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Interviews

Banking and the Transformation of the Digital Space, With Absa Bank’s Award-Winning Head of Digital Banking

Banking and the Transformation of the Digital Space, With Absa Bank’s Award-Winning Head of Digital Banking 1

Founded in 1991, the Absa Group is one of Africa’s largest financial services groups with a presence in 15 countries. It offers personal and business banking, credit cards, corporate and investment banking, wealth and investment management, and bank assurance. The bank’s capabilities and expertise have earned numerous awards, including the Global Banking & Finance Review 2022 awards for Best Digital Bank South Africa, Excellence in Innovation – Banking Product South Africa for its virtual assistant Absa Abby, and Head of Digital Banking of the Year South Africa for Subash Sharma.

When he spoke with Wanda Rich, editor of Global Banking & Finance Review, Subash offered his thanks for being awarded this accolade. His journey to becoming Head of Digital Banking of Absa Everyday Banking was, in his words, “a long and exciting road, filled with significant joys and challenges.” His background is in core engineering, where he developed a keen interest in the field of strategy and innovation. “Working for a major financial institution, I can express myself and implement ideas I have always dreamed about,” he said. “As the world continues to undergo rapid transformation in the digital space, pioneering digital innovation and customer satisfaction is what keeps me going every day. I have a great team that supports my vision. Working together, we make things happen.”

When Wanda broached the subject of Absa’s digital strategy and unique value proposition, Subash explained how the effects of the current pandemic have included some positives for the bank and its customers. “It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the limits of our digital capability and accelerated Absa’s digital transformation agenda,” he said. “It has also created an opportunity for the bank to respond better to our customers, and this fits into our overall strategy of feature functionality, customer centricity, quality and security.

“Absa’s digital strategy is centred on driving digital adoption and making digital channels a significant contributor to product sales. The realisation of both ambitions is intrinsically linked to an improved customer experience, which remains at the forefront of the digital experience we want to offer our customers.”

In this vein, he revealed, the bank boasts some propositions that are uniquely Absa’s, such as identification and verification on the web. “Absa is the first bank to perform new account opening directly from our website. Absa Biometric ID allows customers to transact securely with the highest level of biometric certification. Finally, ChatBanking is a world first that allows our customers to use WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to bank securely.”

As technology continues to progress, Absa chooses to focus on improving the customer experience while employing a concerted effort not to overcomplicate solutions. “We have invested heavily in technology and solutions that have staying power,” Subash said. “Informed by a sound understanding of user experience and behavioural economics, our focus has been on developing a feature-rich website and mobile technologies that deliver an intuitive, positive customer experience. Service and cost migration are core components of our digital strategy. By creating system efficiencies through quick wins and long-term efforts, manual hours can be migrated, improving our bottom line.”

He disclosed that the four major drivers of product development at Absa are feature functionality, customer centricity, quality and security. “Albeit critical, development is one of several variables driving product success. Our approach considers product ownership to be an essential component to developing successful products and ensuring these products continue to deliver value.”

One product in particular, the award-winning Absa Abby, is among the first-to-market in-app conversational AI virtual assistants, or chatbots, in the South African banking sector. “Influenced by global trends, the introduction of Absa Abby was an important step in Absa’s journey to become a digitally-led business,” Subash said. “Absa recognises that conversational artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to drive greater customer experience and digital adoption, continuous innovation, and process optimisation. To this end, the bank invested in the technology to create a new omnichannel chatbot which seamlessly integrates banking into customers’ lives, making banking simpler and more convenient for them.”

Regarding new products in the pipeline, Absa’s current focus is on end-to-end origination and sales enablement on its digital channels. “Several personal loan journeys have been launched on our digital channels, and enhancements are being made to end-to-end mortgage journeys for the bank’s home loan customers. In line with market trends in driving customer engagement, we are also embarking on various gamification themes on our banking app.”

Absa’s mobile app has undergone a complete overhaul in recent years as part of the broader Absa rebranding exercise. Subash regards leading this project to be among his most important personal achievements thus far. “In just two months the team designed, developed and launched a completely new banking app. In two and a half years, Absa went from being the lowest to the highest rated mobile banking app in South Africa.

“Another achievement would be the repositioning of digital within the bank, effectively reengineering the way in which digital delivers value. To realise the vision for digital at Absa, there was a need to change the mindset of many within the business to view digital as a product, not just a frontline channel. Although there is still a way to go to achieve this, significant progress has been made towards becoming a world-class digital bank.”

In his role as Head of Digital Channels, Subash has found a key challenge to be shifting mindsets and progressing the general understanding of how digital delivers value for the business. “There was a time when digitisation and the use of data were perceived as back-office functions,” he recalled. “However, in the past few years, there is recognition that data has become one of the most important ingredients of any business strategy. Related to this is demonstrating the importance of both digitisation – digitising what is currently manual – and driving digital transformation, fundamentally changing how we do things through digital.”

Looking further ahead, he believes that the increase in environmental awareness and demand for sustainability among the global population will impact the banking industry in the coming years. “The 5th Industrial Revolution will fundamentally change the banking of today. Globally, people are beginning to recognise the impact of their actions, habits and consumption on the environment. In banking, our most pressing responsibility is to manage expectations around convenience, affordability and sustainability.

“A second trend is the emergence of digital assets and related activities and technologies, and the impact of these on physical money and traditional banking. Also significant are trends in customer behaviour in the metaverse, and understanding the role that augmented and virtual reality will play in digital banking.”

Nonetheless, he recognises the value of having professionals on board who combine the conventional with the modern when building a team. “It is important to create a balance between radical-thinking innovators and more traditional banking colleagues. This combination promotes striving to reach the art of the possible within the confines of what’s permissible from a regulatory perspective. The recent reconfiguration of the digital space centred around strengthening our ability to innovate while solving important customer pain points simultaneously.”

Strategy-wise, Absa remains centred on driving digital adoption through enhanced customer experiences on digital channels. Subash reports that the bank will continue to establish prioritisation mechanisms for customer journeys, which includes ensuring that they are digitally enabled where they cannot be completed digitally in full.

“Absa’s digital banking operations are anchored on an ecosystem that was strategically built on a ‘digital first’ premise,” he explained. “Therefore, we endeavour to continue offering our customers a seamless, customer-centric digital experience across all channels. We will continue to solve customer pain points through digital innovation and solutions, keeping the customer at the centre of everything we do. We are also continuously enhancing the ways in which we keep our frontline empowered to service and add value to our customers’ banking needs on our digital banking platforms through strategic partnerships.

“Security remains a major focus for us, and we will continue our investment in market-leading security and fraud mitigation so that our customers can be assured that banking with Absa is secure,” he added. “Besides the various innovations that we have already launched, we have an exciting pipeline of digital innovations and enhancements underpinning our digital vision.”

Global Banking and Finance Review Awards Nominations 2022
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