A Personal Approach to Client Relationships
by S. Howard Gaunt, Executive Vice President, General Manager - Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and GCC, Wholesale Banking, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank
Following an international banking career with some of the world’s largest banks, I was quite clear as to the culture that I wanted to develop at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB) when I joined in 2007. In particular, I was, and remain, passionate about the importance of client engagement: not the occasional email or invitation to an event, but genuine relationships with clients that provide long-term mutual value. This is not easy to achieve in practice, and few banks have the culture, skills and confidence within their teams to engage in a meaningful way with the clients. At ADCB, client engagement is a priority, with considerable benefits for our clients and for the bank.
Defining and achieving client proximity
Effective client engagement is a complex activity that can be undertaken at an initial, basic or advanced level. First is proximity. Proximity is often referred to in requests for proposal, and is often used to refer to the degree of local presence that a bank has in a particular market and the number of branches. While these factors are important, and indeed, they are amongst the initial reasons why companies of all sizes choose to do business with ADCB, proximity involves far more than this. Specifically, a bank needs to build personal contacts with clients, spending time with them to understand their business, their constraints and competitive advantages, and the ways in which the bank can help them.
This sounds straightforward, but many banks find it challenging to achieve in practice. In a world of digital media, people find it easier to engage electronically rather than in person, as face-to-face contact can feel more intimidating, particularly while individuals are getting to know each other. However, relationships that are mostly conducted electronically lack depth and genuine understanding between the parties, and should be an adjunct to face-to-face dialogue.
At ADCB, client proximity is one of the most important key metrics that we use to measure staff performance. Relationship managers aim to meet with clients at least four times per year, according to their needs, and we independently monitor the degree of face-to-face interaction between our team members and our clients.
Establishing a dialogue with clients is meaningless unless it leads to solutions that are more tailored to their requirements, and a higher quality client experience. This requires not only client proximity but also actively listening to their needs and acting accordingly. This is equally challenging, but for a variety of reasons. In some markets, such as the US and Europe, it is not unusual for a younger, potentially less experienced individual to challenge a senior manager within a client organisation and suggest alternatives. Therefore, lack of expertise and/ or confidence are the primary reasons why bank relationship managers may find it difficult to listen and respond appropriately to clients. These can also be issues to overcome in other markets too, of course, but in regions such as Middle East and some parts of Asia, there are also cultural reasons why this may be difficult.
Once again, this is something we are actively engaged in addressing at ADCB. Our team comprises experienced professionals with diverse skills and professional background, but who also bring together a variety of cultural backgrounds. This can be instrumental in building trust with clients, but also overcoming some of the cultural obstacles that can impede open and frank discussion.
The ultimate relationship goal
Finally, the ‘nirvana’ of client engagement is to step out of the role of banker to become a partner to the business. These close relationships, to which we aspire with every one of our clients, can have a transformative effect for our clients. We support them across all aspects of strategic decision-making, from ensuring that they are accessing the right banking services, their capital mix is appropriate, their geographic profile is consistent with their growth strategy, to making sure that the skills and talents they have in the business are being used to best advantage.