Christine Wu of Absa Group Limited: Driving Digital Transformation and Innovative Customer Experiences
Headquartered in Johannesburg, with over 150 years of African heritage and having developed a significant footprint across the continent, Absa Group Limited has worked to position itself as a Empowering Africa’s tomorrow, together … one story at a time. The multinational banking and financial services conglomerate has subsidiaries in 12 African countries and representative offices in London and New York. It offers a range of retail, business, corporate and investment banking, and wealth management products and services.
Christine Wu joined Absa in 2019 as an Executive member of Absa Retail and Business Banking business. In 2022, she transitioned to Everyday Banking as a Managing Executive: Consumer product, where she is responsible for ensuring Absa’s overall success in the consumer banking segment. She takes end-to- end accountability for core product performance and the transformation into a digital and data first business.
Her portfolio includes transactional banking, card issuing, personal loans and savings and investments. In addition to traditional product responsibilities, she also leads the digital, design and advanced analytics capabilities. Christine has been credited with providing the business with a renewed edge and greater customer centricity. She was also named as 2023’s Business Woman of the Year – South Africa in this year’s Global Banking & Finance Awards. Looking ahead, she is geared up for even greater success, leveraging Absa’s strong presence in South Africa with the distinctive data and digital capabilities to create an empathetic digital bank.
Being at the forefront of digital innovations and motivated to cater to the growing needs of customers, Absa has aligned its strategy in the last few years to focus on developing customer primacy and a digital-first philosophy in its delivery, as Christine explained to Global Banking & Finance Review editor Wanda Rich. “As a full-service bank, it was important that we build a digital brand while simultaneously retaining the warm and empathetic touch in all our customer interactions,” she said. “Over the years, we have strengthened our ability and agility to bring possibilities to life for customers.”
One significant organisational shift was to elevate digital from a utility to a full product management capability. “We don’t think of digital as a competition to land the latest technology, but rather as an integrated set of capabilities to drive meaningful usage and adoption. Today, we can proudly say that our digital products are a key driver to customer loyalty and primacy. On average our digitally and rewards active customers hold 2.5x more products.
Through its digital strategy, Absa works to deliver seamless customer service and efficiency across all aspects of banking by getting the balance exactly right. “It is an important differentiating philosophy for us at Absa Digital. We have learned hard lessons by making legacy decisions to digitise for the sake of efficiency only,” Christine revealed. “This drives the wrong behaviours in the delivery of customer experience. We now believe that we should always prioritise a seamless customer experience. With strong adoption and usage drives, the business will benefit from digital efficiency. As a traditional bank, more than 3/4 of our value segment interact with us through digital channels only. This speaks to the breadth as well as quality of interactions”
She confirmed that this choice has stood the test of time. “Just like most global banks, Absa faced economic headwinds in the latter half of 2022 due to high inflation levels, a rising interest rate environment, and frequent power outages caused by increased incidents of planned power cuts in South Africa. Despite these challenges, Absa continued to deliver its strategic objectives, including advancing the digital transformation journey and further strengthening customer relationships.”
Christine went on to discuss one of the key aspects of developing these relationships – providing clients with a secure banking environment. “Our ethos of striving for digital excellence, underpinned by a best-in-class, empathetic frontline, allows us to accelerate innovation while providing unparalleled support to our customers. In all of this, safety is always the primary consideration, as evidenced by a number of initiatives that place safety at the heart of all our innovation.
“Our digital identification and verification capability allows customers to open an account by taking a selfie, which is then checked against their Identity Document at the South African Department of Home Affairs for instant verification. Our AI learning bot, Absa Abby, uses artificial intelligence to personalise our customers’ banking experience, proactively recommending products and services and securely performing customer transactions.
“Then there is the Digital Fraud Warranty, a mechanism by which Absa backs up any digital fraud claims with a warranty. This was introduced in 2021 as the first offering of its kind in South Africa. The bank has also deployed multiple levels of defence in terms of strategic fraud monitoring and analytics, backed by state-of- the-art algorithms to ensure that we can detect and manage suspicious transactions proactively.
