In cities like Hong Kong, service industries make up a large part of the overall GDP and are a major source of employment. As a result, businesses tend to regard the customer as king and are constantly on the lookout for ways to upgrade their own service levels. Nowhere is this truer than in the financial services sector where, striving to reach new standards of excellence, the concept of "delighting" customers has become one of the important measures of success.
Yvonne Yung, Citibank's director for branch banking, sales and distribution, says that just exceeding customer expectations is no longer enough. "The banking industry in Hong Kong is mature and the competition intense," she explains. "Service is what sets you apart. In particular, the key is to make sure that customers, who have sophisticated needs and clear investment objectives, appreciate your service and keep banking with you."
Ms Yung, who oversees the wealth management business in the bank's retail branches, is reminded of this every working day. For CitiGold relationship managers, there is far more to the job than the basic task of preparing tailor-made investment portfolios which match clients' objectives and risk tolerance levels. "We also have to anticipate needs and be able to surprise customers with our attention to detail," Ms Yung stresses.
For example, little things like sending birthday greetings, or giving small surprise presents on a regular basis, are always appreciated. Such gestures show that the bank cares about their customers and that relationship managers are doing everything possible to be real financial partners. The knock-on effect is that, if customers are impressed by the efforts being made, they are likely to recommend the bank to their friends.
Innovative and flexible
Ms Yung points out that expectations and needs are becoming increasingly sophisticated among wealth management clients. In such circumstances, quality staff are an invaluable asset. "While an investment product might be copied and interest rates adjusted to be in line with the competition, it is the people that really make the difference for a banking service," she says. This especially applies to relationship managers who interact with clients on a daily basis. They must, of course, have strong interpersonal skills to work closely both with customers and with the back-up team of investment specialists who provide customised wealth management advice.
"We have also found that flexibility and innovation are what impress clients and distinguish our services and products from the competition," Ms Yung says. "These are the characteristics people notice when they are evaluating customer service or new types of investment product."
Relationship managers are kept aware of this, and of the importance of good time management skills, which are equally essential in creating the right impression. "Customers do not want to wait," notes Ms Yung. "They expect you to revert to their requests immediately and, if a deadline is set, it must be met."
Customer expectations are increasingly sophisticated
During her time with Citibank, Ms Yung has seen how an emphasis on recruiting the right people and training them well has always paid off. "We are an organisation which is willing to take a risk on staff with potential," she adds. It is this that has allowed Ms Yung to reach her current senior position. She started out as a management associate and was given every chance to demonstrate her abilities and tackle new challenges as she climbed the career ladder.
She readily acknowledges that the varied experiences, and sometimes the difficulties that she dealt with during her career, are the main thing that kept her in the banking field. "I was given early responsibility and that really encouraged me," she recalls. "Two years after joining Citibank, I was given the opportunity to open a new retail branch in Whampoa Garden from scratch. It was tough and exciting, but it showed the bank had confidence in me."
This emphasis on putting trust in staff continues today and is a cornerstone in the recruitment and training of relationship managers. They are usually university graduates with a few years' practical banking experience behind them. With Citibank, they take a comprehensive two-month training programme on a wide spectrum of topics, including product knowledge, market analysis and customer service. On-the-job training follows and is accompanied by developmental courses. The bank also provides an intranet tool known as the "Citibank Sales University" which helps to assess overall ability and to identify skill gaps that may need to be plugged. It is no wonder that Citibank has been commended as the "banker's Shaolin"!
Apart from giving trainees knowledge of standard investment products and market information, the programme focuses on interpersonal and behavioural skills plus time management. Regular assessments test the rate of progress, and there is a mandatory requirement to sit both internal and external examinations, such as those set by the Hong Kong Securities Institute and the insurance intermediaries. This provides an excellent platform for further career development in specialist or supervisory roles anywhere within the banking sector.
"Our policy is to give broad experience and promote from within," says Ms Yung, "We realise that this is the best way of grooming staff who can also provide the highest quality of customer service."
- Emphasis on professional services and "delighting"
customers by exceeding expectations
- Anticipation of needs and small surprise gifts show care
and attention to detail
- Close contact with customers to build up long-term relationships
- Focus on time management to create good impression
Ongoing training in product knowledge and interpersonal
- Comprehensive and detailed market research information