Victor is a great friend of mine. He lived in The Netherlands for more than 10 years. He travelled the world when he was young. Unlike me and lucky for him, he had nothing to do with banking, he was in fashion and retailing business (which already shows he was smart even when he was young). He went down to South America many years before I discovered the Maya and Aztec lands with BBVA. He then became the leader of Nike for many countries in Eurasia and Turkey and travelled much to the States as well. Needless to say he did great at Nike. And on top of his great management and leadership skills, he played guitar and drums which only added my envy for him. To make myself feel better, I teased with his last name saying it fits him perfectly as his head shines as he has, well, no hair….
With such background (nothing to do with hair as he once had great hair) it was only right for him to write a book about different cultures. Which he did three years ago which gave me the courage to start thinking about my own book adventure which still is a work in progress and prompts a question in my mind often how in the hell he wrote it so fast???
Due to living in different countries and more importantly doing business with so many nationalities, his book is a great example of taking cultural differences into account when doing business globally.
Of course as I said I tease him a lot and this is why I call him Victor Shiner as it is what it means in Turkish. His name is Zafer Parlar and I am sure he could have sold more if he used a name like this instead of Zafer… Which gives me a good thought on my book right now.
Zafer a.k.a. Victor, talks about how to deal with similar issues in different cultures. Like secretaries, sealing of deals, etc. I will take you one level deeper: The same product in five countries. I want to touch upon my own observations when it comes to doing business in different cultures for a product that is almost the same in five countries.
BBVAWallet. It is our digital wallet for smart phones and smart people.
You might already know that I have been working for BBVA, a Madrid based international bank with card operations in 13 countries.
As you might recall from my earlier articles on this blog, I wrote about this great product two years ago. It is a mobile card app that gives the controls of credit and debit cards to the user and also allows to pay through the phone with one touch rather than with plastic.
Since then a lot has happened. We went on introducing it in other countries besides Spain, and added many features. Then again as I covered earlier, Applepay came around followed by AndroidPay and SamsungPay. Nowadays everybody talks about payments and wallets.
Banking is a very regulated environment so it is not as easy as having a software developed centrally and make it available globally as many famous big names work, like Facebook, iOS, android, Instagram etc. Even though we created the product centrally and made it available to our banks in other countries, it still needed to be connected to back offices and accounts and sometimes to domestic card switches. Therefore we needed to manage both techies and business people in five countries in this project.
Let’s start with technical people.
I love engineers. They are from a different planet. Regardless of their nationality they have so much in common that if you know one, you know them all. They are great builders. They are motivated by what they create. It’s just that they need recognition and wow factor more than the others as most of their time is spent in front of a computer screen. Hence my first verdict: engineers and programmers in Madrid, Santiago, Alabama, Mexico City and Istanbul are almost the same.
Sorry Victor but that’s what it is! They are only divided into two categories. Good ones and better ones. Better ones create less bugs and deliver much faster.
It is the business and marketing people who reflect their nationalities more.
Spain: When we launched the Wallet in Spain in December 3rd 2013, we as BBVA, were by far the leading institution to do it. It had many features other people were talking about but could not deliver. Javier and his team wrote a great software. We showed it to all the management and everybody loved it. They ran campaigns for the employees to download it and use it. So as expected (?), we launched BBVAWallet as if we were afraid that other people would hear about it!
It was as if we were on our toes and did not want to disturb anybody. I pushed hard to run digital and some above the line campaigns. I am pretty sure that my Spanish colleagues were talking about me asking one another; “why is he shouting all the time? We had a press meeting and a release right? We have it on our web site too. What more does he want?” My emails most likely became spam for their inbox while I was trying to explain that this was not only a unique product but also a transformational one that will change people’s shopping behavior.
So we went on spending money on mortgages, insurance and transactional banking, similar to all other banks in Spain. All the while we had discussions about the disruptive forces that were moving into banking starting from payments…
Fortunately, BBVAWallet was so good that after two years it reached one million downloads in Spain alone. If you ask my honest opinion, not only we could make into minimum two million in two years but more importantly we could have owned the word “wallet” and be known as a real innovator in Spain.
