Singapore: BNP Paribas hacks a digital path to growth

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By:
Elliot Wilson
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BNP Paribas’ Asia wealth management division was once a digital laggard, but thanks to its ‘design factory’ in Singapore, led by Vivien Jong, it is now a global leader, inventing ways to make the bank work better and more profitably.

VivienJong-2use340There’s a lot of ‘growth-hacking’ going on in a large, open plan office on the 35th floor of Singapore’s Ocean Financial Centre. And there is plenty of ‘ideating’ and ‘creative solutioning’, and the promise of an impromptu photo-booth party.

The lighting is dim, the blinds are drawn, and when the door opens and a stranger enters, a dozen bespectacled faces continue to stare at their computer screens.

This is a digital lab, run and hosted by BNP Paribas’ Asian wealth management division, and it is one of the best of its kind, and surely among the most innovative, anywhere in Asia.

Vivien Jong is waiting at her desk in a glass corner office when Asiamoney arrives. She has a slightly other-worldly manner that you tend to encounter at digital forums and, going by personal experience, sci-fi conventions.

As chief digital officer, Asia, at BNP Paribas Wealth Management, Jong is responsible for pioneering ideas that drive profits and growth in private banking. That means implementing new ideas invented in Singapore and at the bank’s two other global wealth management ‘design factories’, located in Geneva and Luxembourg.

To understand what her team does, it’s worth looking at Jong’s CV, which tells you a lot about her and why her modus operandi is so valuable to her employer.

Jong joined BNP Paribas in March 2016 from UBS, where her last role was executive director of digital private banking. Before that, she spent 11 years over two spells at Citi, working in cards and payments systems, before returning to head up regional internet banking. (This obsession with tech was baked in early: in the late 1990s, she worked at Silicon Illusions, a Singapore dot.com where, according to LinkedIn, she had the “coolest and toughest of job of being a software engineer” on video games).

We found our place, tore down all the walls, and created an open space where everyone could collaborate 
 - Vivien Jong, BNP Paribas

Spotting her ability, BNP Paribas brought Jong on board. There was no clear aim in mind, beyond getting the wealth management division to be more active, in terms of generating new revenue streams, and better connected to other divisions.

Jong was immediately under pressure to make sure the Singapore design factory caught up with its siblings in Europe, where new, workable ideas were flourishing.

She settled in at the 40th floor of Ocean Financial Centre on Collyer Quay, in the heart of the central business district, and began to build her team.

“We worked in an area a quarter the size of the current place,” she says. “We started with two teams and began to expand, growing to four teams of 10 people. After a year, we realized we needed more space.”

So she started scouring the CBD for office space, then ventured into the suburbs. Nothing was ideal, and the farther she got, the more she recalled past problems. At previous employers, digital divisions were cast into the boondocks to decay along with accounts and HR.

She never saw colleagues, met clients, or felt the buzz of the city, which presented a quandary, given that creativity happens when ideas are bounced around between colleagues.

A decision was made to move the team to the 35th floor, alongside the business and client-facing teams.

“We found our place, tore down all the walls, and created an open space where everyone could collaborate,” she says.

Growth-hacking

One phrase she uses is ‘growth-hacking’, a term more commonly associated with Silicon Valley startups than the wealth management division of a large bank. Yet she mentions it a lot, referring to it 12 times during our hour-long meeting.

“We are super-big on growth-hacking, which means using every possible means to increase engagement,” she says.

The term is fungible though, and its meaning depends on its setting. In a vast and often bureaucratic institution, such as a full-service universal lender, it can mean using digital means to encourage divisions to work better with one another, and to create growth, either where none existed or where it lay dormant, hibernating simply because no one knew where to look for it.

Tucked away on the 40th floor, with a small team jammed into a tiny room, that wasn’t easy. Out in the suburbs, it would have been impossible, and she admits she got lucky in being moved not out, but downstairs.

Once the team was settled, colleagues began to swing by to check out the new digital lab.

“They wanted to know why our space was so different from the rest of the bank,” Jong says. “Why we were allowed to wear jeans. Why we were surrounded by sticky notes. Why were we standing up brainstorming with each other all the time?”

The location of the new setting worked in other ways. CEOs and high net-worth clients would pop by for a chat.

“This move gave us direct access to clients,” she says: “They would come to see their bankers, and as we were only a few steps away, they would drop in to mingle with our team. They’re always willing to not just provide feedback but also to share ideas… and we are only too happy to listen and work with them.”

This process works best when it’s off-the-cuff: for example, a banker dropping by unexpectedly or, in one case, a group of regional C-suite executives, in Singapore for the week, who visited when an office party was in full swing. They stayed for hours, resulting in plenty of profitable mingling.

Sometimes, new ideas spring from strategy sessions or a ‘eureka’ moment. On other occasions, she relies on problems landing on her desk. A case in point: the relationship manager (RM) who told her he wanted to stop using paper in client meetings as it looked “old-fashioned”.

