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In this interview, Commerzbank's Ralf Kalbhenn and Ole Franke discuss how the bank is approaching digital, one of the most important strategic topics for the next decade, and its impact on technology and customer expectations.

IN 30 SECONDS

  • Changing customer behaviour is prompting financial services providers to rethink their digital strategy and service offering 
  • Banks have been slower to adapt than some sectors due in part to regulation, data security and other challenges 
  • Commerzbank has transformed its digital offering around the core principles of speed, simplicity and security to gain a significant competitive advantage 
  • Embedding a culture of innovation and best practice as part of the project means the bank is better prepared for future developments

 

The banking market is in transition. Online and mobile banking trends as well as the ongoing digitalization of society are changing customer behavior. What does digital mean for banks and for their customers? How can banks take advantage of the digital opportunity, building products and services attuned to changing customer demand?

Aiming to move towards a ‘digital branch of the future’ and become one of the leading multichannel banks in Germany, Commerzbank’s digital evolution, involving a team of approximately 200 internal and external employees, has included the development of a new, innovative online platform and intelligent mobile product, a tablet app, an extensive direct banking capability, and the launch of an innovation-focused ‘FutureLab’ as a model for the successful implementation of new online banking ideas.

In this interview, Commerzbank’s Ralf Kalbhenn, Principal Project Manager, Digital Strategy and Ole Franke, Director, Directbanking, discuss the customer trends that are shaping the bank’s digital strategy, and challenges of developing a future-oriented multi-channel architecture with a full range of services for private and corporate clients.

What does digital mean to you?

Ole Franke: Digital signifies a change of behaviour in everyday life, both personally and in business. Today’s graduates have completely different skills to 30 years ago, and will also need different skills in the future for everyday business life. In the personal sphere, too, there has been rapid change affecting the organisation of private life, community, information sharing and information flows. The development of technology drives this process on as devices get smaller and faster, and internet connections get better.

Ralf Kalbhenn: Localisation is no longer necessary for a business project. Intensive exchanges and discussions work perfectly with tools like Microsoft Lync, videos, online chats and presentationsharing. Team building across borders has been made far easier. The implications for personal lives are somewhat different. People are permanently online on devices. I’m not sure if that is a positive development.

Ole Franke: The barriers are lower for a quick chat, which can be more open, and more direct.

What are the challenges for a bank in this new environment?

Ole Franke: There is a natural barrier of security and data protection that should help to overcome some of the challenges. Nevertheless, the difficulties are huge because of all the different touchpoints banks have with clients. The status of digital in banking is very low compared to other industries. And there are impediments like regulation. Commerzbank’s challenge is to find the best ways to meet clients’ expectations in terms of speed and availability of information, offering them solutions, yet still making money.

Ralf Kalbhenn: Another challenge is to offer information in all channels at the same time, online as well as in branches.

Ole Franke: Clients want the best of both worlds: speed and seamless service, yet at the same time security and data protection.

The 'mobile revolution' is often framed in negative terms of information overload but as devices get smaller and faster, and internet connections get betterm consumers can potentially access better designed services more easily

How do the challenges differ from other industries such as telecoms?

Ole Franke: Banks have more frequent contact with their clients than telecoms firms or other e-commerce organisations. Bank clients might use banking services daily to check their account transactions or market changes, whereas telecoms customers might check a bill once a month. The same is true for e-commerce firms: once an order is made, the only touchpoints left might be to check when a parcel arrives, why it has been delayed or didn’t arrive. Banking clients are in a permanent relationship and regular contact with banks, so consistently excellent service is needed. Offering specialised banking services can be a competitive advantage but it also involves a lot of work and high expenditure.

How do you manage clients’ preferences for different channels, service levels and frequency of contact?

Ole Franke: Banking clients have different incomes, modes of consumption and needs. Commerzbank tries to be as easy and understandable as possible, no matter if a client is a digital native or not. Non-digital natives are also looking for a quick and transparent reply to their questions. The key expectations of an online tool are simplicity and ease of use. How do you ensure that access to these sometimes complex processes is easy and manageable? Ole Franke: First you have to ask: ‘How do people search for information?’ In the past you would have probably called your bank manager, but today you go to Google or the website of a service provider. Core information is no longer analogue but very much digital. The search outcome can be completely different. In short, we focus on the processes that will ensure the client finds the information he is looking for in the most straightforward manner.

