Why empathy is the engine of innovation, and banks’ greatest ‘superpower’ – Selina Petosa, ASB Bank

Selina Petosa

“The culture of caring, of unity, of humility is real. And it’s within those conditions that true innovation can happen because we have trust across the teams and organisation as a whole.”

One of NZ’s pioneer CX innovators, Kiwi financial services provider – and CBA subsidiary – ASB Bank is determined to make banking a breeze for its more than 1.3 million customers.

FST speaks with Selina Petosa, General Manager, Design Practice about the kiwi banking heavyweight’s experience navigating the Covid-19 fallout, the key ingredients of a sustainable human-centred design program, and why a culture of mutual empathy will remain a financial institution’s greatest asset.

FST Media: Digital has long been regarded as a powerful vehicle for acquisition; increasingly, however, it is seen as key to supporting whole-of-life journeys.

Take us through ASB’s CX agenda over the next 12 months. How are you using digital technologies to optimise customer outcomes?

Petosa: At ASB, digital has been central to our strategy for many years now. ASB was the first bank to link branches to a central computer, highlighting our very early digital chops. We were also the first bank in New Zealand to offer internet banking. And now, most recently with the Covid-19 crisis, for the first time in history our tellers were able to work remotely to support our customers, all on the digital backbone we’ve invested in.

As we look at the next 12 months, digital will become even more important as we think about delivering our products and services in new ways that respect the social distancing boundaries we are now faced with. Digital channels are not only the preferred way for our customers to engage with us; in some cases, they’re the only way customers can engage with us. Human-to-human channels are also critically important, and digital, in many cases, is providing the backbone for these experiences. The way we work has also changed, driven largely by Covid-19 moving us to a remote versus centralised workforce. The technology capabilities within ASB, supporting new ways of working, are actually accelerating our ability to deliver better and sooner for our customers. Digital plays a key role in not only what we deliver to our customers, where we deliver those products and services, but also how that work gets done within ASB.

FST Media: Prior to stepping into your role at ASB, you founded and served as chief creative officer for digital CX consultancy Rational Interaction. What has this transition taught you about the customer-facing challenges, or indeed limitations, faced by Kiwi financial providers today?

Petosa: Oh wow, that is such a never-ending question! Yes, I was fortunate to have built a very successful CX consultancy whose clients include some of the best brands in the world: Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Acer, to name a few. Rational was recently sold to Wipro Digital, a move I’m incredibly proud of as now the company can provide services on a global scale, delivering across the entire customer journey. For me, personally, as big of a transition as it has been – moving around the world from Seattle to Auckland – transitioning back into a large 5,000-person enterprise from a 350-person company that was my own, in many ways the transition has been pretty seamless.

What attracted me to ASB, and what was a key part of Rational’s success, was our shared commitment to and passion for the customer. In fact, it’s what interested me most about the opportunity at ASB, where the entire organisation has this dedication to delivering great customer experience – in many cases truly going above and beyond. It’s inspiring, actually, and to be surrounded by such like-minded people has been a real joy.

For Kiwi financial providers, or any financial providers for that matter, the biggest challenge I see is the need to humanise banking: to humanise our processes, to simplify the language around banking, and to make banking simple and easy.

Within the complex environment we operate within, this is no small challenge, but one that I believe we must continue to push on. Money is one of the most stressful topics for people. It can be the source of struggle, conflict, and challenge for many individuals and families as we all know. Given the important role financial institutions play in all of our lives, those that can be true partners in helping people meet their goals, and do so in ways that are relevant, simple, friction-free, and even friendly, will be successful.

At ASB we have such a strong brand, one that is friendly, warm, relatable. It’s a bit unexpected, to be honest; it’s not how banks are perceived in the US, but it’s been a delightful surprise. I see my job at ASB as helping to extend that brand into products and services, to humanise banking in ways that haven’t been seen before. Imagine a friendly, simple disclosure statement, or the process of owning a home as something people look forward to because it’s so simple! It could happen – we just need to continually remind ourselves our job is to humanise things, to empathise with our customers, and to deliver experiences at par or better than other world-class digital businesses. After all, when you think about our customers, they are surrounded by apps and experiences that are simple and easy to use: think Uber, Airbnb etc. Our banking experiences should be even better.

FST Media: AI-powered digital assistants, such as ASB’s Josie, are proving vastly beneficial for organisations in freeing up human employees for higher-value tasks. How is AI set to further transform face-to-face customer interactions and engagement within ASB? Are you keen to see greater uptake of these technologies?

Petosa: The opportunity with AI, and what we have with Josie in particular, is to deliver helpful advice and information to our customers in ways that are convenient and easy to access. We want to support our customers within the channel of their choice.

AI is such a complex topic. As an industry, we are wrestling with what it means for banking. AI has the potential to offer customised experiences, better decision-making, and foresight of probability into future events, for instance. It also has the potential to improve security, to anticipate and manage data breaches, and even, perhaps, to stop nefarious activity. As a topic, it’s vast and complex.

From a CX perspective, I see potential in harnessing the insights and data we have as an organisation in order to deliver better experiences, even personalised solutions for our customers in context. Imagine if we could deliver real-time, tailored experiences, advice and guidance that ultimately helps our customers’ financial health.

Imagine if every individual with a bank account had their own, comprehensive and knowledgeable personal banker, in the form of a digital assistant.

I’m keen to see a greater uptake of these technologies – but with a caveat. We can’t lose sight of empathy – and last I checked, only humans have that superpower. There are other factors with data to consider, as there is potential for inherent bias, depending on what data is collected, how it is organised etc., that influence what the AI actually learns and how it evolves. All of these considerations mean that an organisation cannot enter the AI space without a well-thought-out strategy and roadmap.

