Delivering customer-centric financial services

By William Girling
SAVVI Financial’s Gina Mourtzinou and Liz Murphy discuss why customer-centrism is critical to the successful delivery of financial services...

Customer-centricity in the financial services sector is nothing new, but what has changed are the expectations that follow. As technological innovations continue to augment the customer experience across many sectors, such as the fast-paced convenience of ecommerce, finance is no different; it must cater for clients who are more confident, more informed and better connected than ever before. Having the digital tools available to meet these expectations is one piece of the puzzle, but, in many ways, the easiest. True disruption of the financial services market depends on combining technology with a first-rate leadership philosophy that puts true customer-centricity at the heart of everything a company does.

SAVVI Financial (SAVVI) is a tech-enabled finance platform that is just seven years old, but has a seasoned leadership team that each has 20+ years of industry-leading expertise. Based in Massachusetts, USA, the company’s leadership team comprises an all-star cast of data scientists, mathematicians, engineers and more. All MIT-trained PhDs, SAVVI’s executives synthesise their academic rigour, asset management skills and computational programming abilities into a distinct brand of financial planning which places the well-being of its clients as its supreme concern.

Gina Mourtzinou, Ph.D, Co-Founder and CEO, began her career as an engineer in Greece before moving to the US in the late ‘90s. In 2010, after rising to Senior Portfolio Manager at Ameriprise Financial Solutions, Mourtzinou, along with long-term associate Dimitris Bertsimas, decided to regroup and independently tackle the subject of affordable and effective finance advice. “By the time I left, I was managing USD$12bn,” Mourtzinou explains. “When we were considering what to do next, we decided it had to be something that made an impact, that made people’s lives better. That's how SAVVI was founded and our mission remains the same: to give high-quality financial advice to as many people as we can.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about SAVVI is the intellectual bearing to which it approaches problem-solving. It is a reminder that solid customer-centricity depends on mutual understanding, thorough investigation and the ability to analyse a problem critically and creatively. “I think the most important part of my background is actually my engineering training,” says Mourtzinou. “My approach is to treat financial advice like a problem which needs a solution; that's what you need to do.”

Liz Murphy, Marketing Consultant at SAVVI, adds that this attitude, in combination with a personable disposition towards clients, is what can make the difference between success and failure in the financial field. “The difference between SAVVI and other companies is that they’re some of the nicest, smartest people in the market,” she states. “Gina approaches everything with an engineer’s mind and focuses on the problem or on the customer in order to draw out a better solution.” The lesson, then, is that building a company with genuinely caring and interested people cannot be overvalued. In a market where finance is among the most competitive sectors to enter, a company which can demonstrate a real capacity for empathy and innovation will have a distinct edge over its rivals.

With the correct attitude clearly established, the second-most important aspect of modern financial services comes into focus: technology. As a digital company driven by experts in the field, SAVVI is a superlative example of great minds achieving great things. “SAVVI is based upon beautiful equations that can describe a customer’s entire financial life. We then use advanced causation techniques to solve them,” says Mourtzinou.

The company’s process involves the utilisation of computation processing and applied analytics to help clients determine their best course of action for a sounder financial future. This is achieved through sophisticated optimisation and scaled with cloud. A highly complex process, the company is nonetheless capable of condensing a customer’s financial life into a simple, actionable plan. “If you’re doing financial planning, you basically have to solve how to create a plan for an entire lifetime,” she continues. “You have to offset short-term goals with long-term ones, which is hard in mathematics. Optimisation usually works much faster when everything is continuous, but life decisions are not continuous: you decide to buy a house or not to buy a house; you decide to retire or not retire. It’s very complicated.” SAVVI overcomes this complexity by adopting a ‘robust optimisation’ approach; one which is not perfect under every circumstance, but provides the most optimal path given the available data.