“In addition, to reduce our customers’ dependency on cash and further promote the usage of our safe and secure digital banking platforms, Absa joined forces with other South African banks in the first quarter of 2022 to roll out PayShap, South Africa’s new rapid payments technology. We leveraged our significant digital and banking know- how to launch this important service to the market, and the response from our customers has been very positive. Since its launch in March this year, we have seen the bank take up more than 40% of the market share in this space.”
“Finally, we are also innovating to expand our physical presence in a low-cost manner by leveraging Branch on the Move, a mobile branch capability through which we offer full-value banking services. This aims to support customers including those in underserved and low-income communities. We have pivoted our network significantly, automating cash while ramping up sales and services to enhance the depth and empathy of our high-touch customer interactions. In essence, physical channels are transforming into a space where click and mortar cohabit seamlessly.”
Wanda asked Christine to also talk about the AbsaID facial recognition banking app, an initiative whereby customers can transact securely with the highest level of biometric certification. As she explained, “Safety and security is a top concern for customers and a major priority for the bank. This feature means that your face is, in fact, your password. The initiative is linked to Absa’s banking systems and works across all channels, allowing your biometric to become the instant key to your safe.
“AbsaID Facial Biometrics uses facial mapping technology to verify and identify the customer. It links your unique facial features to your mobile device and creates a security barrier that only you can unlock. Biometric facial recognition technology is a first for our digital banking security and has received highly acclaimed honours, including the Global Banking & Finance Top 100 Companies To Look Out For award for information security and fraud technology.”
By taking fraud prevention seriously and providing secure digital platforms that prevent fraud losses, Absa not only ensures compliance with local and international regulatory requirements, but also delivers a plethora of benefits to its customers with its multiple digital banking offerings.
“Absa continues its strong trajectory of improving our digital channel satisfaction,” Christine said. “This is underpinned by innovative value propositions such as Google Wallet, Absa Advantage, Apple Pay, QR payments, our virtual assistant Absa Abby, AbsaID, and multiple enhancements to our digital security capabilities and self-help content for customers. Our customers can bank on Absa to offer safe and secure banking platforms, and our safety claims are backed up by our unique Digital Fraud Warranty.”
With the trend towards widespread adoption of mobile and online banking increasing rapidly, Absa is taking the opportunity to embrace the benefits of digital banking and give its customers the ability to bank, transact and move money in any way they want. “Shares of digital sales for savings products, personal loans and credit cards have grown exponentially over the last two years. In 2022, Absa’s 4 million digitally registered customers performed more than 3 billion digital transactions to the value of over ZAR 3 trillion across our digital channels.
“But for our business, digital is more than just the front-end apps and web channels,” she continued. “It is an overall business model, and each of our functions are going through significant transformation, such as HR completing the Workday rollout, using augmented reality for onboarding to leveraging hyperpersonalisation technology to better engage customers. Absa has transformed itself from front to back. The overall Group results and strong cost performance speak to the initial benefit of the transformation.”
Christine acknowledged that infrastructure is the core to the success of any digital bank, which Absa sees itself as, and their investment is set to continue for the long haul. “Over the years, we have made significant investments into our data infrastructure, modernizing our network and storage. We are also continuously improving and modernising our digital platforms. This will be a significant and continuous investment for Absa.”
She ended by discussing what the future holds for Absa. “We have developed a comprehensive product roadmap to expand our ability to provide a full set of financial services to our customers in an intuitive, integrated and predictive manner,” she said. “Using our various digital products to expand financial inclusion is also a key area of investment for us. Underpinning these two strategic outputs, there are several capabilities we feel will differentiate us.
“As our offering becomes more comprehensive, we are placing increasing investment into conversational UX. Taking our Abby chatbot to the next level of maturity and taking advantage of the rapidly evolving generative AI is critical. Our ability to leverage data to provide our customers with relevant insights to manage their lives better is an ongoing investment and will continue to be a strong focus area.
“Digital security is more important than ever,” she added. “We will continue with solid user education, coupled with more sophisticated algorithms and strong identity management.”
Global Banking & Finance Review
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