In recent years, financial services industry changes have generated new challenges for banks and their staff. First, the focus on interest income derived from conventional financial products such as loans has given way to an increased focus on fee income, derived from more sophisticated wealth-maximising products such as investment and insurance. Second, customers have become more sophisticated and better-informed. With this shift, banks are increasingly being asked to provide a higher level of retail investment services.
The brunt of this challenge is felt by financial services professionals such as Christine Kwok, an investment services manager (ISM) at Hang Seng Bank. A retail investment services specialist, she responds daily to the growing demands of the affluent customer segment of the bank - Prestige Banking customers, as well as changing market conditions. However, it is precisely these challenges that make Ms Kwok's job so rewarding. "I learn about people, build relationships with customers and, on the technical side, learn about the financial markets," she explains. Given that the factors surrounding her profession are in constant flux, her job allows for continuous self-development.
At Hang Seng Bank, an ISM is a step up the career ladder from a customer relationship manager (CRM). While a CRM primarily provides retail services to Prestige Banking customers, an ISM's responsibilities are more diverse. As an ISM, Ms Kwok is a retail investment services specialist in charge of a particular banking district of the bank.
Her duties, outlined by Janice Li, senior manager and head of staff training and development at Hang Seng Bank, are three-fold. First, she coaches the branch's sales staff and assists managers in providing customer services; second, she helps the branch manager formulate a retail investment plan; and third, she helps the branch reach its sales target. The overarching goal is "to provide more market information to the customer, so as to facilitate the best possible solution for their wealth management".
Ms Kwok's role is particularly important in today's dynamic retail services environment, stresses Ms Li. Ms Kwok must regularly educate herself and the branch sales staff on new products being introduced into the market, as well as continuously update other market information. "There are no fixed equations to solve problems," Ms Li explains.
A typical day is spent on a wide range of tasks: reviewing the branch's sales performance and individual aspects, formulating a sales plan with the branch manager, coaching sales staff, meeting with customers and updating market information for sales staff.
Software vs hardware
A good relationship manager, says Ms Kwok, must have both the required "hardware" - knowledge and an understanding of markets, as well as basic mathematical logic - and "software" - a genuine interest in assisting with customers' wealth management, as well as communication skills.
The ability to understand customer needs, be proactive in seeking out a solution and communicate successfully with customers is essential. "A relationship manager must know the customer as a whole," says Ms Li - both their financial and their personal needs. She refers to "little extras". For example, the relationship managers will show their care by reminding customers who are going on holiday to apply for a travel insurance plan. Ms Kwok agrees: "Relationship-building is very important in our bank."
Since potential relationship managers are often groomed by a bank for years before they become retail services specialists, becoming financial services trainees upon graduation from university, they receive much of the required "hardware" in the form of training. Ms Kwok, for instance, entered Hang Seng fresh out of university and has since climbed the ranks from trainee to customer service officer, customer relationship manager and, finally, her current position of ISM. Aside from a university degree in any discipline, Ms Kwok says that all that one needs to become a relationship manager is the aspiration to work on relationship-building. Training comes from the bank, as well as from licensing examinations imposed by various regulatory bodies.
Even those whom Ms Li calls "mid-career sales staff" - people with several years of experience in the banking industry, but not in relationship management - can receive in-house training to acquire the "hardware" needed to become relationship managers. Depending upon experience and qualifications, relationship managers for personal financial services can earn a monthly salary of anywhere from HK$17,000 to HK$30,000.
For Ms Kwok, whose career has traced a natural path from financial services trainee to ISM, her ultimate goal of becoming a branch manager is no doubt attainable. The challenges for relationship managers like her will instead lie in keeping pace with the changing environment, increased competition within the industry and customers' growing sophistication. For the industry as a whole, the challenge will be to recruit and train strong candidates for relationship management, with the skills to master a dynamic market and respond to customers' needs.