FST Media: As customer-centricity becomes industry orthodoxy, how do you, as ASB’s chief designer, drive a culture of empathy across the organisation that ultimately supports your business objectives?

Petosa: What a great question. Empathy has become such an important part of the conversation. As I stated above, I believe empathy is our unique superpower as humans. If we actually took the time to listen, to understand each other, to actually walk in another human’s shoes, all the world’s problems could go away – just like that! – if we had more empathy. It sounds simple, but ego and power, unfortunately, get in the way.

That said, ASB has a unique culture that celebrates and embodies an empathetic mindset. It comes from the top down, from [ASB chief executive] Vittoria [Shortt’s] approach, through to how we are organised and prioritised as a team. If we approach our priorities with our customers truly at the centre, empathy must play a leading role, as we can’t solve our customers’ problems without it. Or we actually could, but it would be solving their problems in the wrong way. That is where many companies go wrong, assuming they know what is best. But you can’t really know how to help unless you truly understand your customers, and empathy is the superpower that makes this happen. As a culture, this approach has seeped into all areas at ASB. We treat each other respectfully, with empathy: we care and we listen, more than I’ve experienced in other organisations. We build consensus, and we bring people on the journey with us. It’s certainly not perfect; we have our moments. But, truly, the culture of caring, of unity, of humility is real. And it’s within those conditions that true innovation can happen because we have trust across the teams and organisation as a whole.

FST Media: What do you feel are the most important elements of a successful human-centred design program for any service provider today? Do you feel local FSI’s are hitting the mark or is there still a gap today between customer expectations and service realities?

Petosa: Human-centred design (HCD) is not a new concept; it’s been around for more than 60 years. Yet, as we’ve moved into the digital era, it has become critical as consumers interact with and adopt products.

The most important element in establishing sustainable human-centred design programs is the ability to truly understand and empathise with customers.

This ability needs to exist not only within the organisation’s ethos and mission but also within its product development processes. Sustainable and advanced models for gathering customer insights, and an operating model that relies on customer input and data as the default process, is how to make HCD stick. There can be a perception that following an HCD process takes longer – but, in fact, it provides a much deeper understanding of the actual problem, accelerating the design and development process. HCD is also important to consider for our team members, as we are all humans working within complex organisations and systems. At ASB, we utilise HCD across all of our efforts, both for externally facing products and services and internally facing initiatives, ensuring that we are customer-centric at our core. Local FSIs are certainly tuned to HCD, but I’m not sure how mature these models are in terms of sustainability. I have seen strong acumen for HCD as well as an appetite to work towards, invest in, and continually improve HCD programs, which is a wonderful sign.

FST Media: In this time of global crisis and uncertainty, how is a design approach helping ASB best serve customers?

Petosa: Design plays such an important role in helping our customers during this time of stress and uncertainty. A well-designed experience can instil a sense of confidence and trust as customers navigate what can seem like an overwhelming set of packages and support. Like all FSIs, we’ve had to quickly introduce new experiences for distressed customers. Covid-19 has made navigating complexity even more challenging, so design must play a role in helping support and ease the way for our customers. I also think, given the crisis, it’s an opportunity to reimagine what banking looks like in the future, and to drive efficiencies in ways we might not have been able to before. Design is a critical capability in bringing new ideas to life, so it will play a key role as we look at the path ahead.

FST Media: What brands or industry segments beyond financial services do you look to for inspiration?

Petosa: My source of inspiration comes mainly from the brands, products, and services I see people using frequently. These days Netflix is certainly one that has been on my radar! But brands such as Uber, Google, Airbnb are ones that I frequently look to. There are smaller, more boutique segments that I’m fascinated with – the food delivery and farm-to-table movements being among them. Brands that can seamlessly integrate into consumers’ lives, add ongoing value making life easier, better, are the brands that I pay attention to.

There is significant room for an FSI to play a bigger, more meaningful part of consumers’ lives, given the importance of financial health for individuals, families, and businesses. ASB aims to be one of those brands, and in many ways is already delivering on that mission. My goal with the Design Practice and ASB’s relentless focus on customer experience is to help accelerate and optimise the delivery of that mission.

FST Media: Finally, what is the best leadership advice you have received and how have you sought to put this into practice?

Petosa: I often qualify myself as a ‘reluctant leader’, as my foray into leadership came early in my career, likely before I was truly ready. But with experience comes perspective and, I believe, being a leader of a team, a leader of a company, a leader of a project, all require the same attributes in order to be successful, first and foremost the ability to listen.

I have had many learning moments throughout my career, and each chapter has provided a wealth of reflective moments and opportunities for me to personally evolve and grow. Probably the best advice I received was to “Be quiet, learn to listen!” One of my favourite books on leadership is Great Leaders Ask Great Questions. Leadership is having the confidence to not always know the answer but instead to surround yourself with a talented team that does know the answer. The concept of knowing what questions to pose, to pull that answer out, is one of the most powerful attributes a great leader has. It’s also important to know about and to care about the people on your team. Great leadership is not great if you accomplish many things but leave a pile of wreckage and broken relationships along the way. What you accomplish is as important as how you accomplish it. Respect, trust, grace, caring, and kindness are all personal values of mine that I try to embody within my leadership. Quality is also a value of mine: I believe in delivering great work, and I’m not afraid to push my team to do so. But doing so in ways that are supportive is key to helping realise the potential of a product, service, individual, or organisation. It all kind of boils down to these three things:

  1. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do, who raise the bar for your organisation.
  2. Listen, ask great questions. The right question can help solve the right problem. The wrong question could facilitate missing a critical opportunity or insight.
  3. Be kind, be respectful, be grateful. No jerks, and please check your ego at the door. Jerks and big egos ruin a team culture and do not serve the greater good of the organisation, no matter how talented the jerk may be.