understand that, and the capability to self-serve, to obtain more data that are more personalised and relevant”, Sonjoy Phukan added. 

Big data and unstructured data

Although there is a lot of talk in wealth management about Big Data, AI, and ML, Long Doan believes that the wealth management industry in Asia does not have the quantity of general data that can be considered as Big Data. “What we have is quality of data. We know a lot of key information on the clients from KYC, AML, transactions, portfolios, and the engagement they have with us across the different channels”, he explained. “And we are able to hone this through the RMs and help them to steer the relationship with the clients in a more meaningful way. We are now increasingly expert at our governance and data security framework because if you want to leverage data in a sustainable way, you have to make it scalable, but also entirely secure”, the COO from BNP Paribas Wealth Management Asia explained.

Another key point to take into account, that has accelerated since the pandemic, is the growing amount of unstructured data. “Unstructured data is exploding. Banks used to have structured data coming from the accounting system, but now we have speech analytics and data from a variety of channels that the clients are using to communicate with the bank, like WhatsApp, WeChat, and others”, Long Doan shared. “The ability for us now to capture that data adds significant robustness to our offerings, as we know more about what clients want, as well as what they are doing”, he added.

Compliance and regulation

Compliance is naturally another key area for the wealth management sector in Asia. To help RMs better grasp regulatory implications, BNP Paribas Wealth Management Asia began guiding RMs to spend some time with credit and compliance departments as a form of ‘work shadowing’. “This was implemented so that different teams can better understand the challenges and expectations of the other. Over time, we see the benefit of it, making the entrant’s purchase much smoother, as RMs now know exactly what the other teams will be expecting” Long Doan explained. 

However, this takes up a lot of RMs time, which they could be spending with clients, and does not remove one of the biggest fears when it comes to regulation which is having it go out of date. “If you’ve done a survey a year ago and you are still relying on those manuals, even if it’s digitised to some extent, if that’s out of date the data is worthless”, says Alan Blanchard from Apiax. “The best way to stay on top of regulation is to embed compliance into all company processes so that all relevant stakeholders have access to the knowledge they need, when and where they need it” he added. 

How digital compliance enables relationship managers to accelerate growth

As the demand and application of digital solutions continue to rise, the amount of new rules and regulations also continue to grow. It’s no secret that working with in-house legal and compliance or external counselling can be expensive and involve a lot of back and forth which is time-consuming. 

As Apiax’s Alan Blanchard explains: “it’s no longer enough to just lay out the rules and regulations or what changes are ahead. RMs need to know if they’re allowed to service X client in Y country with Z product”, and digital compliance can help with that.  

This is especially true with embedded compliance, Apiax’s solution. “Embedding compliance means having the rules available digitally in an RMs’ existing system and knowing that client interactions are offered in a compliant way, without any additional need for a further compliance process. This makes servicing a lot faster and more efficient and can have a huge impact on their bottom line”, explained Alan Blanchard.  

To this, Long Doan from BNP Paribas Wealth Management Asia, responded that it’s very important to look at how banks can partner with companies like Apiax. “It brings consistency. It will be a massive cost-saving factor for everyone, and make the financial sector much more competitive. If we are able to bring this public utility and push it, it will really move the needle”, Long Doan added.

What is comes down to

The plethora of technologies in the wealth management and private banking space means that banks should, in theory, find it fairly straightforward to know what their clients need, and what technology works best to support those needs because when talking about products—it’s all about understanding the client. 

Therefore it’s crucial to segment clients and understands whether their needs land on the wealth dimension or regional dimension. It’s then about finding the right people and digital tools to help cater to those clients and their evolving needs. 

“We often forget that there is a client at the other side of the table. We talk a lot about agile strategy but we have to remember that we are here to serve the client, whether from a technology perspective or expertise. If we start with the client, everything else will follow naturally. With that philosophy, we will build the right product, platforms, and everything else”, Sonjoy Phukan from the Bank of Singapore concluded.  

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