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DBS Bank: Gaining the Hearts and Pockets of Singaporeans

DBS CEO, Jackson Tai, needed to formulate a strategy to arrest the negative consumer sentiment brought about by the merger between DBS and Singapore’s Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) and from attempts to remove the identity of POSB from the market while, at the same time, keeping the bank competitive both locally and internationally.

The Situation and Analysis Jackson Tai had just become the CEO of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), the largest bank in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Between 1998 and 2001, DBS had acquired six financial institutions around the region. Incidentally, this was also the time when the bank has seen a change in leadership three times in a span of only three years.

Singapore is known throughout the world as an economic powerhouse despite its small size. Likewise, its banking sector is known to be robust, well regulated and competently managed. In 1999, the government liberalized the banking sector and instituted reforms to free up entry to domestic wholesale banking, enhance competition in retail banking, and place safeguards needed for the industry. Foreign banks could now own more than 40% of domestic banks and were allowed to expand operations to compete with local banks. Local banks, on the

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other hand, were encouraged to consolidate their businesses to meet the challenges of international competition and global expansion.

DBS played a key role in the government’s strategy to expand abroad as Singapore’s home market for retail banking has reached saturation. Following a series of mergers and acquisitions initiated by reforms, the country’s local banks have moved up the Asian ranking lists although still falling below their counterparts in the region. Despite regional expansion, Singaporean banks remained relatively small.

There is pressure, therefore, for the local banks to compete with international banks. This forced banks to scrutinize their operations to improve the bottom line.

DBS is strong in short-term banking facilities, trade financing and working capital financing. It also provides services related to investment banking, portfolio management, and custodian services. It is also known to have substantial banking presence in countries around the region, as well as offices in the US, UK and Japan. The bank’s objective in its acquisitions was to seek out opportunities to grow its business and broaden its reach.

On the downside, however, DBS has also been perceived to be bureaucratic and slow to respond. Being recognized as the de facto bank of the Singaporean government does not help in its image as it is not seen to be customer friendly, cold, inflexible and less innovative.

Furthermore, the rapid changes in leadership in DBS within a very short span of time has casted doubt on whether the bank can actually compete on the world stage. Part of the major acquisitions made by DBS was that of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). POSB was modeled after the Japanese banking system as a convenient and friendly bank – quite the opposite portrayed by the image of DBS. It has even been called “the people’s bank” gaining the trust of Singaporean depositors with most of them opening an account at an early age. It never discriminated customers based on the size of their bank accounts. It also rewarded loyal depositors, and the staff were always friendly, courteous and helpful.

In 1998, POSB then became a fully commercial after its acquisition by DBS with the bottom being paramount.

Despite initially seen as favorable move to strengthen DBS’ market leadership, there were a number of changes introduced in POSB that did not sit quite well with the depositors. DBS imposed a fee on accounts that feel below the minimum S$500 maintaining balance, some branches were closed making it difficult for customers to travel to further-located and more crowded banks. There was even some fears that DBS was planning to phase out the POSB brand entirely as managers argued that it was confusing to retain both brands.

Nonetheless, some argued that it would benefit DBS to keep the POSB brand for the following reasons: 1. DBS can compete globally without having to sacrifice servicing the local market. 2. It would not cost much for DBS to maintain POSB for the small account holders. 3. DBS might stand to lose their patronage to other banks should they drop POSB.

A major shift was therefore put in motion to gain back the trust of customers. First, DBS admitted its mistakes and acknowledged that they were operating on purely logic rather than balancing it with emotion which customers were looking for in a bank.

DBS then launched “The Great Customer Experience”, an initiative that placed the customer at the forefront of its activities with the following key initiatives: 1. There was a clear customer segmentation to enhance both the DBS and POSB brands under the “two brands, one bank” concept. a. DBS reasserted the POSB brand giving it a refreshed and revitalized image complete with a new branch layout and an aggressive advertising campaign. b. DBS turned POSB’s ATM and credit/debit cards into discount cards and introduced a loyalty rewards program for POSB customers. c. It also went back to schools, a trademark of the old POSB, to again encourage a culture of thrift among young students. d. Other banking conveniences were introduced such as reducing customer waiting time, replacing old ATM machines, installing automated cash-acceptance machines and hired specialized staff to further speed up transactions. 2. Investments in database marketing and customer relationship management systems were made to gather more information from customers. 3. DBS introduced innovative products and services enhanced by partnerships through alliances and mergers.

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