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How UBL became the favourite bank of Pakistan’s mobile-savvy customers

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The mobile-savvy customer is king at United Bank Limited. Having created Pakistan’s top banking app following a radical digital revamp, the bank now leads adoption of cutting edge tech, such as AI and machine learning, to create services that fit seamlessly into digitally literate people’s lives.

You’re headed home from work one night when you spot your dream car on the road.

You whip out your phone, point the camera at the vehicle, and on your screen appears an augmented reality (AR) replica, complete with 3D tour and information about its make, colour, price, availability, similar picks and loan options.

More clicks call up car dealers and insurance options linked to your bank account. Assuming you’re credit qualified, your new car will be delivered in a matter of days, paperwork all sorted.

This might sound like a scene from a sci-fi film, but it’s reality for over 8,000 customers of United Bank Limited (UBL) to date, who have flocked to the Pakistani commercial bank’s app to use its digital car finance service when it launched in March, 2022.

“We wanted to do car loans in a more efficient manner,” says UBL chief executive Shazad Dada, citing customer unhappiness at having to work through fragmented information, complex loan calculators, and outdated prices when car shopping. “Our service is very powerful, because we truncate two, three weeks of customers’ research into minutes.”

The game changer

AR car buying is but one of the new tools in UBL’s upgraded arsenal of innovative banking services, which show off its transformation into a modern bank capable of combining cutting-edge technologies and customer obsession to create products that fit into people’s everyday lives.

We realised very early on that banks that deliver simple, instant experiences with excellent customer journeys will be able to retain these customers and attract new business
Shazad Dada, UBL CEO
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This transformation has been underway since 2017 when the bank underwent a digital makeover. Now, it offers artificial intelligence powered services, creates wealth modules using machine learning, adopts agile workflows, and applies robotic process automation and a digital front-end kit to run operations faster.

Faster is one of the three key goals Dada has for UBL (‘simpler, better, faster’) that sum up its approach to satisfying the next generation customer. “This group is very fussy, very impatient. If you don't meet their demands within, in some cases, 3-4 minutes, they'll abandon you,” he says. “We realised very early on that banks that deliver simple, instant experiences with excellent customer journeys will be able to retain these customers and attract new business.”

 It’s precisely the need to capture the wallets of this critical group that motivated UBL’s metamorphosis from traditional brick-and-mortar operation into a digital heavyweight. Millennials and Gen Zs form 70% of Pakistan’s relatively young and mobile-savvy population of about 230 million, with UBL netting 3.1 million digital customer registrations.

Its current customer base is over 11 million, and registrations have jumped 55% a year for the past three years.

“The opportunity is huge,” says Dada, citing statistics that some 80% of the nation is unbanked due to difficulty accessing physical bank branches. “They're all looking for a reliable digital solution for their financial needs. Digital banking is a game changer.”

Think for the customer

If a benchmark of the modern bank’s success is how appealing it is to mobile-savvy customers, then UBL’s app, which catapulted it to popularity, is a triumph.

Going by ratings, it’s one of Pakistan’s top banking apps – scoring 4.7 and 4.5 on Apple and Android respectively – and has won the bank a plethora of accolades, including the title of Asiamoney’s Best Digital Bank in Pakistan, held for three years running.

So, just how did UBL make itself such a favourite?

For Dada, the answer lies in the twin engines of design thinking and data analysis that power how teams devise creative solutions to customer pain points and win hearts.

 “Until you can empathise with the customer, no matter what best-in-class digital solutions you have, there will be misses,” he says, explaining the bank’s unique approach of placing design thinking “at the centre of everything”.

As part of its transformation, UBL partnered with IBM to revamp the way it worked, creating a design thinking lab and staffing it with employees from across divisions, training them with the aim of passing on these practices throughout the organisation.

Today, it is a prerequisite for all UBL products to go through the lab before they get approved, and for every product meeting to include lab members. The result? Mobile ads, search bars within the app, voice command capability, and other hit features – such as the AR car loan.

How did leadership land on design thinking as the bank’s new core? “We looked at best-in-class cases,” says Dada. “We saw firsthand trends in the UK, UAE, and other markets where we operate.” UBL has over 1,300 branches in nations including UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, China and the UK.

For instance, to develop UBL’s customer onboarding journey the bank examined over 24 examples from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

The design thinking team also has powerful backup in the form of the bank’s data science function, which parses app data and customer feedback to come up with new use cases, adds Dada. “The speed at which we are able to cater to the very slight changes to customer behaviour is something we are proud of.”

Moving forward

Even as UBL reaps the hard-won benefits of its digital evolution – the bank is one of the most profitable in the country and has a deposit base of over PRs2 trillion ($8.7 billion) in the first half of the year – Dada is honest about the effort it took to get there.

“It's demanding, it's challenging, and it's expensive,” he says. At the start, staff at the formerly nationalised bank feared going digital meant job redundancies, and it took time for the culture to shift from bureaucratic (“moving files tied in rope from point A to point B”) to agile.

But, he says, the changeover has energised millennials and Gen Z staff, who comprise the vast majority of UBL’s over 14,000 strong talent pool. “Like our customers, they want to see quick and instant results,” he says. Now, employees appreciate how tech has eliminated repetitive work, freeing them to pursue more interesting projects in new tech. “The board’s support and vision, with innovation and digital transformation at the heart of their agenda, gave us the inspiration, guidance and budget to continue to innovate”.

There are many such projects in the pipeline, Dada promises, citing UBL’s five-year technology roadmap.

And as he looks back on the bank’s radical changes in the past half-decade, it’s with hope that UBL tackles the next half and keeps gaining steam among digital natives. “It's been fascinating what we have been able to do in such a short period of time,” Dada says. “It gives us a lot of promise for the future.”