A decade ago, financial planning might have meant just the simple banking functions such as loans and cash deposit services. Over the past few years, this activity has become a much more sophisticated profession and one that is the subject of tightened regulation.
"The demand for investment, insurance and other wealth management products grew substantially and therefore bank staff could not simply offer products without looking at the needs of customers," says Joseph Cho, assistant general manager and head of branch network and direct banking at Hang Seng Bank. "The sales models had to be changed as customers' awareness and knowledge in wealth management continued to grow."
Nowadays, the financial planning profession continues to take shape. "We must begin by knowing our customers," Mr Cho says. "Among all important topics, potential changes in life cycle, risk profiling and needs analysis are to be discussed so that customers can select appropriate solutions to fulfil their long term financial goals."
Despite the stringent requirements, many professionals of different functions within the banking arena have their eyes fixed onto the growing financial planning sector. As for Mr Cho, he has held various senior retail banking and consumer banking positions at a number of local and international banks. He joined Heng Sang in 2004 as head of customer management and marketing, and has recently taken up more responsibilities overseeing the sales and services functions of the bank's branch network and direct banking business.
Nowadays, part of Mr Cho's job is to manage businesses generated from the bank's three major channels: branch network, direct sales and phone banking. The seasoned banker finds challenge in his daily activities. "The lack of financial planning talent is an obvious challenge," he says.
Just two weeks ago, Hang Seng Bank received the Best Retail Bank in Asia, the Best Retail Bank in Hong Kong and Excellence in Wealth Management awards at The Asian Bankers' Excellence in Retail Financial Services Awards 2006. These are not only testimonies to the bank's sustainable performance, sales capabilities and investment in human resources, but also evidence the bank's solid foundation and infrastructure.
"A successful career should stem from a strong base," Mr Cho says. "And there are diverse opportunities at a reputable banking institution." He also points out that a combination of hard and soft skills is essential. "Hardware doesn't answer all questions, a financial planner's experience and knowledge are equally important," he says. "A genuine professional should never stop upgrading the necessary skills and knowledge."
There is no denying that banking institutions can offer a wide portfolio of financial planning services as well as all-round support for practitioners in terms of service, products and administration. "To meet customers' financial planning needs, we need to develop the professional capabilities of our staff in the first place." Mr Cho stresses. The bank operates its unique development centre. Besides its own comprehensive and stringent internal trainings, generous subsidies are also offered to staff for the pursuit of professional qualifications and industry accreditations. With a bankwide mentoring system, staff can also enjoy the privilege of becoming a part of the extensive people network that the bank has built.
Mr Cho obtained a masters degree in management sciences from the University of Manchester in United Kingdom in 1985. After working within the banking arena for one decade and a few promotions, he subsequently completed a graduate diploma in applied finance and investment from the Securities Institute of Australia in 1997.
Now a fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia, associate of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, and a member of the Society of Registered Financial Planners, Mr Cho believes that learning takes all forms and is not restricted to academic environments.
Professional institutes such as the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers are helping to enhance professionalism within the industry. They also help to set benchmarks and professional standards. As for the financial planning professionals at Hang Seng, a high standard has to be reached and only those who have done so will be recognised as professional by the bank.
The demand for professional financial planners and quality services are beyond estimation. It may take a few more years to get a better balanced development for the industry. "We are putting substantial resources to groom our staff so that they can meet the expectation and growing demands of customers," Mr Cho concludes.