Some services seem ill-suited to digital. For example, would an SME looking for financing go to the online channel instead of calling their bank manager, as previously?

Ralf Kalbhenn: Core competencies are still with the bank managers, but many services can now be done online. Companies often prefer the online option, for quick monetary transactions and bank statements, for example. The ‘digital surface’ – the architecture – is being adapted to target this SME group although we use the same software and mainly the same processes in the background. In fact, Commerzbank differentiates between services and processes – only the process level has to be changed without having to build new software.

Whilst other industries – such as entertainment and retail – have taken advantage digitally, banking has yet to take advantage of the potential to the same degree, in part due to impediments like regulation

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEES

Ole Franke

Director, Direct Banking, Commerzbank

Ole Franke joined Commerzbank in May 2013 as the lead for online and mobile banking. He was previously Corporate Director, E-Commerce with Electronic Partner, one of Europe’s largest trading companies for consumer electronics and household electronics, IT and telecoms. Prior to that, Mr Franke developed and accounted for online business at telecoms and data services provider E-Plus Group, having joined from Vodafone D2 GmbH where he held several sales and leadership positions.

Ralf Kalbhenn

Principal Project Manager, Digital Strategy, Commerzbank

Ralf Kalbhenn moved into his current role as project lead in customer management, retail and the corporate centre in April 2013. He has led several projects in e-commerce, portals and CRM in a project management career starting in 1996. Prior to that Mr Kalbhenn spent six years at Dresdner Bank after finishing his studies in Computer Science and completing an apprenticeship at Deutsche Bundespost.

Mortgages are very complex. Are they really suited for digital?

Ole Franke: Currently, very few banks have purely digital mortgages. For finding information, on options or affordability, digital channels are very suitable. With some client data Commerzbank can recommend the right contact person in the right area, who will then contact the client for further detailed advice.

COMMERZBANK'S DIGITAL STRATEGY DEVELOPMENT

Increasing demand for online and mobile banking and changing customer behaviour spurred Commerzbank to investigate full digital access to services for private and business clients. Its aim was to move towards a ‘digital branch of the future’ and become one of the leading multichannel banks in Germany by 2016.

Development of a new, innovative online platform and intelligent mobile product began in 2013, with a team of approximately 200 internal and external employees. Initially focusing on strategic and technical foundations, the project gained impetus through simultaneous work on the structure of the IT innovations.

The first quarter of 2014 saw the introduction of a tablet app, followed by an extensive direct banking capability at the end of the year. Other initiatives include Scopes 2014, intended to digitise the securities business, Personal Finance Management (PFM) and innovative customer interaction management, designed to deliver a consistent, personalised and cross-channel customer dialogue.

An innovation-focused ‘FutureLab’ was created to develop the bank’s digital strategy, a model for the successful implementation of new online banking ideas. An agile ‘scrum approach’ enables end-to-end functionality to be evolved continuously via several ‘sprint teams’ working in parallel. Each team – jointly led by a specialist product owner and an IT ‘scrum master’ – is able to develop technical solutions around specific requirements identified in user journeys. Short work cycles of four weeks make the staged developments flexible and adaptive.

This level of consideration also extends to the outsourcing of IT development. Commerzbank’s new online products are mainly developed offshore in India, so security considerations and robust project governance required a reliable and well-defined working relationship. Before committing, offshore delivery was simulated in a two-month pilot period in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Potential challenges were identified and strategies for best practice cooperation developed.

You have rolled out a series of digital initiatives around online banking. How have clients responded?

Ole Franke: Our clients are happy so far. On average they have migrated within 10 weeks to the new online portal, which is a complete change to the old version. Feedback from large client groups was used to develop the whole system further.

Ralf Kalbhenn: Yes, user feedback has been extraordinarily positive. The software development is agile and that allows short change cycles. Employees are generally the most critical users, but they saw that their feedback was addressed in the next software release, which helped a lot. Including them in the change pilot project has resulted in very good quality control.

