Stefan Kimmel, COO, explains how COVID-19 created digitisation opportunities in banking and why customer-centricity is essential to CBD’s operations...
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is causing the banking sector to necessarily reassess so many of its core processes, there is one focus that should always remain the same: good customer service. Formed in 1969, the Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) was built on a solid foundation of determination to improve the lives of the UAE’s citizens. Originally a joint venture between Commerzbank, Chase Manhatten Bank and Commercial Bank of Kuwait, CBD became a public company in 1982 and continues to be so to this day. The bank maintains a steadfast dedication to customer-centricity skillfully combined with visionary leadership, thereby allowing it to navigate the latest technological trends and produce optimal outcomes.
Joining the company in February 2020, on the eve of the global coronavirus lockdown, Stefan Kimmel, Chief Operating Officer, says that the pandemic was a “curveball” at the start of his tenure to say the least. “I hadn’t even had the chance to meet all of my staff before everything was suddenly via Microsoft Teams or Zoom,” he recalls. Coming from a long-term career working at some of the world’s most renowned consulting firms, Kimmel recognised the opportunity of working at CBD as a chance to put his consulting advice into execution. “After many years of telling clients what to do, I figured I wanted to get my hands dirty. Of course, it’s far more challenging but it's also a lot more rewarding.” It was the bank’s proud history, trajectory and outstanding track record of consistent revenue growth and profitability that captured his attention, as well as its promising commitment to digital transformation. The latter, he explains, is a direct result of CEO Bernd van Linder’s clear and committed long-term strategy.
Part of the new vanguard of ‘next-gen’ COOs, those who maintain a tech-focused outlook and holistic (non-siloed) team structures, Kimmel combines this with his outsider experience gained from working as a consultant. Having gained a solid understanding of what good performance means in a banking context, he is determined to achieve nothing short of the finest results for a bank in the Middle East. When considering how these outcomes will be achieved at CBD, Kimmel emphasises that technological advances will be crucial, although not, perhaps, in the way that many people think. “There's always a lot of talk about everything that’s going on in the market. However, I'd say, in recent years, technology has been far more ‘evolutionary’ than ‘disruptive’,” that is to say: it has been maturing and better applying emerging tech rather than creating new paradigms entirely. Part of the reason for this lies in banking’s status as a highly regulated industry, but the other is a direct result of a core technology: cloud. “If you look at the big platform providers - Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc - the number of capabilities they've integrated into their cloud platforms is mind-boggling,” continues Kimmel. “Regardless of whether it was AI (artificial intelligence), DevOps, or any other cutting-edge technology, it would have previously taken large investments spread over several years to develop. Now, everything is an API (application programming interface) and you can just plug it in; you're not stuck with a 10-year-old infrastructure, you can literally just switch one API for another.”
CBD is a bank wholly committed to lean and agile thinking in its tech infrastructure, but Kimmel knows that this is only half the battle. While most executives in the banking space know what ‘good’ looks like, it is, nevertheless, fully realised by few because of numerous real-world complications (legacy infrastructure, budget limitations, sub-optimal team organisation, etc). Where CBD makes the difference is in two key areas, both linked with a superior cultural outlook. The first is maintaining a clear vision starting with senior leadership and permeating the whole organisation, while the second involves consistent investment and development of teams themselves. “We bring in fresh talent when it’s needed, but we primarily focus on training and upskilling. Doing so requires us to constantly stay on top of our game and drive that transformation along with them. I was blessed to come into an environment that has that top-level ‘buy-in’,” says Kimmel. A mid-sized bank with dynamic team structures and closely aligned management capable of making changes fast, it has ultimately been these key differentiators which have seen CBD surpass its competitors during the challenging circumstances of COVID-19: “Most organisations, not just banks, had to stop investment, stop hiring, or even let go of staff. Because CBD had that clarity of vision and focus, we did the opposite.”
However, despite its strong culture, which allowed it to weather the onset of COVID-19, Kimmel makes it clear that the challenge has been no less difficult, “It was very hard initially; no bank is naturally set up for a scenario like that.” Through the dedication of its IT and operations teams, CBD was able to make the transition to remote working without any deterioration of its service levels. In fact, reflecting on the effect that the pandemic has had on banking generally, Kimmel goes on to state that coronavirus may have inadvertently spurred on the next wave of both tech and customer service transformation. “The commonly agreed notion and sentiment now is that COVID-19 has been one of the biggest digitisation boosters we've seen in a long time, because, all of a sudden, our clients couldn't come into the branches anymore.” In line with this, CBD subsequently announced in a July press release that digital adoption among its customers had risen significantly. Kimmel states that this migration provided the bank with a dual learning opportunity: learning how to optimise functionality and convenience for the online platform, and also finding out how CBD’s in-branch experience can be improved to drive engagement.
Customer-centricity and digital transformation go hand-in-hand at CBD: a kind of conceptual möbius strip wherein each simultaneously develops and reinforces the other. With developments already well underway prior to the start of Kimmel’s tenure, CBD’s digital banking capabilities have received widespread industry praise, including ‘Most Innovative Bank’, ‘Best digital bank’, and ‘Best mobile app’. According to Kimmel, “the journey started in our digital channels - building capabilities and making them slicker. We will continue to add more and continuously improve our customer experience and improve it. Digital transformation is a never ending journey.” It is by combining a digital interface with its customer-centric ethos that CBD strives to create value, something which, Kimmel admits, is often no easy task. “Every organisation these days gives that as their vision statement, but it's difficult to drive that message through.” To accomplish this goal, the bank maintains performance management KPIs for every employee backed by operating procedures to ensure each customer interaction is quality controlled to a high standard. “After any changes, we ask our customers for real-time feedback,” he continues. “If they don't like it, we keep improving it. CBD is constantly investing in the journey and driving customer satisfaction.”
Pivotal to the development of CBD’s digital transformation has been the establishment of strong partner ecosystems with trustworthy and influential companies. “The direction banking is heading towards means that it will increasingly do less and less in-house, as that's no longer sustainable or competitive,” explains Kimmel. As such, he provided examples of two collaborators: Ingenuous and Fiserv. A decision-support company based in Melbourne, Australia, Ingenuous distinguishes itself through extensive global experience in its field and specially-tailored strategies for its clients. “Ingenuous is working with us in the compliance space. As you know, compliance is an ever-growing field of increasing complexity and demand. The company has been working with us on KYC (know your customer) and AML (anti-money laundering) to constantly improve and enhance our compliance capabilities.” Fiserv is a global leader in fintech and innovative payments experiences to suit the modern world. “CBD is working with Fiserv in the omnichannel space; it is an enabler that allows us to switch between ATMs and kiosks, which is an important aspect of driving a uniform experience across the different channels CBD operates in.”
Reflecting on what CBD has accomplished in 2020 despite the disruption, Kimmel states that he is proud. However, he quickly adds a caveat that, at least in the new, tech-driven world of banking, everything is always in a state of ‘becoming’. “In the technology space, nothing's ever finished because there's always something new on the rise. CBD will continue to develop its already-strong channels like the retail space, but we have a pipeline of new and exciting capabilities lined up, including automation and AI-based controls and the constant renewal of our IT architecture.” Currently on the verge of facilitating full digital onboarding in the corporate space, starting with SMBs (small-medium businesses) and then scaling up to more complex entities, the bank will be continuing its winning combination of tech-enabled customer-centric operations as it moves into 2021. “CBD is creating leadership in digital customer-centricity and digital customer services,” Kimmel emphasises. “For me, that is the mantra we are pursuing.”