Wholesale banking has been transformed in the decade following the financial crisis. Many business areas have been digitized, client needs are becoming increasingly complex and integrated, and the industry has derisked and deleveraged. However, when we speak to the largest and most sophisticated clients of wholesale banks, they highlight areas where they want to see their banking partners continue to evolve:
- Optimized client service teams and coverage approaches based on a deep understanding of client strategy and needs
- Insights and expertise tailored to their industry or sector (for example, implications of environmental, social, and governance factors)
- Highly responsive execution and ongoing service, unhindered by internal delays, silos, and bureaucracy
- Data and intelligence that leverage the bank’s extensive knowledge in areas such as payments and asset and liability management
- Co-creation of cross-product solutions, especially those that allow a multinational enterprise to develop its own innovative customer experience—for example, by embedding finance into its e-commerce, marketplace, or B2B infrastructure
While many wholesale banks are improving in these areas, the most sophisticated global clients say there is still a long way to go. Leading wholesale banks are investing at scale to boost their capabilities and exceed client expectations in areas that include advanced technologies (such as machine learning and AI), modern ways of working (digital collaboration tools, agile co-creation pods), and new sources of rich data (news and social feeds, geospatial data).
This is much the situation that HSBC faced when it undertook an extensive transformation of its front line. Seeking not just to modernize and automate ways of working, the venerable British multinational institution wanted to simplify day-to-day tasks for bankers and equip them with tools to understand their clients holistically. At its core, this transformation was data driven and continuously tied to an understanding of what clients need and want.
The initiative has resulted in enhanced strategic dialogue with clients, based on new data and insights, and more collaboration across traditional silos. For example, the transformation project team reports that, from a standing start in late 2021 until now, hundreds of thousands of hours of capacity have been released through simplification. Other accomplishments reported include an aggregated $4 trillion in payments flows; the launch of more than 110 cross-functional, multiregion origination pods; a restructured global institutional investor coverage model; and the processing of over $120 billion in risk-weighted assets through algorithms that identify underlying commercial drivers.
To learn more about this transformation, we spoke recently with James Bickerton, who leads client development for HSBC’s Global Banking division. An edited version of our conversation follows.
McKinsey: What were the motivations behind HSBC’s frontline transformation?
James Bickerton: Global banking’s priority is very much set around five key objectives. We want to continue to grow our transaction banking franchise; it’s very important to us. We want to become a top-five global debt financing house. We want to develop our ESG position. We want to double down and strengthen our core markets.
Those first four are key priorities for the corporate business, but there’s also a fifth objective, which is transformational priorities: How do we make sure that our front line, both coverage and sales force, are set up to support that client base and to support those different priorities? That involves pillars around information and content, pillars around the platform they have to operate in and how that works and supports them, and then pillars around the people—how we develop our people, how we help them collaborate, how we celebrate their success.
McKinsey: How did that lead to the Future of the Frontline program?
James Bickerton: The Future of the Frontline program was born out of our strategy that we announced to the market back in March 2020. We were clear to the market that we were going to look at our portfolio and make choices around where we wanted to participate, the clients we wanted to support, and we went through a restructuring exercise as part of that.
Following that exercise, we wanted to position ourselves for growth, so we knew there was a tipping point, going from restructuring to growth, where we should invest into the coverage model, into how we support our clients. That bore the program.
The first thing we did as part of that was to speak to our clients and speak to our frontline bankers. We did a really in-depth research exercise where we spoke to around 70 of our biggest clients across both the corporate and institutional space—all sorts of different personas: heads of cash management up to executive chairman and all the roles in between.
Then we interviewed and surveyed and analyzed data that explains what our front line was doing at that point in time, so we knew where we were today. And then we compared that to where we thought we should be tomorrow.
We came up with the key changes we wanted to make to that frontline model that would take us from A to B and make sure that the platform our teams operated in empowered them and gave them better information, more time to operate, rather than hindered them.
McKinsey: Talk about the four pillars of your frontline transformation program. What are they, and why are they important?
James Bickerton: I’ll tell you quickly what they are and then give you some more description around why we focused our transformation on them. The four are analytics and insights, co-creation of products with clients, frontline reengineering, and the frontline experience.
With the first pillar, analytics and insights, we’re really looking to use the rich data that HSBC has to truly generate information that can help client relationship managers anticipate their clients’ needs before clients even know they have them. That requires both addressing their strategic needs and being able to demonstrate our knowledge of our clients’ strategy. Wholesale banking has always relied on relationships, and informing those relationships with a greater understanding of clients and their strategies with data-driven insights takes relationship-driven banking to another level.
