SINGAPORE: Citi, the financial services giant, is leveraging new digital technologies to engage Asian consumers.

The company operates over 700 Asian branches, and is revamping each outlet so it resembles a "store" rather than a traditional bank.

In achieving this objective, it is drawing on insights provided by the team that pioneered the layout of Apple's stores.

Francesco Lagutaine, CMO for Citi Asia Pacific, argued the organisation's innovation strategy marked a core turnaround from a "bank out" to "consumer in" decision-making.

One initiative resulting from Citi's efforts in this area is "smart banking", a notion conceived in the US but first introduced at Citi's Nihonbashi branch in Japan.

This and other "Smart Branches" include interactive "media walls", a large screen displaying financial and general news, alongside touchscreen functionality letting customers browse product information.

Moreover, they supply similar touchscreen gadgets via which shoppers can read up on Citi's portfolio. 

Applications for bank accounts, credit cards and equivalent offerings may also be completed in the same manner, and videoconferencing customer service tools are available if further guidance is required.

"The innovation group decided that Asia would be the best place to develop this new retail banking model," said Lagutaine.

"They were able to isolate an idea that looked at how technology would allow us to serve our customers in a more seamless way."

"Then we were able to very quickly take the Japan pilot and replicate or adapt across the entire region. This new model has already gone back to the US and [been] implemented there."

A key reason supporting this decision was that Japanese perceptions of Citi improved dramatically in a short time.

"Ultimately, the one statistic that really indicated the success of this innovation was our ranking in the Nikkei Index of Customer Satisfaction," Lagutaine said.

"In Japan two years ago we were ranked number 57. Last year we ranked number one."

While certain risks are associated with being an early adopter in such areas, Lagutaine stated the opposite approach would be just as problematic.

"In order to capitalise on the phenomenal growth of consumer markets in Asia, and the opportunities new technology is offering, for us the greater risk was in not acting," he said.

"We needed to quickly and responsibly activate all these innovations."

Indeed, Citi's modified approach has been an effective means of engaging both customers and staff, as shown when Lagutaine visited a newly-opened Smart Branch in Sydney.
"I could see that our people were incredibly excited to be working in that environment," he said.

Elsewhere, he asserted the advance of digital tools might prove especially beneficial to foreign banks, which are often legally restricted in terms of the amount of branches they can run. 

"Even in markets that are more flexible, there are limits to expansion and significant costs involved," he added.

"Now we're able to create greater connectivity and invest more in alternative stores because we don't have the legacy of an extensive branch distribution model that is a cost in a balance sheet."

Data sourced from Campaign Asia; additional content by Warc staff