Santander: Agility may be the pandemic’s greatest legacy

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The pandemic has impacted one of the financial services industry’s most important pillars: predictability. As a result, institutions have had to look inward and re-create their strategies and processes with agility and boldness.

In this interview, Igor Puga, chief marketing officer of Santander Bank, in Brazil, discusses how the pandemic reprioritized certain initiatives. He also talks about the company’s post-pandemic plans, as well as the role of marketing and artificial intelligence in customer experience.

What is it like to lead a bank’s marketing area in a year like 2020?

It is very different from what it was back in 2019. The financial market is based on predictability. The shock of the pandemic in our industry was huge because the reputation we have earned is based on prospects. However, the pandemic has taken control of the business area. For a very organized and procedural company, having to revoke everything and make decisions within 24 hours is not simple. But we are certainly learning that it is possible to create serious and consistent projects in less time.

Have the social restrictions imposed by the pandemic accelerated digitalization processes in Santander?

Banking is already a very digitally developed segment. We are pioneers in understanding our customers, who are at the center of the experience. Especially in Santander, it is something that is very much at the core of our business. So that gives us consistency to navigate times like these with an already organized digital relationship. What has changed is that many projects that were ready [but had] not [been] prioritized because they had no guaranteed financial impact gained traction and speed because they began to make more sense at that moment. The way I see it is that it has less to do with investment in digital and more to do with boldness with the culture.

What projects materialize this movement?

One of them is ”A Gente Banca,” in which we identify newsstands in cities and help reinvent them. We help restore the newsstand, and the micro-entrepreneur learns another trade, turning his business into something that makes more sense for cities and people today. We had put a pin on it some time ago, and then put it into practice in just 15 days. In a different area, we created a special life insurance for physicians and health professionals, with a 60% discount, and we reached the target of selling 10,000 insurance policies at the time of the launch. It was a real need, and we went there and met it.

In regard to customer experiences, should the power of physical and digital channels change after the pandemic?

Contrary to what our industry does, we do not want to diminish our physical structure because we believe it plays an important role in the journey of financial customers. But we will undoubtedly change the vocation of these spaces. Operational activities can be done on digital platforms. Self-service is digital. Branches will be revisited to become a part of this journey, as a way of complementing what cannot be done on the app, for example.

What is the role of artificial intelligence in the new vocation of branches and digital services?

We have been using machine learning for many years to analyze data and guide our decisions. This is crucial to our business. How much this will, in fact, become a service via artificial intelligence, with bots and humanized interfaces, is a wider debate that goes beyond Brazil. We have avoided establishing a totally artificial model in our relationship with customers. We believe in the power of human relations, but we understand and use automated machine learning processes for our decision-making.

Looking ahead to 2021, what will be the legacy of the pandemic in Santander?

The pandemic has helped reinforce the consistency of our positioning. We are convinced that serving and putting the customer ahead are essential to having enduring relationships. Also, I see that agility can be this moment’s greatest legacy. We need to keep asking a few questions, even after the crisis is over: “Why don’t we work as if there were a pandemic, even if it ends?” “Why don’t we make this more agile culture a standard habit?” I think that in 2021 this would be a good way to guide the industry.