Digital banking comes of age

/ 05:06 AM September 06, 2019

Ron Batisan

Ron Batisan is the assistant vice president of UnionBank who led UnionBank’s launch of The Ark project, the Philippines’ first fully digital bank branch at Insular Life Building in Makati with a total of 50 Ark branches planned by end of 2019.

The Ark by UnionBank was declared the winner of best branch customer experience in Asia-Pacific at the Customer Experience in Financial Services Awards, beating DBS of Singapore and UOB of Thailand. It also won, among others, the best digital branch project from The Asset Triple A Digital Awards 2018.


The Ark by UnionBank was also hailed as one of the top 14 stunning branch designs from banks around the world by The Financial Brand—an international digital publication focused on marketing and strategy issues affecting retail banks.

Batisan came from humble beginnings. He earned his accounting degree from Wesleyan University-Philippines cum laude, and was a call center agent before joining the banking industry. He won the Mansmith Young Market Masters Awards in 2019 and is the first to be recognized for customer experience.


In this interview, he shares the insight and strategies behind The Ark. He will share more thoughts about marketing and customer experience during the 14th Mansmith Young Market Masters Summit on Oct. 29, 2019 at RCBC Theater in Makati.

 Q: What was the insight and mandate behind the service concept of The Ark?

 A: When we started our digital transformation journey in 2016, a big question was raised that is “what is and will be the role of the branch in the future when everything else becomes digital?” The Ark was our answer to this question, reaffirming that the bank branch is not going away but its role and purpose will shift from a space to simply process transactions to a venue for advisory conversations, digital channel onboarding, self-service banking and interactive experiences.

Q: What were your inspirations behind The Ark?

A: Our main inspiration in building The Ark is simply our customers and customers of the future. We want to make sure that all customer touch points in the branch will deliver superior customer experience. We are also inspired by companies that exemplify superior CX like Apple and Singapore Airlines to name a few.

Q: Can you share the service framework you used to create The Ark?

A: The Ark by UnionBank is the first fully digital bank branch in the Philippines demonstrating a transformation of space, people and processes to deliver a suite of digital experiences, products and transactions. Other banks in the Philippines and in neighboring countries only focus on either space, people or processes to transform customer experience but not a combination of all.


Q: What are critical success factors to ensure that the shift to digital will be a success among existing customers?

A: I believe it’s our people, our branch ambassadors. Our branch channel management team selected the best branch managers and sales and service officers in the bank to become The Ark’s ambassadors. Having a strong background in operations, they were trained heavily on products, customer service, sales and personality development. They were even trained by the same trainer for Singapore Airlines. After two months of rigorous training, the ambassadors were deployed and able to service customers regardless of their needs. Our branch ambassadors handheld our customers to digital channels i.e., our UnionBank Online mobile app, self-service machines and digital transaction portal. The award received by The Ark from Retail Banker International for best branch customer experience in Asia-Pacific was the result of the ambassadors’ advocacy to bring the best customer experience using digital channels. They ensured that there is a balance between digital and human interaction and that it is not really difficult to learn digital. The ambassador model is already replicated in 25 Arks all over the country (as of August 2019).

Q: How do you attract new, digital-savvy customers?

A: We differentiate ourselves through superior customer experience. We got great feedback from our new digital customers. They said our branch design was so cool and they felt it was really designed for them. They loved the fact that there was a café inside the branch and that the space was modular. They see lots of events happening and they are eager to participate. They also like the digital transaction portal where all transactions are paperless and processed way faster than traditional. The self-service machines they say are so cool, too, as they can do cash deposit and check deposit 24/7. Plus, there is a virtual currency machine for those who like to buy and sell cryptocurrency.

Aside from The Ark, our new UnionBank Online mobile app is also making noise. Our digital-savvy customers can now open an account using the app without going to the branch. The app also features free funds transfer to other banks using Pesonet and mobile check deposit. These are just few of so many app features that our customers are enjoying and our future customers will enjoy. And we will not stop iterating … We will always give what our customers deserve in the most convenient way possible.

Q: Were there unexpected glitches while executing The Ark?

A: Like any other project, yes there were. One of the toughest challenges we faced was to come up with a clear direction and the right decision. Each of the teams in UnionBank had different ideas and the focus was on the technology—what tech should we put in the branch? When we changed the discussion and put the customer at the center—the vision, story and customer experience design aligned, allowing the teams to put aside personal biases and focus efforts on what would work best for the customer. This taught us the importance of focusing on the customer and our people before deciding what tech to use.

Q: What key results have you experienced in this branch so far in terms of deposit, average balance profit, speed, customer satisfaction and other key metrics that you monitor?

A: Two years after its opening, The Ark garnered the following results:

The Ark had six times more accounts opened than traditional branches of similar profiles opened in the same time. Reduced turnaround time in account opening from 1 hour to 10-15 minutes, processing time for other transactions was cut to half

The average daily balance at The Ark is 4.3 times higher than traditional branches that opened almost same time as The Ark two years ago.

The ratio of self-service versus in-branch transactions is now 10:1 as against 1:1 for traditional branches. Customers are now shifting to self-service machines for their branch transactions. This customer behavior frees up the time of the ambassadors for advisory services and onboarding of clients to digital.

Held 2-3 customer acquisition and customer engagement events per week

These became our rationalization to spread out the Ark model nationwide. We now have 25 transformed branches and we’ll end the year with 50.

Q: Can you share key lessons from this digital transformation effort of UnionBank?

A: As a firsthand witness, I think the key drivers that led to the success of our digital transformation journey are our leaders—Tito Ortiz and Edwin Bautista. They made sure that in this journey, no one gets left behind. We are blessed to have them as they support us in all the things that we do. The culture in UnionBank is amazing. The coolest and seamless experiences in our branches, app and machines are well-crafted because we are being led by a CX expert, Ana Aboitiz-Delgado. Our team ensures all customer touch points will have superior customer experience and we see great results now. But we will not stop from there and continue to iterate. I guess the most important thing is we understand our customers first and their journeys. I want to mention also the key leaders in our digital transformation, Henry Aguda and Dennis Omila. They drastically changed the way we do projects in UnionBank as we now practice agile methodology, which we see is really working well for us. Humility and trust are the critical success factors why UnionBankers continue making strides. We don’t compete with each other. We complement each other. This is the best time to be part of UnionBank. I am extremely happy and blessed to be part of this dynamic organization.

Josiah Go is chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Follow him at www.josiahgo.com.

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