Then I realized. Spaniards over engineer and under sell. Take a look at Spanish Wines. They are arguably as good as, if not better than French and Italian wines, but sell with a price tag that is one third of those and many people don’t even know about them. I have not come across anybody who tasted a Rioja and said not good. Even weirder is the Spanish olive oil. They are so good, they are sold as Italian olive oil.
Can we eventually change that? I doubt it. But at least now after two years, as there was a big change at the bank’s strategy and therefore at its executive team for digital transformation, we have decided to communicate our digital assets and the wallet is a big part of it.
Santiago: Go south west a couple of thousand miles and find Chile. We have a medium size but a good bank; BBVA Chile. We started BBVAWallet projects in three countries and Chile was the second one we launched. Chileans are the Germans of South America. Santiago is a great city with a very orderly life that you could not find anywhere else in whole Latin America. Great wines too. Seems like they also learned from some German branding masters like Mercedes and BMW, so they are better than Spaniards when it comes to branding. You already heard about Chilean Malbec wines right?
We did not only launch the BBVAWallet but also made an upgrade about push notifications. We included points redemption. We did not have any POS terminals in Chile as that eco-system is controlled by Transbank which is a domestic scheme, yet we were able to include Club Adelante points within real time transactional alerts to display available points and enabled cardholders to choose to spend them while shopping. Say goodbye to catalogs. Great. Thanks to Sergio and great Chilean engineers. Our Chilean payments team led by Mauricio and Pedro really liked it and went on to make more noise with real marketing effort. We were able to do some above the line communication with our digital Wallet. Great. Much better than Spain. The only glitch was the need to upgrade some other systems to enable people to become customers of BBVA Chile easily. Similar to Spain in their mind the product was to be offered to existing customers. However, in Spain BBVA is a household name with more than 10 million customers while in Chile we are far from it and need new customers in a very competitive environment. Selling, therefore should have become the important point for us in Chile. Chileans were like “well we have a great product and we let people know about it so they will just come to the branches and become customers.”
Chile is a great country. Very good project management. Good branding too. Marketing is also very strong. Sales? Well let’s say we could do better.
Mexico: Move up to go to Central America to Mexico. BBVA has a great bank there named Bancomer. We are the biggest bank in Mexico with market shares reaching as high as 35% in many areas with about 27 million cards. We have great engineers there too. The difference is in project management and how they treat time.
The Spanish word “mañana” in Mexican means from tonight to tomorrow or later, soon, what have you.
I once told my very good Mexican friend Paco a Turkish joke: “International mechanic and civil engineers had a conference about long underground tunnels that are needed for highways and subways. First American engineers submitted a paper saying that they split into two teams and start digging from both sides and they always meet in the middle with only three feet distance at most. A big applause from the audience. Then the Japanese engineers presented their paper saying that with a similar methodology, they meet only with 50 cm difference. A bigger applause. Then the German engineers presented their case saying in all their work the distance of the two teams could only be 25 cm. at most. Audience is overwhelmed. And the last nation to present is Turkey. Turkish engineers’ case said: just like our colleagues we start digging the tunnel from both sides. If we meet in the middle, it is great, if not, we have two tunnels!…”
Then asked him what the Mexican case would look like. He answered: we would dig from both sides. If we meet in the middle, it is great. If not, we stop that project and open another tunnel project. If we meet in the middle it is great, if not we would open another project…..
Yes, my friends, that is how Mexico works meaning they really work hard. But they need to get tangible results in line with the project’s scope faster. Yet, as we had a great team there, we had a great project. One Paco at payment systems, another Paco at the IT and a great Hugo on digital banking and their teams made it happen through good coordination. We had good arguments around what local services could be offered on the wallet like e-commerce security. Then a relatively good implementation. A bit slow, many delays, frequent frustrations, but in the end, it is always delivered. After about five months following the launch we now have 300.000 wallet downloads in Mexico. And I am confident that it will reach 1,5 million at the end of 2016. It can, however, reach 2,5 million actually based on our size there. We will see mañana.
Alabama: Moving north, we find our U.S. bank BBVA Compass. Compass is an amalgamation of six smaller banks BBVA bought several years ago. It still is a small bank for U.S. and BBVA standards. We have a total of 1.7 million debit and credit cards.
