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Banking on the human touch: How SMBC innovates to serve customers better

SMBC's Head of IT, Planning Department Asia Pacific Division, Desmond Lee (left) and Head of Asia Innovation Center Masayuki Nagatomo.

Many banks across the globe have adopted emerging technologies to innovate new products and services. 

They range from mobile payments for B2C and B2B customers, the use of blockchain technology for secure and efficient digital transactions, to robotic process automation (RPA) to cut inefficiencies and provide better customer service. The list goes on.

For Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), it is the people using these new products and services who matter. 

"We are very mindful of why and how we innovate our services," says SMBC Head of Asia Innovation Center Masayuki Nagatomo. "Our group looks at the various solutions for humans – always taking them into consideration – to ensure that the products we roll out are meaningful to improving the lives of our clients."

The global bank, whose origins date back 400 years, has a holistic approach to its innovation process. "We are focused on enabling three components to reach our goal of touching the lives of our customers – that is, providing our customers with efficient banking, inclusive access and sustainable life," says Desmond Lee, Head of IT, Planning Department Asia Pacific Division.

Making banking efficient 

Businesses grow and their trading network becomes more complex. 

To help them manage their supply chains more efficiently, SMBC has embarked on efforts to be part of and bring to their customers the benefits of the global Marco Polo Network – a blockchain consortium that powers a seamless and secure exchange of data and assets between banks and other institutions. 

The network, which was jointly developed with technology firms TradeIX, R3 and various international banks, has improved customer experience with its cutting-edge trade and working capital procedures since it was launched in 2017.

On a smaller scale, SMBC Group company Bank BTPN has helped customers in Indonesia better manage their finances on the go with the digital banking service Jenius.

Ensuring inclusive access for all

Millions of people worldwide still do not own a bank account and do not use any financial institutions in any capacity. 

In Indonesia alone, this population adds up to around 180 million people, giving urgency to the government’s national development strategy of financial inclusion. 

Bank BTPN has developed a branchless banking service known as 'BTPN Wow!' to serve the unbanked group of customers in South-east Asia's largest economy. 

As with SMBC's other innovations, the idea behind the new service is human-centric: To make it easy for anyone who owns a phone, even if it is not a smartphone, to enjoy access to banking services through unstructured supplementary service data, or USSD technology, which allows anyone to make common banking transactions such as deposits and bill payments even through SMS. 

"Improving people's lives is among the top priorities of SMBC," explains Mr Nagatomo. "For Indonesia, we are striving to empower the country's unbanked population by bringing the service to them."

Shaping a sustainable future

A common concern in ageing societies like Singapore is financial planning for retirement years. In Japan where there are thousands of centenarians, SMBC has responded to the government's call to create services tailored for this "100-year life society". 

From financial planning and pension insurance to re-designing retail branches and bank forms, SMBC's purpose is to help people worry less in the long-term. 

For example, its Money Plan application allows customers young and old to manage their finances according to their income, family expenditures, and even risk appetite. 

Enabling sustainability to SMBC is not only about financial services, but also spurring that of businesses in various sectors. Agriculture is a huge contributor to Asian economies, Japan included. With younger generations preferring to develop careers in the city, there is a strain on the physical labour-intensive farming community. 

To this end, SMBC Group company Japan Research Institute (JRI) and Keio University have created "DONKEY". This AI-robot not only alleviates physically-demanding tasks such as carrying heavy loads and night patrolling, it also uses real-time data such as weather conditions to advise farmers on the best time to start the planting season. 

Its data analytics capabilities not only improves visibility and traceability of product movement from farm-to-fork, but also seeks to help SMBC's farmer customers with better sales channel and business planning to boost profits. In doing so, the major banking group in Japan aims to grow together with their customers, establishing firm and lifelong relationships.

Banking on a better tomorrow

So what drives SMBC in its digitalisation journey? 

"At the end of the day, the banking business is about relational trust between humans. Our vision is to earn the highest trust of our stakeholders – customers and the society at large – so our innovations are answering to and looking ahead at customers' needs. Basically, we are banking on a better tomorrow through our innovation today," Mr Lee says.

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