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Aman Narain on Standard Chartered's Custom-Built Internet and Mobile Bank

Global Head of Online and Mobile Banking Aman Narain scored a hit in 30 countries with Standard Chartered's custom-built Internet and mobile bank.

For someone who lived in four countries before moving to Singapore, Aman Narain's resume has an unusual consistency -- he's worked for the same employer, Standard Chartered, since joining the bank right out of college. Narain started in corporate banking, worked in investor and public relations, and then rotated through strategy and mergers and acquisitions.

In 2007 Narain joined Standard Chartered's management leadership team in support of Jan Verplancke, the bank's CIO since 2004. Not only would Verplancke's experience in consumer products at Levi Strauss and Dell prove useful at the bank, it also had a significant influence on his protege.

In 2008 Narain was elevated to global head of online and mobile banking. At the time, he relates, the bank's Internet presence lacked the capabilities of competitors, there were serious stability challenges in supporting multiple platforms, and projects frequently were over budget and missed deadlines. "Everything that could be broken was broken," Narain says.

For starters, the online banking team needed an infusion of leadership and a morale boost. "We inherited a program with a reputational problem within the organization, and nobody wanted to work with the program," Narain explains. "It was where you went if your career wasn't going anywhere -- which is ironic when you consider what was happening on the outside with the Internet."

Rather than an IT specialist, the role required someone with Narain's functional breadth. "I'm not a technologist, but I've always been passionate about the application of technology," he says. "Most technology problems that you face are not necessarily technology problems as much as people problems. It's about morale, making decisions, discipline and execution -- having the right people instead of just a bunch of senior people, and having those people being passionate about what they do."

As part of instilling passion in his team members, Narain takes care to put their work into the context of the bank's broader mission. For Standard Chartered, the importance of the Internet channel is driven in part by necessity, according to Narain. Because of international regulatory constraints that favor incumbent domestic banks, Standard Chartered frequently runs up against statutory limits to the growth of its branch banking network, he says. "Internet banking and mobile banking break those limits," Narain adds.

To confer a sense of accomplishment, Narain says, he got things rolling with small, manageable projects. "We probably over-celebrated our initial successes," he acknowledges.

Standing Out In the Crowd

From there, the loftier vision of a world-class Internet bank came into view. Internet banking and mobile banking, Narain asserts, reshape the playing field, making it possible for a low-footprint bank to compete with a branch-bank specialist, no matter how ubiquitous. But to succeed in Internet banking and mobile banking, Narain contends, you have to stand apart. And the path to success calls for world-class excellence, with usability on par with that of the leading consumer goods and services companies. "We looked for inspiration from Nike, Adidas and Facebook," notes Narain.

According to Narain, the Standard Chartered online and mobile banking solution -- Breeze -- was developed and built in-house using San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe's Flash Platform technologies: AIR 2.5, Flash Builder and the Flex framework. Using these technologies, Narain's team was able to use a single development platform to create rich-media banking services available across Android, iOS and Samsung mobile devices, as well as through a standard Internet browser, he explains. The Flash Platform also allowed Standard Chartered to reuse code, lowering time to market and reducing the necessary investment, Narain reports.

Standard Chartered leans heavily toward the "build" side of its "build-vs.-buy" decisions, notes Narain, whose team includes 45 direct reports and 350 matrix reports within Standard Chartered's business and technology function. This stance, he suggests, can be explained by the bank's history, as the present-day Standard Chartered was assembled from several acquisitions across geographies that were then painstakingly rationalized over time. With that recent effort as part of the bank's institutional memory, Narain says, there's little appetite to relinquish control of strategic systems to third parties, lest the short-term cost savings lead to another burdensome migration down the road.

Standard Chartered, however, does partner with outside firms where it makes sense, such as with Akamai (Cambridge, Mass.) for accelerating website service globally, or with Google (Mountain View, Calif.) for message security and anti-spam/anti-virus protection. But when it came to building a customer-facing Internet bank, the choice to retain control in-house was clear. "One of the things that will support differentiation in the future is the ability to provide great interfaces and great software for interacting with the bank," says Narain.

Through the in-house development of a usability-focused Internet and mobile bank, Standard Chartered made a strategic bet that an investment in user interface would work the same magic in consumer banking as it has in other consumer industries. That bet paid off handsomely, according to Narain. Breeze currently serves more than 4.5 million customers in 30 countries with transactional banking capabilities, and more than 1 million of those customers were added since the Breeze launch. The success of the Internet bank led to a reduction in call center volume in excess of 20 percent, and Standard Chartered boasts market-leading customer retention and engagement scores, Narain says.

With Breeze as a solid foundation, Narain and his team now are tapping the potential of social networking. "We're looking at specific areas where we can have a genuine conversation with the customer," he reports.

But as might be expected, Narain is little interested in the "me-too" approach. "We don't have a massive Facebook page that just generates 'likes,' and that's by design," he says. "We want to have conversations with people." Two of the bank's recent campaigns illustrate these conversations:

  • In conjunction with consultancy Frog Design, Standard Chartered sponsored "inmode," a design competition seeking visual designs aiming "to change the world." The contest received more than 200 entries from 20 countries and 75 design schools. The artist submitting the winning entry, an Earth Day-themed illustration, received a $2,000 cash prize and a weeklong trip to Shanghai to meet with Frog Design.
  • The bank's "World's Coolest Intern" contest received 1,190 entries. The first round narrowed the pool down to 20 people, and after two more rounds, the winner was awarded a $30,000, six-month internship with Standard Chartered.

As these competitions indicate, Standard Chartered remains intent on fostering a culture of talent and merit. "We're growing as a team, and we're trying to make sure that we keep that start-up culture that we built in our initial years," says Narain. "That's probably our hardest challenge."

As a leader, Narain says, he emphasizes the virtues of decisiveness. "Leadership is about making decisions -- you can make good decisions and bad decisions," he says. But, "The worst thing you can do is to sit there and deliberate. Being decisive instills confidence in people and delivers results."

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