Ayesha Abbas on Delivering Client-Centricity and Hyper-Personalisation to Affluent Clients in the UAE
Standard Chartered’s Ayesha Abbas is an influential leader with a reputation of being able to build trust with both external clients and internal stakeholders. She is well-known throughout the financial services industry in the Middle East for her integrity and track record of building high-performance teams. Her current role is as Value Centre GM - Head of Priority and Premium Banking, and Branch network at Standard Chartered Bank in Dubai, a position she has held since February 2019, when she left a prominent role at HSBC, where she had worked since 2006. With responsibility for the priority and premier clients – mostly expatriates in the region – under the retail bank, covering the whole of the UAE, as well as Oman, Pakistan and Africa, she is deeply engaged in the evolution of the wealth management offering and proposition in the region, with a sharp focus on new client acquisition Hubbis had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ with her by video call recently and found someone who appears sincere in her drive towards greater professionalism in the wealth industry, and towards curating a significantly improved client-centricity throughout everything she and her team do.
Ayesha opens the conversation by commenting that her team’s core mission is to be entirely client-centric, working as closely with those clients as possible to uncover their needs and expectations, and then delivering relevant solutions. It might be an expatriate client with young children who wants to set up a plan for their education, or someone focused more on retirement, building a nest egg for later on for a house purchase. Other clients might have considerable cash to invest, and the bank then works on products and solutions that support their objectives across a wide array of asset classes, from fixed income to equities, to tailor-made solutions.
“And all this can be delivered face to face or digitally, or both, depending on preferences and also on the evolution of change during pandemic,” she explains. “Actually, even those clients who were insistent on meeting with a relationship manager are now slowly moving towards voice and digital channels to fulfil their wealth management needs.”
Ayesha says the bank avoids the inevitable pitfalls of product pushing that had been endemic in the industry and that still all too often persist in the region, preferring to emphasise remuneration and incentive structures that are skewed to helping client-facing bankers truly focus on client centricity.
“And our extensive RM continuous development plans, with evolving regulatory context, the exams and qualifications, a top down client obsessed culture; all these elements encourage a client-first approach,” she reports. “Moreover, the regulator has been aware of previous learnings, and has for some years been introducing those much-needed regulatory changes for all the players in the market to be more compliant, as well as promoting greater supervision of how products are priced and distributed, including on the insurance side. The drive is here now to ensure client needs come first, and the products and solutions follow.”
Ayesha explains that they follow a very well thought through client engagement strategy which places the more sophisticated high net worth clients in direct contact with relationship managers and advisory to help build their strategic and tactical portfolios, which then takes those requiring simple straight forward solutions to voice and digital channels. The digital journeys are built with the client in mind; whether you are an entrepreneur, a home maker or a business executive, it offers simple steps that can help meet your financial goals. A great deal of emphasis is placed on client education and awareness through our insights.
She explains that even the wealthier clients do not need advice at every step of the way; they complete the risk profile at the outset with the RMs, and many then choose to trade themselves and to listen in, for example to webinar events on certain topics to keep up with selected trends. “Some clients may feel reluctant to pay for advice,” she reports, “and quite a number are fairly sophisticated, so do not seek out the RMs or advisory so regularly; nevertheless, our insights and market trend reports are available for them to refer to at any time.”
A key trend Ayesha highlights is towards the much-vaunted hyper-personalisation that is a buzzword of some of the technology and FinTech solutions providers, and that essentially aims to offer a far deeper personalisation but delivered digitally.
The second trend she highlights, mostly seen in the mass affluent segment, is the use of e-commerce and third party channels, to acquire such clients and then equip those clients with digital tools for them to be able to fulfil their wealth management needs. “And in the upper wealth segment, the HNWIs, we are continuing to see RM engagement as the dominant model as also indicated by client preferences,” she reports.
Keeping up the pace
Ayesha reports that the bank had earlier this year launched an online mutual fund platform app allowing clients to create or update an active risk profile, input key criteria as to their time horizons, their funds available, and so forth, and then participate in a range of mutual funds – as lump sum or by way of regular investment plans.
“And we will next launch an online equity trading platform, whereby the clients will be able to trade equities across a number of indices globally, about which we are really excited,” she reports. “Additionally, we have a new channel for secure RM communication with their clients via My RM tool available to clients on their mobile banking app, enabling digital chats and then the completion of their end-to-end trade while in fact speaking or chatting.” Coupled with Trade FX, clients can also now seek live rates while completing their foreign currency trades live online.
