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One word will define 2020: coronavirus. The pandemic has affected the entire planet and influenced almost all aspects of work and personal life. How has the largest Russian bank, with millions of clients across the country, operated through this period? What changed the most, and what remained the same? The Banker spoke with Svetlana Kirsanova, Deputy Chairman of the Executive Board, Head of Retail Business Block and Sergey Maltsev, Senior Vice-President, Head of Sales Network Block at Sberbank.


Sergey Maltsev, Senior Vice-President, Head of Sales Network Block at Sberbank

Mr Maltsev, how has the pandemic and lockdown affected Sberbank’s branch network and what changes could it bring for the future?

Even though Sberbank possesses high quality online services, which enjoyed a significant increase in use during the lockdown, customers still need offline services. To satisfy their needs we decided to keep our branches open during the self-isolation period. I’d like to point out that we advised customers to come to branches only when absolutely necessary, and to this day Sberbank continues to take care of their safety – we make sure that our branches have antibacterial sanitisation products, disposable gloves, floor markings for social distancing and many more covid secure measures. Our ATM network is equipped with contactless technology, which is safer than using a card reader. Customer traffic decreased by 40% in April compared with March, which was to be expected. That said, the customer flow in our branches is gradually recovering – in May, the decrease was 30% (compared with March), while in June 13.7%. It should be noted that since the quarantine was lifted, our customers are returning to branches with new needs and demands – they expect targeted, personalised, and most importantly fast services – the same as they can receive online. As you can see, they project their expectations from online services onto offline. It is our job to meet their requirements.

Taking into account your experience gained during the pandemic, how do you plan to develop your branch network?

Our research and experience during the pandemic prove that face-to-face communication is extremely important for our customers. They still prefer to discuss financial matters in person at a branch with a bank employee. That’s why last year Sberbank adopted a new strategy – despite the global trend to close branches, we will not only keep our branches open, but also upgrade their technology. We aim to connect with our customers and add a human touch to the new technologies that we are implementing at our branches. This is a tremendous opportunity for development.

After the quarantine ended, our customers preferred to visit areas nearer their residences, and our branches have gradually been turning into centres of attraction, where various issues are solved and new experiences are sought. The time when a branch was limited to strictly banking services is gone. Now is the time for new spaces with new meaning and content. Sberbank branches already offer comprehensive solutions to customers. We are actively experimenting with new service formats and creating new purposes for our clients to visit our offices: today at a Sberbank branch you can activate a mobile network service plan, make an appointment with a doctor, send or receive parcels, connect a streaming service and, in some branches, even have a cup of coffee.

Sberbank has the widest self-service network in Russia (ATMs). What is the strategy for the ATM network, and how does it correlate with the strategy of the bank in general?

Today, Sberbank ATMs are modern, high tech “offices”, and we are constantly improving them. An omni-channel experience, with a smooth transition between all the digital and physical channels of the bank, is key for us. We strive to satisfy the most demanding customers, which is why we make our services as accessible as possible. For example, customers can look up the nearest ATM or Sberbank branch on the map in their mobile application, we have different types of ATMs to minimise queueing, and there is self-service cash collection for small business owners (which allows them to deposit money into their account via an ATM). In addition, we focus on developing ecosystem products and creating an ATM that will be a kind of “Swiss Army knife”, where customers can receive all the necessary services – from getting a taxi to obtaining a loan in two minutes. Our goals for the ATM network are in line with the bank’s overall strategy, which is to create a digital ecosystem of services covering all the daily needs of our customers.

How have you responded to customer needs in relation to Covid-19?

We had previously implemented several technologies that became especially relevant during the pandemic. Contactless NFC technology has been rolled out to 95% of Sberbank ATMs. Thanks to Sberbank, NFC has become an industry standard, and many in the market have followed our example. Now we are actively developing biometric authentication, a unique technology that does not require any physical cards or devices. This minimises contact with the surface of the ATM and also does not require you to take the card out of your wallet. Plus, using contactless means it is less likely that you will leave the card behind at the ATM. Biometric authentication received a lot of praise from The Banker’s jury this year and contributed to Sberbank winning the Best Bank in Central and Eastern Europe for Innovation in Digital Banking category.

How do you work with big data in terms of security? How do you manage to implement personalisation with such an extensive (54,000 ATMs) ATM network?

It is true that we have the largest ATM network in Russia. Just imagine – some of our ATMs serve more than 800 people per day. Naturally, the security of our data storage and transmission is a priority for us. For example, PINs are encrypted and then travel through secure communication channels to be received by the bank, which checks them for authenticity. This information is not saved anywhere, and even bank employees cannot access it. Everything takes place in real time.

As for AI and personalisation, by entering their PIN at an ATM, customers can access a personalised menu based on AI algorithms with buttons for the most frequently used amounts and operations. This way they avoid unnecessary steps and save time. Besides that, AI based technologies make it possible for us to enhance the basic role of an ATM. During an ATM session, our client receives personal offers of our products, adding a point of sale function.

How do you fight fraud? What AI technologies do you use in ATMs?

