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Cape Town – First National Bank sees its foray into technology as a way to gain a competitive advantage over rivals, the bank said.

The company was the first bank in SA to launch a mobile application and has sold in excess of 100 000 mobile devices as part of its online digital store.

Farren Roper, Head of FNB Connect ISP and Business Operations, spoke to News24 about the future of banking.

News24: As mobile channels increase in reach, will FNB close branches?

Farren Roper: The technology push is not as a result of wanting to close branches. It is largely because innovation is part of our culture at FNB and because we have embraced technology and sees it as a way to gain competitive advantage.

We service a multitude of customers with different needs. There will always be a set of customers who would prefer the personal interaction that a branch provides, so we will cater to those needs.

However the trend is shifting towards the “mobile consumer” who is “always on” and who is embracing the advantages that technology can bring. Looking at mobile banking in particular, consumers are likely to never be far from their mobile devices, so through our mobile offerings we allow a consumer to be able to do their banking anytime, anywhere.

In some instances, we are even marrying the concept of a traditional branch with technology innovation. Our Dot FNB branches are an example of this: they are completely cashless and clients can purchase products to interact with our latest technology like the FNB App.

News24: Would you say the future of banking is that people will do their own banking and they don’t have to queue at branches anymore?

Roper: The future of banking is that there should be very little that you can do in a branch that a consumer will not be able to do on our digital channels.

We call this “bricks to clicks”. But yes, electronic banking does offer the advantage that a consumer can do their banking at home, while commuting, shopping, at leisure, on the go, or pretty much anywhere that suits their requirements.

News24: Do customers prefer to do their own banking than to speak to a consultant? 

Roper: It would depend on the nature of the enquiry. Where a consumer is making a purchasing or investment decision, there may be a need to speak to a consultant, but there is something quite empowering for a consumer when they are able to take their destiny into their hands and self service their normal transactional banking needs.

We try and make it as intuitive and simple as possible for them as well, because we have the philosophy that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

News24: Does a third party write FNB’s banking app?

Roper: The answer to this is an emphatic no. Our Banking App was developed 100% in house by our FNB Connect team.

Our team has been doing mobile since Cellphone Banking was initially designed. As part of their growth and development, we allowed them to nurture their skills in App development.

Having our own in house development team makes us more agile and gives us speed to market, which is quite important in today’s ever evolving technology environment.

News24: Is it crucial for banks to write their own apps as opposed to third parties because of the intellectual property in the financial sector?

Roper: The answer to this question is yes. You also do not want to have a reliance on something that is such a crucial element of your business.

Mobile is the future and once you enter the race, it is something that you can never stop or put the brakes on, because the pace of innovation in the mobile sector is constant and with that, clients expect more.

We are fortunate in the sense that we have some of the best development skills in South Africa and these skills are hard to come by.

Developing Apps is also not only about the front end (what the client sees), but also about being able to tie it into existing systems in such a manner that works. This is another advantage of having an in house team.

News24: How does FNB retain their staff working on the latest technology?

Roper: The most sustainable element of rewards is intrinsic reward. By having a culture in which creativity is encouraged as well as team work.

We are always working on exciting new features, which is quite an addictive environment. And when we take something to market and clients respond well to it, it is one of the most validating things and creates a sense of pride, which is not easy to walk away from.

The Mobile and Connect environment is a high performance culture in which we work hard but we play just as hard. Having this balance between work and fun also contributes towards our overall levels of staff engagement.

News24: Where would you say does FNB’s competitive edge lie in mobile applications technology?

Roper: Our competitive edge lies in the fact that our solutions are home grown. We have a very entrepreneurial culture when it comes to our mobile applications, but we also leverage off expertise in other areas of the bank in order to gain customer insights.

For instance, FNB is the biggest financial services company on social media and in fact the biggest brand in South Africa on Facebook with over 320 000 likes on our page. There is no better place to harness feedback from our clients on what innovations our customers come to expect.

News24: Do you find that price sensitive consumers are reluctant to adopt app platforms or online banking?

Roper: Not at all. In fact most of our customers on our electronic channels are on the unlimited pricing option, which means that their banking fees are capped and they can enjoy unlimited electronic banking on our App or Online channels.

Where we do see customers being price sensitive is with regards to their smart devices as well as voice and SMS. But we are also doing our bit to alleviate their price sensitivity because we want our clients to migrate towards App banking.

News24: How deep is the development of digital platforms focused on security?

Roper: Our digital platforms conform to the highest security standards. Security breaches occur when clients divulge their passwords or sensitive information to third parties. We have educational initiatives in place to remind customers to keep their information secure.

News24: How many people work at FNB developing the latest technology?

Roper: FNB actually has a Federated model when it comes to technology, so most of our business areas, not just the channels, have their own technology teams and chief information officers.

This enables us to learn from each other and also to establish centres of excellence. We have a philosophy that “IT belongs to the business” but we also have strong governance processes in place.

We have our own data centres as well as our branch networks which are largely self maintained.

We have IT training academies and develop from within. So it is very difficult to say what the total technology compliment is across all of FNB because in a sense we see most of our business areas directly or indirectly connected to information technology. Information technology is what we do.