Q&A with Unionbank CMO Albert Cuadrante on Rehumanizing

Albert Cuadrante is the SVP and Chief Marketing Officer of Union Bank of the Philippines.  He is also the current Chairman of Acumen Strategy Consultants, a full-service Management Consulting firm that provides consultancy services to clients belonging to the Philippines’ Top 500 companies. Albert is a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Digital Marketing Association of the Philippines (DMAP) and the Advisory Board of the Asia Pacific Tambuli Awards.  He is also a long-time Marketing faculty member at the Ateneo De Manila’s JG School of Management.  Prior to joining UnionBank, Albert occupied various execution positions at Jollibee Foods Corporation.

Q1: What is Rehumanization and how do you apply this concept in a digital bank, for instance?

A1: In this digital age, everything is about speed, accuracy, and increased efficiency.  This is accompanied by an obsession to overquantify everything to eradicate human error and increase conversion rates.  While those are certainly very important to the success of any business, there is a real risk of reducing the view of consumers in terms of mainly their transactional data.  Rehumanization is a reminder to recognize and understand the people behind the transactions and to see how we can deepen and create a sustainable relationship with them; for them to remain the purpose of why we do business.  Sure, the numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the complete truth.  To complete the story, you will need to uncover the human insights behind what the numbers are showing.

For a highly digitalized and data-driven bank like UnionBank, we still make sure that we complement our quantitative analysis with qualitative research, to literally hear the voice of our customers. For instance, we continually get feedback across our touchpoints, like our mobile app, to determine some of the friction points that we still need to improve on. This keeps us focused on the user and not just the technology.  I have heard customers say that our mobile app has made them feel empowered because they can pretty much do banking without depending on branches. I believe this a key reason why we continue to see a healthy double-digit increase in our retail customers year-on-year.  

Q2: When can one say an interaction is more human and meaningful?  Is there a framework or set of criteria you can share to evaluate this?

A2: At the start of every semester the first question I ask my class is, “What is your favorite brand and why?”  The common answers I get for the why part are: “I feel the brand understands me and what are important to me”, “I like the brand because it is authentic and is not pretentious”, “I feel rewarded for my loyalty”, and “I can always count on it to deliver on its promise”.  Notice that their answers tell you that they have come to consider these brands more like a “person”, a close friend, than a product.  The brands they mentioned have successfully deepened their connection and relationship with them over time.  With the way they talk about their favorite brands, you can tell that they don’t just like them, they love them!

Assuming you have already articulated your brand’s positioning well, there are three essential elements in Rehumanization:

1. People – This refers to everyone in your organization, but most especially our consumer-facing frontliners.  They personify and represent our brand in every interaction.  Even in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced self-help solutions like chatbots, person-to-person engagement remains a preferred mode of interaction for inquiries, assistance, and concerns. So, it is absolutely critical that our frontliners are well trained to engage customers with complete product knowledge and empathy.

2. Process – We need to ensure we continually review and design our processes to ensure we provide the easiest, most consumer-friendly path towards realizing the benefits we promise to deliver.  This includes building in a process by which we can rectify instances when we fail.  For instance, making it easy for a customer to return and replace damaged or defective goods. For UnionBank, we have empowered our customers to lock and unlock their credit cards via our mobile app so they can do this anytime without having to call for this service.

3. Physical Evidence – What tangible details delight our customers in their various interactions with our brand?  Many five-star hotels excel in this area.  From personally greeting you using your name upon check-in to remembering things like how many bottles of water you typically consume during your stay, they make sure you feel the sense of “returning home”.

Q3: How can one effectively convince management to adopt Rehumanization practices?  Is there a compelling business case for prioritizing humanity in digital interactions?

A3: Companies and brands that have put customers front and center have deeply loyal customers.  And loyal customers are more profitable customers.  They recognize that the brand has invested on their satisfaction, and they are happy to return the favor by accepting a premium for the superior experience. Notice that many of the brands we love are often not the cheapest in their categories.

Behind every digital transaction and interaction is still a person executing the transaction.  In the case of UnionBank, for example, we continually review our digital account opening process end-to-end to see how we can make this as quick, easy and convenient as possible.  You may also notice that our app is not like the other bank apps in terms of design and interface.  It was built around a deep understanding of people’s online behavior and todate remains one of the most downloaded financial app for both Android and iOS.

