Postcard from Stockholm: Nordic banking trends

  • Posted on March 25, 2020
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes
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Last month, I presented at Microsoft Envision in Stockholm, where we had the opportunity to share our thinking on digital transformation and workplace experience to the banking community. I really enjoyed hearing the speakers (mainly women), including the CEO of Danske Bank and senior execs from SEB and Nordea, and catching up with colleagues from Swedbank and Handelsbanken. There are a few things I learnt at the event.

Co-operating and cashless: Sweden is one of the most cashless societies in the world.  One person I spoke to said they couldn’t remember the last time they used cash: ‘maybe, two or three years ago.’ This may well be due to Swish – a Swedish initiative for mobile money transfer between consumers, launched in 2012. It’s used by almost 70% of the population and there are plans to extend the service across Europe. It was set up by the six major banks.  In fact, the Nordic banks are used to co-operating well.  In 2019, they set up P27, a joint platform to establish a cross-border payments standard for the region. During one session on the role of retail branches, the speaker even suggested: ‘perhaps, we could share branches?’ I don’t hear that kind of talk elsewhere.

‘Spot the bot’: AI will become the major app in the banking sector in five years and it will be very hard to ‘spot the bot’ in your transaction. SEB launched its own chatbot, Aida, but acknowledged that customers can lose faith in bots if the bank gets it wrong. And it is hard. You have to work out what language (English? Swedish?), how do you do ‘bankspeak’ and how do you do it in the tone of voice that your bank wants to be known for? 

Ethics and personalization: This led to a good discussion about how banks use data to generate insights, given it can sometimes be biased - remember Apple credit card limits for women being seriously different from men? Should you use social media behaviour to create credit scores – as they do in China? What about using facial recognition to decide if the speaker is being truthful (or hiding bad news) – as they do in the US? Should you psychologically profile the people you’re about to have a business meeting with? One bank admitted that two-thirds of customers thought the bank was not using their data to offer personalized products or services.  But how you do this is critical. Banks need to communicate with customers the data models they have and how their data is being processed. Transparency is vital.

Innovation: This theme of transparency came through in how banks work with their customers. As a bank, it’s important to share with your customers what you are learning. This led one major bank to set up an innovation process that involved an off-site, five-day session with its largest customers. This took a lot of persistence to get approved internally. Can’t you test ideas with small customers, in case they don’t work?  Can’t you use the same ‘friendly customers’, even though that gets you the same conclusions each time? The process was risky, but extremely effective. So much so, that customers even gave testimonials that were then used to generate a long list of clients who wanted to participate. 

However, there was one key learning. No matter how flattering it is when a CEO wants to join this programme, don’t let them. It simply shuts down discussion as, amazingly, all attendees somehow agree with everything the CEO says!

I found the openness and honesty among the attendees and speakers extremely refreshing.  It’s only a small region - 27 million people - but it has big ideas. And the banks know how to work together to make things happen. I’m looking forward to returning next year.

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