DBS is a strong and proud part of Singapore’s banking heritage. The last four years, they have pursued a clear customer-focused experience innovation strategy. AdAsia had the opportunity to hear from Pearlyn Phau, Managing Director & Deputy Group Head of Consumer Banking Group and Wealth Management, how DBS enables innovation throughout the organisation, in order to be able to cope with changing customer expectations.

We met Pearlyn during the Adobe Experience Forum in Singapore, a forum where Adobe’s most prominent customers showcase their marketing strategies.


The first question we asked was: why is it important for DBS to change?
Pearlyn first highlights the fundamental changes that the current generation has developed as a result of a lifestyles that is primarily centred around mobile.

“We used to develop all sorts of products, assuming that there would be a need for them. That paradigm has fundamentally changed and DBS felt the need to change its communication style accordingly. We talk a lot more about needs and experiences. Today we are engaging our customers with a needs framework and we map our products and services to that framework.”

“In addition, there is much more data available today. Online transactions, web interactions, mobile app payments – they all provide us with a constant stream of data. Using the right tools helped us to gain insights. We used these insights to understand the changes in customer expectations.”

“The banking industry is impacted by new technologies and changing customer expectations. Fintechs and non-traditional banking players like Alibaba are attacking the financial services value chain. In such an environment, the future relevance of DBS depends on an ability to innovate, harness the digital revolution and completely re-imagine the role of banks and the customer experience. We are constantly searching for ways to extend our geographical reach without the need for an extensive physical branch network.”

“DBS uses digital technology to help simplify and improve the customer experience. This includes cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics.”


When did the change start? Was this a top down decision by the senior management or was it the customer driving the change?

“In 2010, we realised that scaling up would be difficult to physically scale, so we focused on wealth management. In 2013, we walked away from a retail banking acquisition in Indonesia for many reasons. We realised that international expansion growing organically would not be that easy. We would need a different strategy to scale internationally. Competing with the incumbents in other countries by physically expanding or acquiring other banks would be costly and risky at the same time. That’s why in 2013, we decided that the best way forward would be to scale through digital, becoming the best digital bank in the region.”

“But that customer relationship needs to be excellent from an experience perspective because it is very easy for a customer to just shut down the browser. We need to be able to know exactly at any point in time what the customer is experiencing. Our traditional way of building models and do propensity targeting is no longer enough. The marketing and advertising has changed too. It has become more expensive and cluttered than ever before. So, we need to create a targeted and excellent experience, supported by data insights and a solid digital marketing strategy. Only that way we can cut through the clutter.”

“Data has been very important in this journey – so important that we have a data sharing strategy across the departments. Everyone should have access to it and should be able to run analysis.”


But isn’t digital in and of itself cluttered and contributing to the problem? Sometimes these strategies lead to backlash.

“It is true that digital marketing is important but to me, it is also about the mix. We constantly try to optimise our BTL and ATL budgets so that we remain top of mind and at the same time, we interact the right way when there is any backlash.

We have e.g. a team that manages our social listening and provides us with additional insights to strike the right balance.”


Have there been any difficult decisions?

“In the past, we would be endlessly perfecting our products. In digital we had to learn the hard way to approach development differently. Changing that was tough. We have learned to iterate more, like e.g. in India, where we develop a pure online offering. These iterations are followed in real time and if we take a step that is not leading to improvement it is only a small failure, from which we learn.”

“It is a balancing act. You cannot transform the whole organisation from day one in its entirety. We were able to train certain teams and departments, while others would have to wait. Today, we see that in a market like India, this approach is delivering results.”

“We are re-wiring the organisation to have a startup culture and mindset. We have established experiential learning platforms, introduced new ways of working, re-designed office spaces and fostered ecosystem partnerships to encourage our people to embrace a spirit of experimentation and innovation. Since 2015, we have run over 1,000 experiments, and employees are encouraged to be intrapreneurs. With mentorship and funding from the bank, a number have established startups while pursuing their day jobs. Our people have by now embraced experimentation and innovation.”


What is the role of marketing in the current DBS process?

“We used to have the situation where we would develop a product and then throw it over to marketing and they would have to try and make it sellable. But today, especially in digital products have to be relevant to the customer. The marketing team at DBS today is involved in product development. They are now trained to map the customer journey, they work alongside the product development teams.”

“We recognise the importance of getting our employees ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow. To date, more than 2,000 employees gained exposure to digital culture, agile methodology and other digital working. This new way of learning helps staff to adopt a more nimble and digital approach when coming up with solutions. It also helps DBS form good relationships with up and coming start-ups, leveraging innovation to adapt to changing times and customers’ needs.”


Would you say that everyone is a marketer at DBS?

“Yes, everyone is a marketer at DBS. We all have a role to play and we are becoming better and better at this every day.”


How is this changing the relationship with marketing agencies?

“We are changing and transforming. Agencies cannot always think from within, whereas our own employees can do this and have to do this. Our agency partners see this and are under pressure to change their service offering and even business models.

Today there is no other option for them to change and in fact most of them will offer full service. Where they need to change is in the design area. We have brought a lot of that in-house since we need to be fast. We have a 20-people design team at the moment. Our chief designer is Thai. He decided not to join Google in Silicon Valley but to join us, because he feels he can make a difference. He changed e.g. the way we use our standard colours, or as he put it ‘over-used them’. You will see different experiences for different services, something that we would not necessarily have accepted before. This has been a real eye-opener for us. We still work with agencies but for the core-design tasks, we have our internal team.”


How do you keep customers close to you, when no one actually wakes up in the morning excited about making a payment?

“The key for us is what we call the ‘customer job to be done’, be it on a face-to-face basis, digitally on the mobile or internet, or a combination of both.”

“Our CEO would say that research has shown that customers find it less joyful to go to a bank than going to the dentist. So, the importance of user experience is of paramount importance to turn this experience around.”


How do you take decisions? How do you e.g. take a decision on whether to integrate chatbots and AI?

“It is about taking leaps of faith and you have to encourage employees to take these leaps. We do this by hiring people from outside the world of banking. On top of that we are supported by the senior management. But we will take it one step further by completely rewiring the back-end of the bank and the way we work. This is fuelled by what we call the Gandalf philosophy. Gandalf stands for Google, Apple, Netflix, Amazon, LinkedIn and Facebook, where D stands for DBS. We want to be right in the middle of all of these giants. This means, we’re hiring people from outside the banking systems. This is helped by following what is happening in the fintech startup environment.”

“That is where we will certainly be going towards a chatbot and AI-enabled services and take it beyond customer service. Our chatbot is currently learning Bahasa e.g and we will then test it out in Indonesia.”


You are very much focused on customer experience, what comes after that? What is the next field on which businesses should focus to stay relevant?

“Lines between lifestyle and banking are blurring and when the customer experience is no longer the distinguishing factor, then we need to look at what still makes us relevant. Banks can sell anything in theory but the core focus should still be on financial services, like e.g. financial planning and payment facilitation.”

DBS is very vocal about the profound changes they have imposed on themselves, starting at the customer experience level. With goals like ‘creating a start-up culture’ and ‘everybody is a marketer’, they clearly set themselves a high bar. The future will tell if they will stay relevant in the fast changing world of finance, with potential disruptions specifically coming from fintech start-ups. Watch this space.

Editor: Matthieu Vermeulen


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