With a large number of financial institutions and insurance companies providing varied financial planning services, it is crucial for banks to position themselves well with a clear focus and core values. "We aim to provide a wide spectrum of financial planning products to suit customers' needs at different stages of their life," says Tong Hon-shing, general manager and head of personal banking, The Bank of East Asia Limited.
The bank's customers are looking beyond day-to-day financial management, but are setting serious long-term financial goals, notes Mr Tong. While most clients are becoming more knowledgeable about the types of products that suit their profile and aspirations, they are still looking for financial planning professionals to help them manage their wealth in a prudent and effective manner. He adds that the bank has successfully differentiated itself from its competitors in terms of brand strength, customer service and comprehensive product choice.
In the face of stiff competition, brand strength is a crucial factor for banks' performance. The Bank of East Asia has a wide customer base, and one of the reasons for this is that many customers see it as having a trustworthy image. In addition to its well-established brand name, the bank is widely recognised for the sincere, friendly and approachable manner portrayed by its financial planning staff and for the fact that the right products are delivered to customers according to their needs, Mr Tong suggests. Besides a high standard of professionalism and integrity, every staff member is expected to have a strong focus on quality of service, and customers' needs are always placed first.
The bank's vast product range includes comprehensive financial services, comprising structured products, fund management, stock-broking services, insurance and other services. One of its wholly owned subsidiaries, Blue Cross, which specialises in providing quality insurance services, has built up a reputation for excellence over the past 30 years and is widely recognised for its medical insurance, travel insurance, life insurance and other products.
Since many banks and insurance companies are providing similar financial services, it is important for a bank to carve out its own niche. The Bank of East Asia focuses particularly strongly on building strong bonds based on trust with its customers and this is a major draw for clients seeking a financial services provider.
Mr Tong emphasises that the bank's strong team of employees is a major driver in the establishment of its niche position in the market. Through effective communication between front-line staff and the product teams, the bank has become a well-known brand and is able to respond efficiently to customers' constantly changing needs by modifying and updating product features, particularly for some of the trendiest products.
Because of the importance of long-term relationships between planners and clients, after-sales support is highly valued in the industry and the bank's financial planning team actively provides high-quality after-sales services such as insurance claims, portfolio review and provision of liquidity.
It has not all been plain sailing to develop such a successful niche brand, Mr Tong concedes, and the bank has explored different ways to contemporise the bank's image in response to the market changes over the years. However, he says, a sound analysis of strengths and weaknesses is an important first step in brand development. One of The Bank of East Asia's advantages lies in the fact that it has 89 branches and 39 SupremeGold Centres across the city where financial planners come in face-to-face contact with customers on a daily basis.
A further step towards niche development is relationship building with customers, since this directly works to maintain a strong network of customers to support further growth and development of the bank.
Although The Bank of East Asia is well established in the market, it still faces a number of challenges, Mr Tong notes. The first is the rising costs related to meeting legal and compliance requirements, a result of greater supervision of the financial planning industry by the government. However, this benefits clients as they are better protected from misleading information or malpractice, he adds.
The high turnover rate of financial planning staff is another hurdle, as considerable effort and cost go into providing staff with professional training.
The stricter the competition, the greater the value of lasting customer relationships, Mr Tong points out. The bank will continue to strive to stay abreast of product developments and frequently changing market trends in the financial planning field, in order to continue to put its customers first, he emphasises.