I have just returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia, I’ve been there many times, but this time was different. My focus is on financial services Brands during this trip. Having visited half-a -dozen banks, and spoken to senior management in all, it struck me that rather like in Saudi society, the banks are wrestling with how to move forward in a way that respects their cultural heritage, whilst using modern tools and systems to deliver a forward thinking service.
Saudi Arabia is a unique place in so many ways, it is different to the modern western world, it is also different to the modern pre-conceived western notion of what this country is. I have noticed a huge change in Saudi since I have been going there - over the past 5 years. The King has granted scholarships to many of his young citizens and sent them to the west to study - Harvard, Yale and Princeton are not uncommon destinations for bright young Saudi’s. These highly educated, intelligent young people are now returning to their birth country bristling with ideas, breathing change into the world of business. The government itself, under the wise stewardship of the King are, surprisingly (if you are to believe the false Western pre-conception of Saudi), embracing change and steadily steering the Kingdom towards a modern, business friendly society.
Catch a plane to Riyadh - if you can get a seat - and you will find it full of consultants, employed by the large banks and institutions in their quest to change - to invest their oil billions wisely in building a strong economy where jobs are created for the millions of citizens who are currently unemployed.
The government are playing their part. They have issued policies requiring large businesses to re-invest in the economy to create jobs. To consider expanding beyond the boarders of Saudi Arabia into Western markets, or at the very least to other Islamic powerhouses around the world - Indonesia or Malaysia for example.
On one visit to a bank, I met a young Saudi, who was keen to tell me how he and his wife had studied in Malaysia and were proud to bring back what they learnt to their home country. He exclaimed, ‘do you know my wife is better qualified than me! That gives me great pride’.
So what does all this mean for brands in Saudi, particularly Banking brands? Well, with a population where in excess of 60% are under 40 years old, there is a need for change. Competition is intense, the market leaders, Al Rajhi Bank, are starting to see their dominance eroded as quick moving competitors like Al Inma Bank are beginning to offer alternative services that attract and retain high earning customers. Banks are looking at their branches and realising, as Allen International have been saying for some time, that the traditional branch environments are just not delivering in the way they should. As competition intensifies, with high calibre management deploying new ideas in this sector, brands are turning to innovation - in technology, in environment and in experience to deliver something new. However, what is interesting about the Saudi market is that customers enjoy the branch environment, they visit and conduct their banking in a very traditional way but, there is room for change. Men and families are kept apart in Saudi. This in itself presents some interesting experiential challenges. Although that is changing. In some locations, we are seeing banks cast aside traditional rules of segregation in favour of a new approach, designed I presume to appeal to the modern Saudi citizen. Saudi’s are tech savvy, twitter, facebook and WhatsApp are ubiquitous and bank brands are beginning to wake up to the power of these technologies and their ability to connect them to their customers. To enable a closer and more relevant relationship with each and every citizen - a meaningful connection.
I believe that we will see the smaller banks using technology to build lifestyle applications that help citizens manage their finances, technologies that are more than just transactional interfaces that do nothing to enhance the customer experience or the improve the customer journey.
I wrote recently, in my article ‘It’s a bank Moh, but not as we know it’, that banks need to be smarter in the way they interface with their customers. This is coming to Saudi. The unique combination of a country so prosperous and hungry to grow, without the shackles of legacy systems we see in the west, will no doubt give it an advantage over other markets.
What is required is joined up approach to thinking progression. Management consultants are fantastic at strategic thinking and putting in place the systems needed to deliver change. Branding companies like ours are perfectly placed to bring brands to life with new thinking and new experiences that both win and retain customers.
Fast forward 10 years and I see a very, very different Saudi banking environment. One where bank brands are totally connected to their customers and one where the blend between business, technology and experience is both consistent and compelling. We are some way from that at the moment, but certainly the ship is heading in the right direction.