Q4: In what ways should a firm measure the success and effectiveness of its Rehumanization efforts?

A4:  One of the more popular measures associated with how effective an organization has put customer at the center of its operations is the Net Promoter Score (NPS) system.  The basic principle of this system comes from the insight that you wouldn’t recommend something to your family and close friends if you were not highly satisfied with it.  A study by Bain & Company concludes that companies with high NPS outperform their competitors by more than 2x on the average.  Another tell-tale sign that you have successfully established a deeply human connection with your customers is that the revenue per customer keeps on increasing over time.  This is also known as the customer’s lifetime value (CLV) with your brand or company. Qualitatively, companies who have done a good job at establishing a relationship with their customers find that they are more easily forgiven in the few times that they encounter issues or service disruptions.  In fact, it’s the customers themselves who come to their defense against the less loyal detractors.

Q5: Are there potential challenges, obstacles, or issues to Rehumanizing a company?  How can they be overcome?

A5: First thing is to remind ourselves that we cannot please everyone. Even we prioritize our relationships – family, close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.  We do not have the same degree of engagement and interaction with each one.  If we do, we will burn out and end up with very shallow relationships with each one. So, the first challenge is segmenting and prioritizing target segments.  The second is establishing and institutionalizing an end-to-end product management system that consciously evaluates the customer experience in eachprocess phase and iterates based on learnings and insights throughout the product’s or service’s life cycle. These deliberate improvement iterations ensure we evolve with the needs of our customers over time.  Just look at how our favorite apps update themselves to add, remove and enhance features.  And, you can really only do this with quality data (both quantitative and qualitative) and analytics.  Do not scrimp on research.

Q6: Can you share any insights or lessons learned from your experience in implementing Rehumanization strategies in a banking context?

A6: For the longest time, people have come to accept that when it comes to dealing with their bank, they will have to adjust – endure the inconvenience of needing to go the branch for most transactions, and, when you get there, bear with the long lines and waiting time. These were the two key pain points UnionBank addressed when it embarked on its digital transformation last 2016. Believe it or not, while traditional banks kept on expanding their branch network to acquire new customers, we haven’t added on to our branch count since then and yet we were able to overtake our bigger banking peers in terms of retail customer count.  How did we do it?  We empowered customers to open and account and do most of their banking transactions, including depositing a check, without ever visiting a branch! When you open an account with a traditional branch, typically you will have a “home branch”, which is where you physically opened an account and where, from time to time, you would need to visit to sign documents and make deposits.  When you open an account digitally with UnionBank, your “home branch” is where your mobile phone is.  We have given back precious time to our customers– easily 2-3 hours if you include travel time to the branch – which they can now use to do other, more productive or enjoyable things. We are by no means perfect, but our agility and our commitment to keep improvingto deliver a great banking experience is stronger than ever!

Q7: Beyond customer interactions, how should a company integrate Rehumanizing principles into its internal processes and employee experiences?

A7: One of my favorite quotes is from Richard Branson which goes, “The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.”  That’s why, as I mentioned in my previous answer, People is an essential, and I would even say the most important, of the three elements in building a human-centric organization. In order to delight, they must first be delighted.  A genuinely happy employee will not need to be told to smile with every customer encounter.  We complain when a waiter seems like he is not at all happy to serve us.  What we don’t know is that he has not sat down for over 8 hours and was asked not to take a break to accommodate more customers. Probably one of the best benchmarks of a company that has made delighting the customer its primary business is Disney.  Disney understands the critical role their park and resorts employees, who they refer to as “Cast Members”, play in making sure they deliver extraordinary level of service from opening to closing and they do this by empowering their Cast Members.  At the Disney Institute, where they conduct extensive training of all employees, the programs are all anchored on their common purpose, which is “to create happiness”.  All aspects of their technical skills training dovetail from a clear understanding of this shared purpose.  If you think about your Disney experience, try to remember if you’ve seen an unhappy employee.  I haven’t. For both its employees and its customers, Disney is possibly really the happiest place on earth.


Josiah Go is the chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Join Albert Cuadrante and three other senior marketers in the 5th Mansmith Brand Summit on Aug. 2, 2024. For more details, visit www.brandsummit.com.ph

(Full disclosure: Josiah Go serves as an independent director of Union Bank since 2021)

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