Sberbank uses anti-skimming equipment on its ATMs. Customer service scenarios are primarily based on protecting customers from fraudsters, which is why two-factor authentication is required when customers use their smartphones or cards for a contactless log-in – they hold a phone or a card over the reader and then enter a PIN or a security code. All banknotes are validated – new ATM models read the numbers on the banknotes that customers deposit or withdraw in order to prevent the spread of counterfeit money. If a technical issue occurs in the middle of a transaction, the client has nothing to worry about. Our special algorithms analyse the data and quickly decide in real time if the funds should be returned. Currently, more than 70% of all customer technical incidents are solved online in a fully automated way. This technology has no analogue in the world at the moment. And if a customer leaves their card behind at an ATM, they are notified with an SMS. During the last year, the automation capabilities of our network service platform has been dramatically increased – more than 90% of all maintenance actions are completed without human interaction.

Ms Kirsanova, as mentioned earlier, the customer flow to your bank branches during the pandemic has decreased, but the need for financial services has remained. Was Sberbank ready to provide digital services to its customers?


Svetlana Kirsanova, Deputy Chairman of the Executive Board, Head of Retail Business Block at Sberbank

Creating convenient digital banking services has been at the top of the agenda for us in recent years. By the time the pandemic began, Sberbank already had sufficiently developed its digital infrastructure and online channels. Almost 80% of our services can be provided online, which means that 68 out of 97 million of our customers who use Sberbank Online have access to our services 24x7. Nine out of ten service transactions are digital. Therefore, the pandemic didn’t significantly adjust our strategy, but rather accelerated it.

What digital services are available to your customers?

The bank and its ecosystem offers a huge range of products to the market. Our customers can use online services to pay for utilities and telecoms bills, make purchases, conclude contracts and do many more things. Making a transfer to both Sberbank and another Russian banks’ customers or abroad by phone or account number is just a few clicks away. Our customers have got used to our digital services and can easily open an account, apply or pay for loans, including mortgages, open a debit or credit card and use them immediately without the need to wait for a plastic card, exchange currency and much more.

Have you observed any changes in customer behaviour?

The pandemic has pushed the older generation, who before preferred to visit our branches, to go digital. The number of over-60s online users went up by 12%. Previously, seniors mainly paid utility bills at branches. Our Sberbank Online app has become more popular than all other payment methods, and already 3 million over-60s customers pay for utility services in our mobile app. We hope that, having mastered ‘digital technologies’, the majority of them will continue to use remote channels even when the pandemic is over. I’d say, that the growth in online utility payments has not only been triggered by the pandemic, but it is also directly related to the technologies used in the utilities sector in general.

Can we say that the lockdown did not only have a negative impact?

The lockdown has propelled the transition to a completely cashless world. During those three months, 38% of our customers were able to forgot cash completely. E-commerce was actively growing: in industries such as supermarkets, consumer electronics and household goods, the volume of card payments increased 1.5-5 times. This has been a valuable experience for us, as well as for the businesses. Paying with a card addresses a lot of cash-related problems and risks, especially when it comes to delivery. This is why we always focus on developing non-cash and contactless payments, which are extremely secure and hassle-free, both for customers and businesses alike.

What new payment services have recently become available to your customers?

It should be noted that when developing and introducing new products, we primarily focus on safety and convenience for our customers. According to our data, currently almost every fifth purchase is made using smartphones, and every month that number is increasing. Both the businesses and buyers can choose from several payment options - they can pay by card, biometrics, cash, with NFC or by QR code. For example, the turnover paid through the «Pay QR» service, which we launched last year, is increasing by 30% every month.

«Pay QR» is an innovative non-cash method of accepting payments for goods or services. To make a payment, you just need to show the personal QR-code generated in the Sberbank Online mobile application, or scan the code posted at the outlet. Over the past two months, we have brought several innovative solutions to the market. Together with our partners, we opened the first store in Russia equipped with a computer vision system. To make purchases in such a store, it is enough to enter the special “Take&Go” zone, scan the QR code from the Sberbank mobile application, take the necessary goods and simply exit: the money will be automatically debited from the card. In a number of Moscow coffee houses, Sberbank customers also have the opportunity to pay for purchases using our biometric solution. After a few simple steps - registering and activating the biometrics payment option at the POS terminal - customers can pay for drinks and food with a single glance at the camera. At the moment, the only additional step is to remove the mask for a short time.

At the beginning of July, we launched a completely new service SberPay for users of the Sberbank Online mobile application, which opens up new opportunities for both individuals and legal entities. The service allows you to pay for purchases both online (on websites and in the application) and offline (in retail outlets equipped with POS terminals that accept contactless payments). When shopping online, using SberPay will allow customers to make payments much faster, without wasting their time with entering the number and card details. When shopping in stores, the client does not need a card, they can pay with almost any smartphone. There are also many advantages for businesses, for example, the use of SberPay can help businesses to increase the conversion to a purchase.

In your opinion, are the trends in online demand and distancing temporary or has the world has changed irrevocably?

For Sberbank, digital services have long been the norm. Every month our clients visit our branches millions of times, but they use our mobile application Sberbank Online – more often – we recorded 1.9 billion entries in June and this number continues to grow. Our development strategy will remain unchanged: we will follow our customers’ needs and provide them services in any format that is convenient for them. Whether it is offline or online.

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