The second pillar, co-creation of products, involves bringing our clients into the product development process, rather than building a product and then taking it to them. Enabling this capability relies on the first pillar, because we need to equip bankers with insights that let them say to clients, “We understand your strategy, we understand your goals; let’s talk about the parts of your strategy we can enable through the products and services we have or can quickly build.” For example, a client might be unaware that they have an opportunity to offer a buy now, pay later [BNPL] product in a market where their competitors don’t yet have a footprint, and the bank could both identify the opportunity and assist the client in building it out.
The third pillar—frontline reengineering, streamlining, and automation—helps enable the first two by speeding up and simplifying processes. The nature of banking is that it tends to develop an ever-expanding repertoire of processes and documentation. While these help improve outcomes and prevent problems, they can also introduce drag. With automation and other streamlining measures, we made a tremendous number of very small improvements that save 200,000 hours of banker time per year, freeing up time to engage in more value-adding activities.
Finally, the fourth pillar, the frontline experience: We looked to help our bankers do their work. They rely on knowledge to inform their relationships with clients, and indeed banks generate reams of high-quality research. But that knowledge can easily get trapped in various parts of an institution. We built an easily searchable, structured content management system to unlock our own knowledge stores.
McKinsey: On the analytics insights, data has been a key topic in banking for a while. What differentiates this data effort from past initiatives?
James Bickerton: The difference today is that we have AI tools now that let us develop much clearer views of our customers. Some of the techniques look similar to what we see in consumer goods retailing, such as microsegmentation of clients, which we can now apply to the most sophisticated end of wholesale banking. With machine learning, we can segment multinational corporations into archetypes and then microclusters, to see their behaviors and needs.
What we find with this is sometimes counterintuitive, in that companies in very different industries can actually have great similarities. A tech company might have similar needs to a pharma company if, for example, they are both cash rich and so have little need for credit products but great interest in asset management products. We have approximately 250 data points feeding into a multi-terabyte data warehouse, to which we apply machine learning models to generate these insights. When we bring it all together in one place, the insights generated are powerful.
McKinsey: The way you’re using data and analytics to underpin and support the transformation is exciting. How have you built those capabilities, and how do they help the front line and ultimately your clients?
James Bickerton: Data underpins pretty much everything we do. The front line today, even before our transformation came along, used data to understand their clients—the transactional history, how they operate, where they operate.
So what we decided to do was to double down on that agenda. A big proportion of the change we’re implementing is bringing data and analytical capabilities into every part of the business operating model.
It became apparent that HSBC’s global nature, breadth of product set, breadth of client set meant we have a complex data estate—lots of data in different places. We chose to bring that data together into a single wholesale platform and invest heavily in the technology that then turns the data from raw data pools into usable data assets and then allows us to build use cases on top of that to deliver insight back to our front line.
And that insight spans everything from sales and business development, where to look, how to look, and what to look for through to how we think about service management—so where we see the intensity of service clustering and how we should think about where issues may appear and become more predictive in service management, right through to the people side of things, to understand more about what types of client interactions work for which types of clients. Where do we collaborate? Where do we see opportunities to bring new skills from the front line into support engagements that might be happening with our clients?
McKinsey: Another interesting aspect of your transformation is the co-creation you’ve engaged in with your clients in the process. Is this something your clients asked for? And how has it worked as part of the transformation?
James Bickerton: It was very apparent in the research we did with our clients that they want to co-create solutions with their banking partners. Actually, that change and risk appetite from a bank to have a conversation with a client way earlier around what the solution might be before it may not even be readily available to provide to the client is a big change in our working ethos.
I think we’ve now demonstrated through other examples delivered by others in the organization that we can do this. Our partnership with Oracle NetSuite is a great example of where we can work for a long period of time hand in hand with a client to make sure that the solution we take to them completely meets their needs and even their own clients’ needs. In that partnership, we worked with Oracle to integrate banking into their ERP system for midsize to small business, NetSuite, allowing businesses that bank with HSBC to have all their banking services fully integrated into their ERP system. That includes deposits, sweeping, pooling, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and so on. It’s really ERP in a box plus all your financial services.
We started out with three or four such co-creations, but we’ve quickly scaled that up and now have around 125 active pods with clients now up and running. Some of these co-created propositions go much further than just the partner we work with into their own client base as well. For example, we might offer a banking product to a customer that is a technology-in-a-box provider to an edtech start-up. So we’re trying to bring that approach to being more agile, more iterative, into all of the sales and business development we do, to really help customers drive more commercial outcomes and faster sales.