Although I travel to Houston to see our payment systems colleagues, our ops center is where the legal head office is and it is in Birmingham Alabama.
I first presented the wallet idea to them right after we launched the BBVAWallet in Spain together with my counterpart in Spain in IT, Luis. (Who now lives in Australia, a great chap and big loss for BBVA) We spent two days explaining to convince them. No, no, not to convince them that it was a good service to offer to our customers, our struggle was that they had to believe they could write their side of the software and that between Spain and USA a global product could be developed.
Compass had a points program like Chile and we also wanted to offer real-time point redemption. Compass had many platforms for their card operations. Their credit cards were operated by a third party, debit cards were in their own database and interestingly their points offering was handled yet by another company. Integrating all these parties was a nightmare. But I knew it that it could be done and eventually it was done. Thanks to the IT leadership of our friend Chad there, we have the best wallet program in the US, in the land of giants like Chase, BoA, Capital One, Citi and Wells Fargo. As we have a unique product, we wanted at least our own customers to know about it, right? The business and marketing people did not actually start planning for it until they saw the product working properly. They had so many operational issues in the past, they wanted to see it working in a live environment. Even after that, it was and still is difficult to move them to the next level to believe that what we have is better than all the other banks and we could do a much better job in the social media to communicate it where the U.S. has been the pioneer. A bit more confidence is all we need and I hope we can get there before it is too late.
Turkey: Travel back to Europe and reach to Istanbul. Our bank Garanti is like Bancomer in Mexico, big and successful. And also it is the bank I worked for 13 years establishing its Payment Systems operations. I am still the co-chairman of the Payment Systems Company. We have 10 million credit and 9 million debit cards giving us a very strong presence in the business. Furthermore, we were able to establish a separate brand for our card program: Bonus Card. It is the best-known card brand in Turkey. And Garanti has the best technology infrastructure of any bank that I had a chance to get to know in my 25+ year banking career headed by my friend
With all these assets, you assumed it would be the easiest implementation right? Well not quite. Garanti has a “not invented here syndrome” when it comes to innovation and technology. So although the idea was from BBVA through me and it was only right for Garanti to do it, it took six months to convince all stakeholders to start the project. And that was with the buy-in of Onur who is now the head of Garanti Payment Systems. As usual the role that Ergun, then the CEO of the bank played was instrumental in that process.
I tried to show our colleagues what we have done with BBVA Wallet. The screen designs, the logic behind it, and the coding of course. We brought in the software people from Madrid to share the experience. It really took a lot of effort to get into the skin of both the IT and business people. Both parties said that they understood it, and they were going to do everything themselves. It took my personal relations and sometimes even more insistence to get some make or break Wallet principles in place. And many times they played the game that they wanted to do what I asked but the other party (IT or business) was against it. Garanti Payment Systems was a company I founded yet as I was now in an international role, my influence was limited.
Hence for Turks, position power is the most important. Not the expert power nor the relations. Should Onur have not believed in the idea, this project would have failed. He championed the wallet project at Garanti.
Once the project was underway, of course, it went so well. Garanti prepared a digital wallet which was a total marriage of their campaigns and promotions of the Bonus Card world and the payment side, like no other card app or wallet. It also certified for HCE payments like we did in Spain which allowed NFC payments with the phone.
And yet better, unlike the other countries, we were able to see a great marketing and sales push covering all aspects. Digital, radio, TV everything. And the results were astonishing: 500.000 downloads in less than a month. In the first ten days it was the third most popular app in the App Store surpassing the mighty facebook messenger.
The same product. The same reasoning. The same company. The same department. Yet five different implementations based on different cultures.
The first book that I read about a different culture was written by a journalist who went to Japan and wrote a book about the life there. I was about 14 years old. Then I became an exchange student at the age of 17 and lived in the States with an American family for a year. Met young people from all over the world in the workshops. Then I worked for international companies with colleagues and bosses from yet even more nationalities and I still do. I consider myself a world citizen and find working in a country with only people from the same background rather boring.
Well, if that is boring, then the fun of working in international environments come with such huge challenges.
I was lucky to experience and learn from all those. But you can also be a bit smarter and develop tactics like our talented Mr. Victor Shiner. Those tactics can really help you deliver better results while working globally.