Jong says: “We asked him to walk us through his typical client interaction, then suggested an app that profiles client needs. The app that resulted from this exchange was built by four people in 20 days. Now, pretty much every relationship manager in our wealth management business uses it.”

Her team also helped to create half the applications that sit atop MyWealth, the bank’s global digital wealth management platform, including an app that generates a newsfeed tailored to the specific needs of RMs and clients.

We come up with ways that help the bank to generate more business and, importantly, to work better and more cohesively – it’s a cultural transformation. The cost may not be significant, but the return can be considerable 
 - Vivien Jong

Designed in collaboration with relationship managers and clients, it has, she says, “become a core digital banking service at BNP Paribas Wealth Management.” Anyone baffled by how to use either the platform or one of the apps can call or message a hotline built by Jong’s team for an immediate reply.

In a way, the real action takes place not in her office, or during some kind of growth-hackathon, but in a corner of the room, behind the digital lab’s only non-glass door.

This is the ‘client experience’ (CX) room, and to the untrained eye, it’s little more than a vestibule with a few comfy chairs facing a large, flat-screen TV.

But when the room is occupied, it is under observation. As with a police station, the room is equipped with a two-way mirror, behind which members of the digital team sit, watching clients as they in turn watch videos that educate them about the lab’s newest ideas.

It’s a win-win. Clients, who of course know they are being watched, get to immerse themselves in the team’s latest digital thinking, while Jong’s colleagues get to see what the customers really think of a new idea. (Good? Bad? Plain ugly?).

“We are looking for reactions,” she says. “Maybe a client is stumbling over a certain initiative, or can’t see what a service is going to do for them.”

The feedback the team gleans is invaluable, she says.

New ideas are then discussed internally by the team and externally with relationship managers and clients. The wheat is then separated from the chaff, and the best ideas are put in front of a ‘CX board’ of senior global BNP Paribas bankers, who confer and provide more feedback.

“The idea is to act like a venture capital firm,” Jong says. “We came up with 70 ideas in our first year, which we distilled to 11. In the second year, we worked on commercialising eight of these. Ideas often get recycled later. Essentially, we come up with ways that help the bank to generate more business and, importantly, to work better and more cohesively – it’s a cultural transformation. The cost may not be significant, but the return can be considerable.”

Digital laggard

It has also helped to transform the regional business’s reputation at group level. Three years ago, Asia was viewed internally as a digital laggard. Where Geneva and Luxembourg led, Singapore followed. Jong and her team have reversed the loop, thanks to ideas like the MyWealth newsfeed. The app, born in Singapore, is now being adopted worldwide.

She was given added impetus by the ‘60-day challenge’ introduced earlier this year by Veyres’s successor as southeast Asia CEO, Joris Dierckx, who ran the bank’s India operations before being transferred to Singapore in August 2018. The aim is simple. The heads of a business line, be it compliance or broking, wealth management or legal, present her with a list of their most intractable problems, the ones that stump them every day.

Jong in turn puts together a team of six, which works for two months to find a solution. The process can be onerous, she admits, but outcomes can be invaluable.

A good example was the solution they found – and which she refuses to share – to the challenge of bringing more corporate banking clients into wealth management.

“We are looking for a mix of quick wins and longer-term wins,” she says.

In digital transformation, there will always be resistance, but we are proving that working together in new ways brings tangible solutions and benefits to our teams and our clients 
 - Vivien Jong

Jong’s team, now 12-strong, grows in size each year. (It could become one of the key moving parts of this, and indeed any other, big financial institution.)

She is careful not to blow any fuses: each team member spends no more than three days a week in the lab to avoid burnout, and they are often moved around to ensure they are constantly challenged.

“We try to create an environment where people feel they are allowed to fail,” she says. “This creates adaptability as well as balance in skills and perspectives.”

Changing a business culture, particularly in southeast Asia, with its strong cultural and commercial traditions, isn’t easy. Nor is breaking down the walls between divisions and people, particularly when you threaten those who like their internal walls wide and high.

“Some people don’t mind change,” says Jong. “Others push back. In digital transformation, there will always be resistance, but we are proving that working together in new ways brings tangible solutions and benefits to our teams and our clients.”

Generally though, the path ahead is becoming clearer. She points to the increasing engagement with digital among both relationship managers and private banking clients.

The number of logins using apps linked to the MyWealth digital platform jumped 70% year on year in the first six months of 2019, “so we know the growth-hacking is working, as clients are more engaged with us. We are currently converting 70% of our new accounts to myWealth, and we are aiming for 100% conversion.”

When Asiamoney departs, it’s with a spinning head and dry throat. The speed of change here is fast for a technophobic journalist. Jong, who has spoken eloquently and at pace for an hour, seems utterly unfazed.

Before I’m out of the door, she is up off her chair and calling a colleague in for a chat. The day is still long, and there’s plenty more growth-hacking to do.