An Interview with Paul Cobban, Chief Operating Officer, Technology and Operations, DBS


DBS’s Chief Operating Officer, Technology and operations speaks with FST Media about what skills aspiring chiefs should invest in to help build future success.

FST Media: What are your key priorities for DBS in the next 12 to 18 months?

Cobban: For some time now at DBS we have recognised that change is upon us.  The digital revolution is shaking the foundations of banking.  We need to fundamentally shift how we think about banking.  We need to create new business models and ecosystems, deliver effortless customer experiences that address life (not just banking) and utilise new approaches and methods.  We are working on two tracks concurrently.  The first is investing in a new kind of digital banking in our key markets, and the second is  developing our people so they can embrace the new digital world.

FST Media: What technology or innovation is the “holy grail” that is yet to be delivered in financial services?

Cobban: Many financial products and services are still developed with the bank, and not the customer, in mind.  No-one wakes up in the morning and says “What a great day to make a payment or take out a loan”.  Yet this is how most banks think.  We need to create solutions and experiences which solve the underlying functional and emotional needs of our customers. 

FST Media: How should banks respond to the threat of digital disruptors like Alibaba and Google and their use of big data?

Cobban: Banks have much to learn from the digital disruptors – how they can scale, how they use experiments to test out new ideas, how they leverage data, how they recruit and manage people and how they innovate around business models.  We need to quickly learn these skills.  However, in a heavily-regulated industry, such as banking, there are things banks can do that others cannot.  We need to play to these strengths to create differentiation.

FST Media: How is the digital revolution changing wealth management and how is DBS competing?

Cobban: In Asia, as more and more of the population is enjoying becoming wealthier, the challenges for banks to provide scalable services escalate.  There are a number of challenges:  our customers still prefer to have a dedicated Relationship Manager (RM) for financial advice.  However, in order to give good advice, RMs need to read and understand thousands of articles and research papers, as well as have intimate knowledge of their ever-growing portfolio of customers.   It is also a challenge to hire, train and retain good RMs. In addition, customers today have direct access to information and are becoming more conscious about the impartiality of the advice RMs provide.  At DBS, we have invested in IBM’s Watson – a cognitive computing solution that does the “heavy-lifting” for the RM.  Watson understands natural language questions and can respond by analysing the thousands of unstructured research papers available, as well as the relevant customer data, and can provide impartial recommendations, with rationales, for the RM to assess with the customer.  Although it is still early in this journey, we see huge potential in this approach.

FST Media: How will DBS’ SMS queue service deliver value to the business and how will you measure its success?

Cobban: Over the past 5 years we have made significant progress in re-engineering our processes to drastically reduce the waiting time for customers across all our services.  Although we have eliminated more than 240 million hours of customer wait-time through these efforts, we still have room for improvement around our ATMs and branches, where we recognise that during peak hours the waiting times can be longer than desired.  We have therefore implemented an SMS queuing system that allows our customers to make use of their time more effectively.  The feedback has been very positive.  In addition, we have partnered with A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science Technology and Research) to better under the science behind our queues.  We now have detailed models that can accurately predict queue lengths and we can test out new ideas  to reduce them further.  This work has uncovered some very interesting and unexpected insights.  The SMS queuing system has been a rich source of data in making these findings possible.

FST Media: How are mobile platforms and digital technologies transforming banking to drive greater efficiency?

Cobban: Historically, as we introduced new channels such as internet, mobile, chat and social, we have seen that new demand is created, rather than simply transferred from one channel to another.  This increase has offset improvements to productivity made through automation and Straight Through Processing (STP), so we are now taking a new approach.  We again have learned, from the digital disruptors, how to provide services to millions of customers with a very limited workforce.  The secret is in the way the products and services are designed.  They design for “no operations”, whereas banks have historically relied on their ever-increasing back-office staff to deal with exceptions, manual work-arounds and service issues.

FST Media: How can banks harness the power of social media to enhance the customer experience?

Cobban: Although everyone has been talking about social, it is still not clear how companies should best leverage social. At DBS, we monitor the social worlds to look out for disgruntled customers and take the opportunity to “jump in” to resolve issues quickly.  As more consumers rely on peers or their social networks to help them make decisions, it is also important for us to become part of their social networks. We launched a series of Line stickers, featuring our mascots, in Taiwan, and within three hours, there were more than 2 million downloads. We have also launched a successful social community called DBS BusinessClass for our SME communities, where we connect small business owners to experts, investors and fellow entrepreneurs.

FST Media: What is proving to be your most effective customer acquisition channel and why?

Cobban: That really depends on the business, the market and the customer segment.  As we execute our ambitious digital agenda, we realise that we need to create seamless digital customer journeys – something we are working very hard on.

FST Media: What is the most overstated technology today?

Cobban: It is difficult to overstate the importance of the big topics that are being discussed today.  Social, big data, mobile, the Internet of Things, wearables, cloud and digital currencies are all going to have a massive impact on how we live.  Right now it is easier to see connections to banking for some of the technologies than others, but ultimately all will be relevant. 

FST Media: What are your thoughts on the evolving nature of the CIO role in banking and to what extent has technology shaped their career trajectory?

Cobban: The digital era has propelled the CIO right into the driving seat.  CEOs are looking to the IT teams for thought leadership.  CIOs now have a seat at the table, and not just to explain costs, delayed projects and production problems.  As business leaders struggle to grapple with digital concepts, it is the CIOs who are best equipped to understand the dynamics.   The CEOs of the future are likely to be the CIOs (or at least the good ones) of the past.

FST Media: How do you define success?

Cobban: Success is when our customers enjoy engaging with us.

FST Media: Every leader has a legacy they wish to be remembered for, what is yours?

Cobban: I would very much like to be remembered as being part of the team that not only successfully navigated the transition to digital banking, but also defined the category.

This interview first appeared in FST Media’s annual magazine The Who’s Who of Financial Services Asia Pacific which launched at the Technology & Innovation – the Future of Banking & Financial Services conference in Melbourne on 3rd June, 2015.