It can be easy, in an increasingly technological world, for customers to miss out on bespoke ‘human touch’ which is often crucial for reassurance when dealing with financial matters. The versatility of SAVVI’s solution is a reminder that digital platforms can be as good, or sometimes even better, than a financial advisor. “That's the nice part of this platform: somebody can have all their specific goals tailored into a personalised pathway,” adds Murphy. The reason for SAVVI’s system’s superiority, she posits, is that customers receive the best of both worlds: a custom plan which addresses their individuality devised by the data-driven logic of a computer and then elucidated by a person. “Sometimes you can work out the solution, but it's hard to explain why it’s the best solution for them specifically. I had to find a way to explain to clients why our advice is best for them because we felt that, if you don't explain, then you don't gain their trust,” adds Mourtzinou.

Using this combination, SAVVI is able to give clear, unbiased advice on why a customer should pick a certain insurance product, for example. Making it clear that the company is not compensated by any particular party for its advice, Murphy underscores that customers should always feel their best interests are being taken into account. Instead of pursuing selling insurance packages one-on-one, as in a retail transaction, SAVVI partners with different companies in the industry which work with employers, who then offer packages to their employees. “By entering through the employer, we are able to integrate with the employer’s benefits and pull that data immediately into the system,” she explains. “This way, SAVVI is able to look at an employee’s company’s benefits to help optimise their available choices.”

The company’s fusion of next-gen technology with a truly customer-centric approach is an exemplary model for the best that financial services can offer. “What financial service companies should do with technology like AI is basically create a client-centric approach,” states Mourtzinou. “I think the way to go is to create a neutral recommendation system that looks at the needs of every individual and suggests products that they really need. It shouldn't be the product providers that drive benefits; it should be the employees themselves.” A recent partnership with Voya Financial to develop a digital assistant (myHealthMoney) for a new kind of health savings account (HSA) for the US demonstrates this ethos in-action. Using SAVVI’s analytics and optimisation algorithms, the platform empowers employees to make lucid sense of their financial situation and plan for their healthcare accordingly. With healthcare ranking amongst the most challenging topics for employees to deal with, SAVVI and Voya show that careful knowledge of the sector and an advanced understanding of the end-user can be invaluable to solving the problems affecting clients the most.

Described in a press release on SAVVI’s website, the myHealthMoney platform combines technology and innovation to provide employees with a clear understanding of their finances, enabling them to make informed decisions regarding their Voya HSA. The process involves answering simple questions about the individual (salary, savings, medical cost, etc) which are then used to generate optimised, personalised suggestions on how they can contribute to their HSA.

The digital assistant also evaluates an employee’s projected healthcare spending, determines what percentage should be paid ‘out of pocket’, factors in stated retirement goals and is adjustable for major lifestyle changes - i.e. marriage, children or changing job.

“Health care decisions are among the most challenging for employees. Not only are these decisions dependent on today’s complex financial situation, but they will also have a long-term impact on other important financial goals, especially retirement,” said Mourtzinou. “Through our collaboration with Voya, we created the myHealthMoney digital assistant so employees can finally gain clarity and confidence in their short and long-term health care finance decisions.”

In today’s market, a holistically customer-centric approach to finance has, arguably, never been more important. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create uncertainty globally, clients need to be reassured that the organisations they turn to for advice are informed, resourceful and working in their best interest. Attaining this functionality will depend on a strong mission statement, a well integrated team of experts, the latest technology and a collaborative attitude to bind these elements firmly together. “Working closely with our partners and listening to their feedback is what really gives us an advantage,” says Murphy. “A lot of companies are experiencing a difficult period, but we're working hard to develop more solutions instead of just eliminating benefits.”

SAVVI’s actions are an example to the sector: rather than a setback, difficult circumstances are opportunities to prove a company’s mettle and deliver customer-centric solutions at a time when they’re most needed. “Strong brands show care for their customers, clients and employees at all times,” Mourtzinou concludes. “We truly believe in what we’re doing and our actions always refer back to our mission: trying to help people. It’s important to have a mission, stick to it and do your best.”


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