Ole Franke: It is a challenge to include clients without constraining innovation and development. But nothing can be forgotten – if a client uses 112 templates and the system only allows 100, they will be upset and the software may have to be changed immediately depending on how many users are affected.

What did you find most challenging?

Ralf Kalbhenn: The timeframe for the project (around nine months) was very short to manage the transformation of the whole of online banking. Putting the technology in place was hard work, but the platform is now a foundation for further developments, which is a great motivation. Ventures like these only work if the business side of an organisation and IT work hand-in-hand and don’t act as two separate departments. We have formed mixed teams and that’s why it’s working very well.

Ole Franke: Given my background in a different industry, it was interesting for me to gain an understanding of the mechanics and dynamics of a bank; how everything works. For the bank it was interesting to get my input. With such a big organisation, I was initially concerned over what new ideas I could bring and how to organise such a big project involving more than 100 people. We made a real effort to include everyone, reaching out to both clients and employees. The project is working well so far, with high download numbers. A growing number of clients now use the different mobile apps. This growth is a proof of success. The biggest challenge is to get people excited.

Instead of ‘responsive design’ (which many others have chosen) Commerzbank’s products are specifically designed for mobile technology

What is the effect on banking from the proliferation of connected devices, including wearables like smartwatches?

Ole Franke: If a German big bank manages to get all the information on one of these devices – for example on a tablet platform, they are at the forefront. However, once all the information has been brought together for one type of device, it’s not too onerous to transfer it on to other devices, such as Apple Watch. At Commerzbank the focus is on everything ‘mobile’, especially strong investment in tablets, as there is perceived to be a migration among clients. We started to build a specific tablet app as a first step. Many competitors work with responsive design but Commerzbank uses mobile browsing instead. We think it’s important to have an app and work with mobile bandwidths. We are very interested in the mobile market and we are developing specific apps to target different users.

Ralf Kalbhenn: These apps can be very simple. For example, Commerzbank’s account balance app only shows a client’s balance without having to login with your credentials every time. This can be transferred, for example to an Apple Watch. The ‘art’ is to become simpler. Compare this to the year 2000, where everything was still overcomplicated and complex for online banking.

But aren’t clients checking their bank account details because they want to do something afterwards based on that information? Isn’t this type of app too restrictive?

Ole Franke: In fact, many of Commerzbank’s mobile users primarily search for information online. Clients check their account statement and the last 5–10 transactions up to 10 times a week. And Commerzbank still has many clients who come into branches just to ask for their account statement. The core problem was the barrier between them and their account and that’s exactly what Commerzbank eliminated with this app. The app is made to sit on the front screen of a smartphone and usage should start easily with mobile phones. Straightforward budgeting queries can be answered with one simple click. The security of the app is ensured as you cannot transfer anything, there is no account number, no name and no identifying details.

The success of a digital project such as Commerzbank’s is indicated by the number of downloads 

What would be the next step? To add transactions? Are you planning to include clients in the development process?

Ralf Kalbhenn: Thanks to app stores we have automatic client feedback, positive and negative. This feedback is checked, evaluated and acted upon accordingly. Security is the main issue. First of all, clients want security in online banking, but digital natives tend to say that they don’t bother too much about security issues.

But clearly these digital natives would also complain if their account was hacked and money lost.

Ole Franke: Of course, these tools have to be both simple and secure. There will be acknowledgements over which mobile transactions can be done securely. How will transactions be securely shown on mobile? Which TAN process is easiest and most secure? What else can be done? Legal aspects also have to be taken into consideration.

ABOUT COMMERZBANK

Founded in 1870, Commerzbank is an international commercial bank with core markets in Germany and Poland, and branches in more than 50 countries.

Focused on four business areas – private customers, Mittelstand (small and medium-sized enterprises), corporates and markets, and Central & Eastern Europe – the bank offers banking and capital market services to private customers, corporate clients and institutional investors.

Commerzbank’s subsidiaries include the German online bank comdirect and Poland’s mBank.

Key figures

  • 52,000 employees
  • EUR 9 billion in gross revenue
  • 15 million private customers
  • 1 million business and corporate clients
  • 1,100 branches (Germany)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Robert Bosch, Iris Grewe and Oliver Grönke at BearingPoint for setting up this interview.