Branching out

How Barclays Bank is progressing with its aim of transforming retail banking in the UAE.
Branching out
By Diana Milne
Sun 01 Jul 2007 02:22 PM

Think big is Amin Habib, managing director of Barclays Bank in the UAE and the Gulf's professional mantra.

Habib does not believe in taking things slowly - an attitude, which could explain Barclay's aggressive regional expansion plans.

Last month it launched retail banking services in the UAE - and now it aims to target 10,000 new customers a month.

To show just how serious it is the bank has virtually painted the UAE blue with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign across the country and has already employed hundreds of mobile sales agents.

"We have ambitious targets, but in this market if you don't think big you won't succeed," says Habib. "If we meet our target of achieving 10,000 accounts a month then we will be achieving substantial market share."

But in a market where 46 well-established banks already compete for customers, Barclays faces a big challenge. The challenge is not just to attract new customers coming into the country, but also to lure existing residents away from their current banks.

"If you say the population is growing at 8% a year the people coming in would form only a certain portion of our customer base so you'd have to include a proportion of the existing customers as well in this market," explains Habib.

He admits this won't be easy, but says Barclays' approach is to fill gaps in the market and provide products with more attractive terms and conditions than those currently being offered in the market - hence the slogan of its campaign ‘Banking Reinvented'.

"There are many banks in the market - 46 banks - so it's a very competitive market. "So you have to give solutions that the customers can't get from any other banks.

We have identified ways that we can be different and we can ramp up our market share very quickly because we think we can be very differentiated in terms of what we come up with. That's where the term ‘Banking Reinvented' comes in. It's not just about going out there and providing the run-of-the-mill banking services."

He says that Barclays conducted extensive market research before launching its new retail banking services in the UAE and identified three gaps in the market - service, choice and flexibility.

Providing good customer service will be a major weapon in Barclays' fight to win market share from its rivals, according to Habib. He claims the bank's research revealed most customers were dissatisfied with the level of service they were currently being provided with by their existing bank.

"I would say that the majority of customers that we interviewed would probably feel dissatisfied with one element or other of the products they receive from their banks. There is a pretty low standard of service across the board, and that includes customer service on account opening, and in terms of returning calls, turnaround times and the ability to respond quickly to a query. The way we choose to respond and handle customers will be different from what the other banks are doing," he claims.

Barclay's first strike against its competitors has been to launch a range of credit cards which it says offers far greater flexibility and choice than those currently available. The new cards offer customers the chance to choose a package of rewards and pricing options depending on their needs.

They include a Prestige package for Platinum card holders for which customers pay an annual fee of AED550 a month, 2.19% interest and receive a raft of benefits including the Barclays Butler service.

The Priority package available on the Classic, Gold and Platinum cards, is available at an annual fee of AED300 and includes less benefits than the Prestige package.

And the Preferred package also available on all three cards, has no annual fees and a reduced number of benefits.

"Normally what banks do in this market is to just give a standard set of products - three cards that basically do the same thing. Whereas what we've done is turn around and ask ‘what does the customer want?,'" says Habib.

While the credit cards it offers target both new arrivals in the UAE and the existing customers of rival banks - its personal loan products are aimed squarely at fresh off the plane expatriates. While suitable for all sorts of customers, the loans are designed to be particularly attractive to those who are setting up a new life in the UAE, says Habib.

"We supply loans to people who have been in the UAE from day one. If you arrive in the UAE and come to us, you are eligible from day one for a loan. We don't require a salary transfer - we judge applications on their own merits. The other advantage is turnaround time- our turnaround time is far quicker than what the rest of the market offers."

Speedy turnaround times will also apply to Barclays current accounts says Habib, who claims customers can open an account and be given a debit card and cheque book within just 15 minutes.

"If you look at the past history in this market, I don't think any other bank can open an account for you in 15 minutes. When I did that with another bank, before we launched retail banking, it took me at least three days," he goes on to say.

Habib is confident that by offering quick and easy product solutions to its customers it will reach its ambitious targets. But the UAE market is a very different one from the UK where Barclays is based and offers a different set of challenges.

For one the UAE Central Bank restricts the number of licenses it grants to foreign banks to open branches in the country. The requirement, according to Habib, is that foreign banks can be granted eight licenses but that these must be issued individually. Because of this Barclays must initially open just two branches and three electronic banking units - where only non-cash services can be provided.

"I don't see it as an obstacle. The way we see it is there are always alternatives and the Central Bank has given alternatives in terms of a distribution platform. We basically see bricks and mortar as one element of distribution and you don't necessarily need only branches. You also need sales forces, electronic technology and other alternative channels."

Another challenge Barclays could face is from the lack of established credit checking facilities in the UAE and the difficulties this creates when it comes to identifying customers with existing bad debt. Habib does not, however, forsee that this will be a big problem.

He says: "Because we have a very long and chequered history in the UK and other parts of the world in terms of how we manage personal loans, we have built up a high degree of sophistication in terms of how we assess credit, how we assess consumer bank behaviour and matters of payments."

He goes on to say that in the absence of credit checking facilities, Barclays will carry out its own investigations into customers' risk profiles.

"You can check in many ways in terms of the bank statements, the history, the employer checks. It's a bit more cumbersome but there is a way around it."

Habib's positive attitude is reflected also in his ambitions for the Barclays' progress across the region where it hopes to establish retail-banking services in each country in the GCC.

"At the moment I would not exclude any of the GCC countries from our plans," he says. "Once we get Qatar off the ground we also plan to enter other GCC countries as well. Every single country in the GCC is attractive in some way."

In the latest phase of its aggressive regional expansion plans the bank has been granted a license to provide offshore corporate investment banking and wealth management services in Qatar.

This, says Habib will be followed by the establishment of retail banking services in the country if the bank successfully applies for a license to operate onshore in Qatar. He explains that Barclays will operate from the Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) in Doha, and that it would initially just provide offshore corporate banking services to mid to large-size corporations.

He goes on to say that Barclays hopes to expand its retail banking services into Qatar but that he believes the market has different requirements from those in the UAE.

"First of all there's a smaller population, so the scale is different and there are also a few differences in terms of how quickly the market is growing in certain industries. You play your product solutions differently in different markets and there is not one solution for all."

While Habib acknowledges the differences between the different markets Barclays hopes to serve - his ambition for each is equal.

And if the targets he has set his sales force are met then existing players in the market could have a formidable opponent on their hands.

For all the latest market news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.