Axis Bank to ramp up investments in digital technologies

The bank intends to increase the digital budget by approximately 25 per cent in 2018-19; investments will continue in Axis Aha, the AI/ML based chatbot. Further with multiple channels, the focus this year will be on investing in an omni-channel kind of a platform
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You were a COO and CFO at Axis AMC, and have helped set up the company in 2009. How has your experience helped in coming up with ideas in your current role?
In IT, at times, the investments are upfront and secondly, one has to invest in something new, but beyond a point, it has to have an RoI, either in reducing costs or enhancing customer ease. There are a number of requests that flow from different businesses like cards, forex, MFs, insurance, etc, to add more features. Every feature addition has a cost of development. They have to be prioritised. We look at business cases, in terms of whether adding a proposed feature will reduce the costs or enhance customer ease, which should result in a reduction of consumer requests or complaints.

Consumers no longer stick to categories. They compare bank apps to any other non-banking app. We also have to understand that mindlessly adding features fails to cut the ice with customers as they desire simplicity and in any case they only use selected features. Ultimately there is a cost of development and marketing for the concerned feature. My experience of a CFO at Axis AMC always keeps me cognisant of
this aspect.

What are the latest updates in the area of technology at the bank?
Speed and availability are two key ingredients for a successful digital operation. Thus we are constantly upgrading our hardware, so that systems are available 24×7. The failsafe mechanisms are in place for mission critical applications. Secondly, we are investing in tools that allow us to ascertain where customers are dropping off in various journeys within their app. These analytical tools are coded to strip information on whether the issue is on the bank’s side or in the customer’s device. This helps in taking remedial action.

What is the digital strategy you plan to adopt at Axis Bank?
Branch was the only channel of communication between the customer and the bank, during the initial days of banking. However, over the years, many more have been added. Bots are the latest communication tool and they empower the customer to do a lot more than what was possible with the initial communication channels. In the last few years, banks – with the emergence of the UI, UX, design thinking – have started investing in how they can ease the friction which exists in the customers using the banking services.

Digital is playing an important role in making this possible. For example, the most frequently used banking services include bill payments, balance check, fund transfers and at the most investments in MFs, etc. We focus on how we can ease them in the best possible way.

The next phase of digital banking will be, with the power of data, in guiding the customer in how can he use the best options available in the market for achieving his objectives. For instance, after checking the balance, the customer would ask how can he use the money in the best possible way and maybe the bank can advise to open an FD or to target more food related offers to those who are spending more on food.

Which initiatives are underway on the digital front?
We are working hard to ensure that we are ready for the next wave of automation – from navigational to conversational banking. Axis Aha, our AI and ML based chatbot, is a significant step in this direction as it is allows customers to complete transactions and thereby significantly reduce the TAT to serve requests. Axis Aha solves queries faster compared to the past, when the customer was required to go for elevated searches on Google and then come to Axis Bank website. A lot of work is underway to solve the top five to six most frequently asked queries.

Please discuss the ratio of transactions on digital channels and at the branches.
Upto 60 per cent of the transactions are digital. Our aim is to ensure that all products and services can be brought or serviced through digital channels. But there are some products which would have a physical leg. For some products like personal loans, our aim is to source 50 per cent completely over a digital channel.

As per the RBI’s latest figures for mobile banking, Axis Bank tops in terms of value and the number of transactions among private banks. On an average, the monthly value of transactions on the mobile app is 24,000 crore.

How do you manage information security while working on digital banking initiatives?
Before any release cycle, there are rounds of User Acceptance Testing (UAT), followed by testing with a closed user group (CUG) environment. Subsequently and finally, it goes through a Beta stage before going live. We look at security at two levels. The first is at the device level, followed by transaction level checks. While Axis Bank’s app is downloaded by the customer, the number is matched with the list of the registered numbers. If the mobile number is not registered, the customer cannot be onboarded on the app.

Secondly, we consciously limit transactions on a rooted or jailbroken device and also inform the customer accordingly. Every release of ours goes through a thorough information security check. The VAPT tests are done, and the vulnerabilities are identified and categorised into high, medium, low. The high and medium level vulnerabilities are not released. They are cleared only after getting required security layers are embedded with them. The low level security releases also go through the same process.

Please discuss the composition of the digital team at Axis Bank.
The channel team handles internet banking and mobile banking. The second team handles marketing and the third manages services like account opening, personal finance management, etc. The ASAP team has to work on fine-tuning their services, such that immediate delivery is possible. For instance, the account opening team has to make sure there are no drop-offs in opening of the account; the PFM team has to be expert in MFs, other investment options; and the bill payment unit has to create expertise in its channel. These expertise in various services is ploughed back in internet and mobile banking services.

It’s important to note, the service delivery cost (for sourcing an account) on the ASAP channel of services provided on IB and MB is 70 per cent cheaper than through the branch model.

A new vertical – Consumer Insights and Design Thinking – has been formed recently. Rapid prototyping is done with a number of features to test with consumers. This is to test, how it goes with the consumer, whether they are liking or rejecting the features – this saves costs. The wireframes are prepared and sent to the consumer and their response is registered. At times, features are redesigned because they were not easily identifiable on the screen. It’s quickly re-arranged and released.

What will be the investment areas in 2018-19?
We will continue to invest in Axis Aha, as we will consciously move towards conversational banking. Further with multitudinous channels, the focus this year will be on investing in an omni-channel kind of a platform that will help customers get a single view of customer interactions across our channels. The digital budget will be increased by approximately 25 per cent in 2018-19.

What are your views on including digital in every step of customer journey?
My focus has always been on using the power of digital to lessen the pain points faced by the customer, while doing everyday banking. The norm has been to use digital to automate processes, reduce the manual burden and engage the employees in more productive work; however, there are not many customer facing initiatives taken.

The importance of consumer connect that I had established over these years also helped me in understanding the customer journey for various banking products and services. This made me realise that digitisation at times is not necessary for every step of consumer interaction. Digitisation should be done to suit the consumer and not the bank. At times, when he requires to speak to a human then, we have to appreciate it. For example, the home loan journey is a very long one, which begins months even before the customer buys a home loan. He starts by checking various properties on various aggregator sites. Our presence there is important because we have to acquire the customer right when he has begun hunting for the right house.

We have partnered with The Axis Bank app has the properties listed against which, the Axis Bank home loan is available. This assures the customer that the bank has done some due diligence for the property. After he identifies the property, the need is for a human interaction to check whether his financial profile qualifies for buying the property. This is where the customer needs an emotional assurance, best offered by a human. Next, he wants to track the loan disbursal to him finally, which can be done digitally. As I have also handled operations and finance, the understanding of processes is deeper. It helps in co-ordination with other departments. The digital banking piece works in slots. Not the entire feature is released in one go. They might also be released in short capsules. There are releases of new features that are planned every two months and it can be done without any delay, when there is a well rounded process understanding.

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Axis BankdigitalDigital BudgetHead - Digital Banking & Customer ExperiencePraveen Bhatt
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