SINGAPORE: Banks in the Republic are gearing up for the future, tapping into technology to provide more inclusive services and improve the customer experience.
As consumer preferences evolve, lenders said it has led to a shift in demand for new skills and infrastructure at the banks.
For example, POSB automated tellers machines (ATMs) are now more friendly for the visually handicapped, with new audio and Braille instructions recently added to 86 of them in Singapore. DBS Bank said it is among measures to provide more inclusive services as Singapore's demographics evolve.
"The ageing population is something Singapore needs to deal with,” said Mr Jeremy Soo, head of Consumer Banking Group (Singapore) at DBS. “And as the largest bank in Singapore, we need to make sure banking services are fully accessible to everyone. Which is why inclusiveness is such an important thing for us to have. We're fully responsible to make sure we're able to make banking accessible to (people from) all walks of life in Singapore, including the disabled and visually impaired."
These efforts come alongside other initiatives for the wider consumer base, which is increasingly digital savvy and mobile-connected.
Lenders, such as Citibank, are setting up innovation labs to develop and test solutions for enhancing the customer experience, particularly in areas like mobile and digital technology, security, payments and analytics. Citibank said Singapore has the technology infrastructure and professional skills needed for innovation.
"I think Singapore has the advantage of being one of the few nations where we're completely wired up with high-speed broadband,” said Mr Han Kwee Juan, CEO of Citibank Singapore. “And that in itself is a plus, because clearly, that enables you to take advantage of that Internet speed to get on broadband to deliver the solutions."
He added: “Singapore has developed a core skill set in the area of design. So for example, we have a global design team that sits here in Singapore that helps us to design anything from a branch design to UX you see on the mobile. This group of people don't even have banking experience. They all came from various design backgrounds for consumer products, and even in advertising."
GROWING COMPETITION FROM NON-BANK FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS
While banks innovate on customer solutions, they face growing competition from non-bank financial institutions like venture capital funds.
According to latest statistics from investment service Preqin, private equity and venture capital funds invested more than US$2.7 billion (S$3.87 billion) into Singapore companies in 2014. This is prompting Singapore banks to integrate and work with financial technology (fintech) firms so as to not miss out on opportunities in the fast-developing entrepreneurship scene.
"For a lot of banks, we want to understand it better and work with them - whether that means investing or partnering in some ways,” said Mr Vinnie Lauria, founding partner of Golden Gate Ventures.
“I see a lot of local banks here actually start their own corporate investment arms as well - DBS, UOB - so I think Singapore is a very progressive platform for fintech. And one of the drivers of that is actually the Monetary Authority of Singapore. MAS took a much more progressive approach and said we see this as part of the future, how do we start working on it now," he added.
OCBC, for example, has been running the Emerging Enterprise Award programme for eight years, providing about S$250,000 in funding to winning firms. Already, it has supported up to 60 small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Mr Samuel Tsien, Group CEO of OCBC Bank, said: "Commercial banks in general in the past in particular are focusing more on financing something more tangible. But in the future world, in particular as Singapore continues to evolve in the knowledge economy, there will be many opportunities that are created from ideas, concepts and maybe design.
“I don't think commercial banks are absolutely ready for that yet. So I think commercial banks will also have to evolve and learn, in order to make sure we're able to grow together with the future economy."
The banks said it is not just about knowing the technology, but rather, understanding how underlying consumer behaviour is changing. To stay ahead, they said they can no longer just meet customers' requirements, but instead, anticipate and create products and services to support customers' future needs.
Said Mr Tsien: “The banks will have to make sure they understand the consumer behaviour. They can no longer just meet the customers' needs. They have to anticipate what the customers need and develop products and services and network support to make sure they're able to support the customers. This is one area.
"The other area is as the consumer behaviour changes, as digitisation becomes more penetrating, the banks will have to have relevant infrastructure in order to support the customers’ future requirements.”