In for the long haul
As to the bank’s USP, Ayesha observes that Standard Chartered has a long and powerful reputation and strong brand in the region.
“Our motto is ‘Here for Good’,” she explains, “and that rather says it all; we are here to support our clients and communities, and we are here for the long haul. We have built a highly sophisticated and award-winning wealth management platform. Our expat clients also know us from their home countries, and we offer them international connectivity and network that expands our proposition into more of a global offering.”
“We continue to expand our proposition to offer basic banking and sophisticated wealth solutions to local and Arab clients whilst meeting their home purchase or capital growth needs; both via conventional and Shariah compliant solutions.”
Ready for eventualities
Ayesha reports that the bank had been sufficiently prepared in terms of its digital journey to allow business to continue quite smoothly when the pandemic hit. She explains that some digitisation projects were accelerated, but that those had been planned for already.
“Engaging via video links, our RMs were really able to connect to their clients, and we actually saw our client coverage rates improve tremendously,” she reports. “And the scale and regularity of the webinars we built out allowed for even more connectivity than the live events we held before, albeit the digital events do of course lack the human contact elements. As we are getting used to the new normal, we are back on track to now host our clients in a face to face environment”
And away from the clients, the bank has moved to new ways of working, she reports, and enabled its teams to be fully operational from wherever they are in any remote location.
“There is no doubt that all these areas have definitely improved as a result of addressing the needs of the pandemic,” she observes, “and as so many of the customers now are feeling comfortable with the notion of digital fulfilment, it has been very effective. Having said that, face to face engagement is surely becoming possible again, for us here in the UAE. With travel restrictions lifting slowly, we are also connecting with our international clients in live environments.”
Ayesha’s first priority is enhancing the client experience at every possible touchpoint, and the second key mission is to drive hyper-personalisation.
Elaborating on the first of these, she says that enhancing client experience covers the face-to face-environment, the digital environment, and the voice environment in terms of interactions.
“If today, it takes them 10 minutes to fulfil the transaction how can we bring it down to five or even two minutes whilst keeping the client at the heart of the entire journey?” she asks, rhetorically. “What are the extra steps that can be enhanced or better built? With the many expatriate clients if they're banking with us in Jersey or Singapore or in India, and then they come to bank with us here in the UAE, how can we facilitate what is called Global Passporting. Once they have met all the onboarding requirements in one jurisdiction, how can we ensure that they don't have to repeat submission of documentation? These are key issues in our drive to become the primary bank for our clients, not just here in the UAE but across other markets. We are certainly getting there with great advancement in our cross border connectivity ensuring how we make it seamless for our clients to bank with us wherever they are.”
The final word
Ayesha closes the discussion by remarking that the evolution of wealth management in the UAE is on an encouraging path, as professionalism improves, as product diversity improves, as regulation is strengthened and also in places liberalised, and as the industry reshapes its proposition to focus on the client at the epicentre of the offering.
“Many of these key elements are coming together at a good time for the region,” she reports, “and the result is that we are increasingly able to offer a truly international class service and proposition here. These are exciting times, and we are glad to be back on track with the new ways of working.”
Ayesha was born in Pakistan. She grew up and was educated in Qatar and UAE, then went on to complete her professional qualifications in the UK, , after which she returned to Qatar and started working with HSBC Bank as a graduate trainee. “I worked my way up at HSBC for about 18 years and then joined Standard Chartered,” she reports. “My working life has been predominantly within the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, but I have also enjoyed assignments in London, Switzerland, and Singapore as well.”
She says she has been lucky to have excellent mentors in her career. “I believe that sponsorship and mentorship is extremely important to navigate well in the organisation,” she says, “and then raising your hand when you want a certain job is also very important. No one's going to necessarily come to you and put the right job in your lap, you've got to put your best foot forward and earn it, but certainly you have to be prepared for it. In order to rise in your career, be bold, take risks, seek feedback, learn from mistakes, work incredibly hard and know your business well!”
Ayesha spends a lot of time back in the UK where her parents live and enjoys hiking with her father. “He is an avid hiker and being out in the forests or hills on tough hikes is really what I love doing most, and just being with family when I am not working. The Brecon Beacons in Wales is one of our favourites, as well as Ben Nevis up in Scotland, and nearer London Virginia Water in the Windsor great parks. Part of her holiday is spent back in Pakistan where she enjoys local cuisines and some retail therapy. Leisure time in Dubai is spent with friends, relaxing and socialising.”
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