McKinsey: Turning to the fourth pillar, the frontline experience, tell us more about this change and how it helps.
James Bickerton: Bankers generate reams of reports and data. We had tens of thousands of documents scattered about the bank in equity research, fixed-income research, investment banking, and product silos, but it was impossible for people to easily search for and find the most relevant information. We now have a structured content management system that lets bankers use natural-language search to find information across the bank. You can say, “I want to understand topic X in my industry,” and it will show you who the experts in the bank are on that topic and offer you the research the bank has done on that topic. For example, a banker serving an aviation client may need to get up to speed on the latest environmental, social, and governance [ESG] thinking regarding aviation. Rather than doing broad internet searches or calling around to colleagues, our bankers can now search our institution’s own knowledge stores. That’s hugely valuable.
McKinsey: What has the response been from the front line and your clients on what you’ve accomplished so far?
James Bickerton: With all big transformations, when you start there’s a level of healthy skepticism. I think that stands for HSBC. Having gone through a lot of transformation recently, we are now seeing the benefits and that perception change. A lot of the deliveries across everything we’re trying to adjust are starting to land in their first incremental step.
There are no silver bullets in what we’re doing. We can’t just pull one lever and suddenly the world is fixed. We’re upgrading and tweaking and adjusting every part of the overall coverage model, and the success of the program is landing in pockets across many of those different aspects now. Therefore, the sea change in support is there. Actually, what we’re now seeing is the engagement accelerate massively with new ideas—new opportunities to make more adjustments, make it even more fit for purpose.
McKinsey: Your transformation is ongoing, so what are the next steps?
James Bickerton: As much as Future of the Frontline is a transformational program and therefore has a finite end, what we’re really doing here is changing how we change. I’m quite excited that we’ve managed to create a culture where the technical teams can partner with product teams—can partner with coverage and other business teams together. We have truly created that kind of cross-divisional, cross-silo collaboration. So as much as we’re going to fix lots of stuff through the program that we’re delivering, it’s more about, “How do we now persist beyond that?”
McKinsey: Was there an aha moment along the way, where you saw that the transformation had taken successfully taken root?
James Bickerton: For me, the aha moment or point at which I realized we were on the right track was when, in the start of this year, most of the program was ramped up to its full capacity, we were into delivery mode, and we were reviewing our strategy with some of our leadership. We were looking at some of the regional strategies. We were thinking about some of the other big initiatives we had going on in the organization to drive growth. And all of the enablers they needed under the hood for all of those different kinds of lenses came back to what we were doing.
They wanted better content. They wanted better information. They wanted a simpler world to work in—smart policies. They wanted the ability to collaborate across silos. Those are all the foundations of what we’re doing.
Then when speaking to the front line as well, you’d explain what we’re doing [and see] the moment they realized that actually we’re just helping them improve their day-to-day. We’re not trying to fundamentally change their role but actually just empower that role, make it easier to operate in. So that was crucial.
McKinsey: What do you see the ultimate outcome of the transformation being?
James Bickerton: We have some great capability already out there that helps us think about our clients, be client-centric, think about the behaviors and solutions they need.
Some of the use cases around how we think about client performance, how we think about team performance haven’t yet been solved in banking to the scale of what we’re attempting. So I’m very excited that will take us to the leading edge.
McKinsey: Now that you have this experience mostly behind you, what would you say are the critical ingredients of a successful transformation?
James Bickerton: There are many dimensions to transformation. It’s important that you have the sponsorship, you have the funding, you have the expertise, you have the capabilities. There’s a whole tool box that you need to drive successful transformation.
More recently, I think the success we’ve had has been because we very diligently brought the business along the journey the whole time and made sure that they were front and center in designing that change. Our executive leadership have been part of a design authority from the start, looking at those big decisions and things that would change, voicing their views.
We’ve taken that into communities with the front line to stress-test and make sure it meets their needs. And we’ve kept a constant velocity of feedback loops on everything we’re doing with the business. So it hasn’t felt, in my view, like something on the side that’s trying to transform or push change onto the business. It’s actually been the business using all the great capabilities we have in our technical and support functions to change themselves.
Though HSBC’s frontline transformation addresses its own very specific set of opportunities and challenges, the underlying conditions that spurred the institution to undertake the initiative are broadly applicable to wholesale banks everywhere and indeed to financial services and other organizations, especially those that are relationship driven. The pace of commerce and digital change requires a data-driven understanding of customer needs that happens in near real time. As ever greater quantities of data are generated, the insights that can be derived from it increase. Organizations that are able to keep up with this pace will enjoy greater competitive advantage.