An interview with Datuk Iswaraan Suppiah

Datuk Iswaraan Suppiah

FST Media: What key trends or themes will dominate the arena of financial services this year? 

Suppiah: Banks will continue to push the envelope on digitisation to deliver greater instancy and personalisation. Turnaround times will shrink and convenience of access-on-the go will continue to rise. In the area of fintech, blockchain will witness continued interest from regulators and financial services players (fintech firms included). However, I don’t foresee industrialisation happening soon. Another key trend is crowd-funding, and peer-to-peer lending models are poised at a tipping point to build greater scale. Data analytics will gain even more prominence as financial services players become more proficient at deploying these technologies to plug customer attrition, influence customer behavior and nab customers away from competition with sharper value-propositions to meet unique needs of customer micro-segments.

FST Media: What are the new rules of engagement in the evolving customer-centric and digital era?

Suppiah: The answer lies in the question. Customer centricity on steroids is the new rule of engagement. Customer centricity has existed as a philosophy since the days when brick-and-mortar was the only business model. Some companies did it better than others, but assessing and meeting customer needs that are stated and even unstated, is a mature domain. If we set banking aside and consider the digital era in general, a new business model emerged which involved delivering to the customer what he does not yet know that he wants. Examples include the smartphone, the ability to buy music as a download or rent a movie virtually. The ability of an organisation to anticipate customer needs; to believe that customer experience starts at the time he thinks of one’s product and to enrich the experience of the customer even if there are aspects that are derived from 3rd parties is certainly becoming more and more integral to creating sustainable business success. For instance, the Amazon Echo can purchase merchandise for you off Amazon, answer questions on the weather, and even switch on light bulbs at home when you instruct it to from the office. So why can’t your bank account negotiate the best price for groceries, understand your risk appetite and automatically invest and swap portfolio to deliver the best return?

FST Media: What is next for CIMB Group’s Fintech Forum and how can banks learn from fintech competitors to be more agile?

Suppiah: Some of the current initiatives that CIMB’s Fintech Forum is working on include:

  • Inno-Challenge on hacking blockchains
  • Working with fintech startup accelerators such as StartupBootCamp and Magic in selecting and mentoring their 2016 intake or cohort of fintech startups
  • Developing our Open Banking platform to spur and support external collaborations and partnerships

In order to be more nimble, CIMB is adopting a two-speed IT model where digital initiatives are executed in a more agile environment. This, in itself is not news. Other banks have been experimenting and adapting two-speed IT. The industry needs to recognise that fintechs operate very differently and are more than just about Agile Scrum to bring technology to market faster. Devoid of the pressure of answering to shareholders and regulators, they can re-imagine business models. Typically, a fintech is trying to disrupt a specific but small niche of the banking industry and a bank needs to be bold enough to disrupt what could be a profitable existing revenue stream. The best lesson financial institutions can learn from fintechs is how not to fear failure. Innovation necessitates accepting the risk of failure, but that should be coupled with knowing when to pull the plug and how to learn from failure. A “dream big, spend responsibly and fail fast” culture is the true test of agility. When combined with design thinking that places customer experience at the forefront, a light-weight governance model as well as a single-minded execution that brings together business, technology, marketing talent into a cohesive team, you have the ingredients for digital success.

In addition, the legacy infrastructure and governance frameworks of banks are both their greatest advantage and disadvantage when it comes to competing with fintechs. Banking behemoths may be slower to move, but they tend to have deep pockets, a captive customer base and a full-spectrum of financial offerings to address financial needs holistically. Their ability to deal with complex regulatory requirements has matured over years of practicing compliance. So while agility is receiving so much attention, banks are better off embracing the advantages of scale and size while not neglecting the need for some fintech-like agility. If the entire legacy banking environment were encased with service oriented architecture (SOA), the high-speed digital lane of the organisation could be insulated from the legacy and still able to leverage off it. In reality, no bank’s SOA layer is fully ready and banks have to craft a strategy to deal with this.

FST Media: How are you leveraging data and digital capabilities to personalise communications with your customers?

Suppiah: CIMB has established a data team in our Innovation Lab to focus on big data technologies and methodologies. We cover business, data engineering and machine learning domains. The analytics uses cases and innovations from the Innovation Lab, are integrated into our existing and upcoming digital offerings. For instance, we have implemented a Big Data Platform that is capable of “Segment of One” processing. This is achieved by storing customer data in a “Customer DataMart of One” repository and implementing machine learning at scale algorithms to provide predictive customer behavioural scores for every individual customer. This allows for hyper personalisation of customer interventions. One significant application of this technology is in the recommendation engines which are used to provide targeted and relevant merchant offers to our credit card customers.

FST Media: What is the Holy Grail that is yet to be delivered in banking?

Suppiah: The answer should be a list rather than just a single thing but if I have to pick one, I would say that it’s the invisible bank. Most of our products and services are just means to an end. For instance, what our customers want is the home and the holiday; not the mortgage nor the personal loan. They want their retirement, medical or health needs taken care of, rather than savings or insurance. When people can bank without perceiving the bank, when they can bypass transacting with a bank whether in the branch or online and the banking process is seamlessly integrated into acquiring or experiencing their end need, that’s when the next dimension of banking would have arrived.

FST Media: How will CIMB Group ensure longevity in attracting and recruiting the talent of tomorrow?

Suppiah: The digital world needs a new breed of talent. We must value the mindset to challenge the status-quo over acquiescence. We need techies who can empathise with business goals and bankers who can appreciate technology. While digital initiatives may function today in a two-speed model, over time, the culture of agility and extreme customer-centricity needs to be permeated across the enterprise. At CIMB, we believe that creating an environment conducive to ideating and bringing ideas to fruition, coupled with the opportunity to develop one’s full potential will be effective at managing talent.