x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The human touch lost at UAE banks

While improvements in technology allow customers to complete complex banking transactions remotely without ever needing to enter a bank branch, simple requirements such as changing an address or replacing an expired ATM card can be neglected.

Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank named a product, SimplyLife, after this new trend in banking. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank named a product, SimplyLife, after this new trend in banking. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Business owner Caroline Tapken says internet banking has given her more time to deal with the needs of her clients.

But when it came to the simple task of changing her mailing address at Emirates NBD, Dubai’s largest bank, she hit a brick wall. It took more than a month to have the clerical error changed, with neither her relationship manager or branch manager able to help.

“When things go wrong, you need to talk to someone and there’s no one there,” said Dubai-based Ms Tapken, the managing director of CTT Consulting, a PR and marketing communications company. “There have been great improvements in doing transactions over the internet and this is important for someone like me running a business so I don’t have to waste time going down to the branch. They are good online but when you have to deal with the human element, they’re just not there.”

Industry research indicates the country’s banks are not putting enough focus on improving basic customer service levels even as they develop new technology-related areas.

Suvo Sarkar, the general manager for retail banking & wealth management at Emirates NBD, says the bank has invested heavily over the past few years in improving its processes and technology aimed at providing a convenient and simpler banking experience.

He adds that the bank has also expanded the avenues for customers to raise their issues.

“The most recent addition is the social media platform,” he said. “The key objective of the complaint management team is to not only provide a satisfactory resolution but also to find out further improvement opportunities to avoid future issues.”

Despite these efforts Ms Tapken says she is unhappy with her service and the Dubai resident’s frustrations are shared by many UAE bank customers. A 2013 survey by Souqalmal.com revealed only 11 per cent of UAE customers would recommend their bank to friends and family.

Thanks to improvements in technology customers can undertake increasing complex banking transactions online – with even mortgages and loan approval now secured on the internet – but simple banking needs can be neglected.

When an HSBC ATM machine swallowed her card because it had expired, Jay Tharadolphap, an Abu Dhabi-based jewellery designer, said she went for two weeks without a replacement. The phone banking service was unable to solve her problem promptly, so she went to the branch. There she was told to call the phone banking service to deal with the problem.

“We strive hard to resolve all customer issues as quickly as possible,” said Raman Muralidharan, the regional head of customer value management at HSBC. “We acknowledge that we are not getting it right all the time, but we are completely committed to doing better. We have made extensive investments in improving our technology, training our people and streamlining our processes.”

While the World Retail Banking Report 2013 showed an improvement of 3.3 percentage points in the UAE’s performance customer experience index, Ethos Consultancy, which annually surveys bank customer service, says UAE banks are not doing enough.

“Overall, the research does seem to suggest that many of the UAE’s banks are still not focusing enough attention on customer service,” the company said in its benchmarking report.

Anecdotal evidence from customers reveals resolving complaints can be frustrating, as phone banking clientele appear to read from a script. Others complain of no longer being able to resolve issues face to face in bank branches.

Globally, banks are struggling to differentiate themselves as they essentially all offer the same service, according to a study by Capgemini, another consulting firm.

But this scenario is magnified in the UAE because of the large number of banks – there are more than 50 (not all offering retail banking) serving a population of just 9 million. In the past two years, some smaller banks have been acquired by larger institutions such as Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank acquiring the retail network of Royal Bank of Scotland in 2010 and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank (ADIB) buying the retail arm of Barclays in the UAE this year.

And the fight for retail customers has intensified as the country’s economy recovers from years of stagnation. That comes amid record low interest rates and increased demand for loans to fund everything from refrigerators to cars and homes.

“You are seeing banks become much more aggressive on promotion of car loans, personal loans,” said Taher Safieddine, an analyst at the Dubai-based investment bank Shuaa Capital. “You receive all sorts of SMS, email messages. There is a recovery in the UAE economy, consumer confidence is back and banks are moving fast into the retail segment, which is a higher margin business than the corporate segment. Everyone is looking to the retail, everyone is seeing the opportunity and so banks have to compete extra hard on the customer service front.”

ADIB, which won Ethos’s top award for bank customer service in 2013, underwent its own customer service transformation after a management shake-up in 2007 that brought in the former Citibank executive Tirad Al Mahmoud. Mr Al Mahmoud has said that the bank ascended from the bottom of customer service ranking to the top because of its focus on customer service and transforming its branches into nooks of Arab hospitality.

“A lot of people like the hospitality of our branches, that they can walk in and find coffee, dates, water,” said Phil King, the head of retail banking at ADIB. “So our branch experience ties into the customer experience approach. You are welcomed.

“People like to go the branch to have a relationship with the branch manager. A branch manager in Al Ain says that there is a customer who goes in to read the newspaper, have coffee with the manager every day. That’s where we feel we are differentiating and that’s where we are taking our strategy.”

mkassem@thenational.ae

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