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You can bank on Citi

Fabio Fontainha, consumers markets head for Citibank Malaysia, tells Wong Ee Laine about how Citi has turned ambitions into reality for many and where the 200-year-old bank is headed in the future.

When Citi celebrated its 200th anniversary last year, it set out to make known that, other than the fact it is one of the world’s premier banks with a 200-year heritage, it has also facilitated in many milestones that have made the world what it is today.

Under the theme of “progress”, Citi’s 200th anniversary campaign positions the bank as an enabler of progress.

“Our strong heritage has fostered innovation around the world,” says Fabio Fontainha, consumers markets head for Citibank Malaysia, one afternoon at the bank’s headquarters on Jalan Ampang.

Citi funded the Panama Canal, the Transatlantic Cable, the Marshall Plan in the UK and pioneered the ATM, and most recently helped launch the Google Wallet in 2011. Locally, it helped finance AirAsia X.

“These are some of the things we’re trying to underline to our clients. Basically, we’re here to help clients and people to turn their ambitions into reality.”

Before its 200th year celebration, Citi conducted a survey and found a general lack of awareness among its target audience that Citi has been around for 200 years and more strikingly, the immediate corresponding positive reaction when people learnt about
its heritage.

When asked why that is, Fontainha said, “Perhaps Citi was focused on going back as a company to the basics of banking to ensure that it established itself as the world’s global premier bank.”

And so, Citi set out on a global campaign to highlight its rich history to build trust and confidence in its proud legacy.

“In a way, people lost trust in the financial system when the financial crisis hit. But our brand recovered nicely from it. So our strategy is that we don’t want to be a great bank brand. We want to be a great brand,” said Fontainha, who hails from Brazil.

Having been in Malaysia for the last three years, he understands how Malaysian consumers have changed. He describes them as discerning, more informed, having more control over their finances and the ability to make proper financial decisions.

“This is not only due to the financial crisis but also the advent of technology. On top of that, you have regulators around the world looking out to protect consumers to ensure that they can afford the products that they buy,” he said.

“This has raised the game for financial institutions but it makes it more rewarding for us because we are aiming for more and for clients to trust us.”

Fontainha said the bank doesn’t question about investing in digital.

“For us, the digital strategy is necessary,” he said.

As an engagement tool, Citi has seen much progress since it started its Facebook page a year or so ago.

“It’s been very successful for us,” he said.

“Client engagement level is high. We get high scores of fans coming back to our page.

“We use that channel to communicate a little about what we do. It’s not a channel we use to sell products to consumers.

“But we do get clients who use that for complaints and feedback and we do deal with them. It’s a channel we are investing in and learning.”

We don’t question about investing in digital. For us, the digital strategy is necessary.

Fabio Fontainha
Consumers markets head for Citibank Malaysia

Citi is also very focused on digital not only as an engagement tool for clients but also as a platform for how the company processes its business within.

Citi has been heavily promoting its Smart Banking concept, which was launched in Japan in 2010. Today, Smart Banking is present in about 100 branches in Asia.

Those who have stepped into the outlet on Jalan Ampang would get a sense of how Citi perceives digital.

Fontainha sees Smart Banking as a way to empower its consumers. “Those who wish to browse on their own can do so and those who require help, assistance is at hand,” he said.

Since the launch of the Smart Banking in Kuala Lumpur, the branch has seen twice as many clients.

“We see customers going through the whole self service process. Our strategy to implement the kiosks have been very successful.”

Amid it all, Fontainha admits that his biggest challenge is staying relevant to consumers.

“The financial segment moves at a pretty fast pace,” he said. “As Citi has limited physical distribution, by default, this forces us to be very focused on developing our digital capabilities.”

In addition to online banking, Citi is fast developing its mobile banking. Citi has seen steady growth in the number of customers using its mobile banking, available on all three major platforms – BlackBerry, iPhone and Android.

“The challenges are how do we ensure this platform work seamlessly, that clients find what they need within these channels and relevant information is made available to them in a way that is intuitive, regardless of which platform it is they are using.”

Fontainha also notices that consumers’ lifestyles is changing. “It’s an evolution. As a bank, you have to change accordingly as well.

“For example, people are travelling and shopping more. Your product to them, ie a credit card, must be able to cater to that need. In that sense, you must be able to evolve together with your clients.”

Digital may be the future of everything, but Fontainha is certain banks still need to be physically present in society.

“You don’t need to have a branch in each block. If you look at our flagship branches on Orchard Road in Singapore or Mongkok in Hong Kong, they are large and visible and that’s important.”

As Citi evolves, Fontainha strives to manage customer expectations.

“How do we ensure that everything we do for clients is right, and how do we ensure that as we interact, regardless of whether it’s digital or mobile, the customers get what they are looking for. This is probably what I go to bed and wake up thinking about.”

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