Banking of the future

Voice Control and Artificial Intelligence Gaining Importance

by Natascha Zeljko

Interview with Arno Walter, CEO of comdirect

What’s behind your hashtag #bankneudenken (“banking reconsidered”)?

This has to do with our history. As a direct bank, we started out with the aim to democratize the banking business. We have abolished the bank counter and meet the customer directly and at eye level. To actually focus on the customer was a completely new approach—we had to think outside the box, to think about innovation at an early stage and observe what matters to people. From those thoughts #bankneudenken emerged. This is a question of attitude, and about picking up ideas from other areas of life and industries.

Is it easier for a direct bank to deal with the challenges of digitalization?

Yes. After all, we had to start from scratch and adapt to the markets and customers, to try many things and, above all, to be faster than our competitors. In other words, for us it has always been about breaking new ground and finding solutions. From this point of view, it is easier for us to deal with the topic of digitalization. We already have digital DNA.

One of the much-quoted assertions at the moment is that companies—including banks—are increasingly becoming technology companies.

I think comdirect was a technology company from the outset. I would even say that we are one of the oldest fintechs in Germany, which is why technology is a key to our success. Let’s take voice control: Amazon and Google introduced voice assistants, so we sat down and thought about what that means for banking and started developing solutions for it.

How has the employee set-up changed?

We have a mix of different backgrounds. Clearly, you still need bankers who understand the products. And then, of course, we have specialists who are responsible for areas such as user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) and who think quite differently about an interface with the customer.

What role does feedback play with the customer?

That is a decisive point, the focus of which can be seen in UX and UI. So how do we approach design and processes? This happens at an early stage. It’s about trying things out and always asking oneself if the customer is interested in it at all, and whether he needs it and how he uses it. Developing innovation together with the customer is a fundamental change that is also taking place in other industries.

It’s not just about technologies and tools like apps–digital transformation means much more than that. It’s all about how a company repositions itself from the inside …

This is indeed a cultural issue. How do you create a corresponding mindset and take employees with you on this wave of change? The pace is fast. There is a saying that I often say in lectures: “Due to digitalization, the speed of change will never be as slow as it is today”. The challenge is to make this transparent and to create a culture in which people deal with it openly. Because let’s not kid ourselves: people love stability—that’s no different with a direct bank. You have to persuade your employees to be open to new ideas and to get them enthusiastic about digital transformation.

A look into the future: what comes after mobile payment and voice-controlled banking?

Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate what will happen in two years’ time and underestimate what will change in ten years’ time.” If you look back now: ten years ago there was just the first smartphone on the market. A turning point! The smartphone was a huge technology driver. I’m convinced that its introduction was the biggest cultural change since the invention of book printing. Looking ahead ten years from now, I believe that industries will merge even more as a result of accelerated digitalization. If you look at the rapid development in voice control alone, we have only been at the forefront for one and a half years and can already prepare bank transfers, maintain watchlists, etc. I believe we will experience a combination of voice control and artificial intelligence with the smartphone as the central platform. Virtual assistants will also gain importance in the coming years.

For example?

Let’s take the securities business. One will say, “Today I want to have the stocks with the best performance, which are bought by clients who have the same investment profile as me.” At comdirect, there are already such cases when buying securities according to the Amazon principle: customers who bought that also bought that one. And if you go any further, you’ll always be able to settle things wherever and whenever a time window opens up—for example, when driving autonomously. Then your digital assistant answers and asks, “We now have 30 minutes driving time ahead of us, would you like to do your banking for a moment?”

Data speed will play a decisive role here.

Absolutely. Let me give you another example: it will be much faster to check costs, like the electricity contract. Such processes will be automated and controlled via voice. Since the system can access and synchronize data independently, it will be able to deliver customized offers in a matter of seconds, at completely new computer speeds. Keyword: quantum computing. We will see a significant increase in the networking of various aspects of life.

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