An Interview with Kanagasabapathy Surendran, Head of Digital Banking, Consumer Banking, CIMB Bank Berhad


“Innovation is a frame of mind where we either solve a problem that we knew existed or identify a problem or an opportunity that no one knew existed and everything in between these two, whether it is an internal customer within a department or a customer of the organisation…”


FST Media: What are the business and digital priorities for next 6 months?

Surendran: At CIMB, digital is a key pillar of our T18 strategy, a mid-term strategy from 2015-2018 to make CIMB a leading universal bank in ASEAN. Amidst stiff competition, the consumer banking sector in Malaysia has shown resilient growth and we aim to improve our overall market share and business by focusing on customer experience aided by digital and data. Currently, more than 90% of our customers’ financial transactions are done via our digital and self-service channels. Our digital users grew 25% last year with mobile users registering a 45% growth.

Our priorities for the Group Consumer Banking for the next six months continue to be centred around three aspects. First is to digitise the core that will ensure seamless and simple banking which is available to customers anywhere and anytime. Second is to invest in creating innovative solutions that utilise leading edge technology either within or through fintech partnerships, to enhance customer experience and help our customers get more value in their banking relationship with us. Lastly, it is about continuing to create a culture and working model where we think from the perspective of “customer first” and execute initiatives and transactions with the least amount of friction or inefficiencies.

We are also in the process of piloting a new digital-only bank in Vietnam and the model, once proven will be applied to our other markets as well.


FST Media: What technology is providing to be the biggest game changer in digital banking?

Surendran: I believe that technology has moved from being just an enabler of services to a driver of value. Now, technology is so pervasive and accessible that customers have a huge amount of processing power in their mobile or IOT devices today. That to me, is the biggest game changer that we need to leverage on. This phenomenon has created an “experience based economy” where multiple facets of technology such as big data, internet of things (IoT), cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) come together to provide experiences that delight consumers and speak to their minds and hearts. Banks need to adopt and understand how we can become part of that seamless experience that customers have now gotten used to.


FST Media: How adaptable will Malaysians be to new developments in digital banking?

​Surendran: Malaysia has one of the best digital infrastructures in the region and Malaysian consumers have high technology savvy and are digitally demanding. Over the last two years in CIMB, we have seen digital transactions increase by over 38% while mobile transactions increased 140% in the same period. Malaysia was one the first few countries in Asia to adopt near-field communication (NFC)-based mobile payments last year and the government is also facilitating the move towards a digital payment ecosystem. Last year, CIMB launched EVA (enhanced virtual assistant), becoming the first bank in ASEAN to launch a conversational banking app that customers can use to get banking transactions done. The feedback and usage for this app has been immensely positive.


FST Media: What are the key challenges banks face in developing resilience technology against fintech disruptors?

​Surendran: In my opinion, what technology was considered resilient yesterday would be disrupted tomorrow. That is the speed at which technology is evolving. So rather than focus on technology, I think we need to focus on resiliency in our ability to adopt, and disrupt ourselves. CIMB has been actively working with and continues to seek partnerships with fintech companies to enhance our services and customer experience.


FST Media: What do you hope to achieve from your presentation at FST’s FutureTech conference?

​Surendran: For me, participating in these conferences gives me the opportunity to take some time away from the BAU and challenge myself and my opinions with like-minded individuals and experts from the industry. It provides a platform to not just share my thoughts but also participate in a debate and help unshackle biases.

FST Media: Where do you think traditional banking will be in 5 years?

​Surendran: I think banking right now is in a phase of transforming itself. Banks have realised that the digital age needs a new operating paradigm where technology is not an enabler but an integral part of how they operate. Banks’ business models that operated in the past decade will no longer be valid in a few years as consumers now live in an experience economy. I think in five years, we will see banking integrated into consumers’ lifestyles so much that it would be practically invisible.

What does it mean to stay ‘agile’ with digital initiatives?
Agility is an idea of how we need to operate. It means being able to instill and practice a culture where we are able to understand implicit consumer needs, learn how to proactively respond to that through the best use of technology and processes, deploy and test fast, learn from feedback and be able to adapt and then go back and look for what’s required next.

FST Media: What is your definition of innovation?

​Surendran: Innovation is a frame of mind where we either solve a problem that we knew existed or identify a problem or an opportunity that no one knew existed and everything in between these two. Innovation to me is anything that brings joy to the end user, whether it is an internal customer within a department or a customer of the organisation. Innovation is tenacity, it is about finding a way where no one thought there would be one. Innovation is also about listening and discipline, it is about knocking down walls but also knowing when it is better to just find a way around. The most important aspect to me is about creating an environment where no one is afraid to ask why, understand risks, experiment without bringing the house down and have the rigour to think through and execute to closure.


FST Media: What is the next big thing for CIMB and how will you measure its success?

​Surendran: Last year, we launched CIMB EVA, an app that allows customers to chat with the bank to conduct their transactions. I think that the banking experience is moving away from the click of a mouse, to focusing on touch and tapping mobile devices to conversations that can be held seamlessly with businesses across multi channels. We have already started enhancing EVA to be able to perform fund transfers, flash deals, chat using natural language and also evolve into a virtual advisor to the consumer. As with everything we do, customer adoption will be the key measure of success.

FST Media: How do you like to spend your free time?

​Surendran: Spending time with my family and playing with my four-year old is the most wonderful part of my day. Apart from that, I keep myself busy with my books, catching up on a TV series or trying my hand at cooking. As a family, we love to travel and Malaysia has some amazing road trips that keeps our weekends busy when I’m not learning to fly the Cessna and getting my private pilot licence.