Thursday, August 24, 2017

Use Virtual Reality and Pokemons to Increase Customer Loyalty

Digital transformation doesn’t touch only companies in the U.S. or Western Europe. Many Russian firms made efforts to incorporate digital into their business models. Take Sberbank, for example. This is the largest universal bank in the country with approximately 330 000 employees, $39.2 Billion market cap and close to 17000 branch offices. It now has over 30 million active users of online banking system Sberbank Online, 18 million active users of Sberbank Online App for smartphones and over 90000 ATMs and self-service kiosks.

Being a universal bank in Russia means that you have to serve very diverse customer groups—from senior citizens-- who want interaction with a human customer service representatives and are not comfortable with the technology -- to digital natives who want mobile banking without much human interaction.

Elderly customers (i.e. 60 year old +) represent a large proportion of the bank’s clients. These customers don’t use Internet banking and even have trouble using self-service terminals in the branch offices to pay utility bills. How to make sure that the bank’s staff is always willing to help the elderly to navigate the terminals? One can run customer satisfaction surveys or develop KPIs for serving elderly clients and reprimand employees who are not helpful. Alternatively, one can work on improving the staff’s empathy with the elderly so that the associates are willing to assist without specific KPIs or a fear of reprimand from the top management.

To address this issue, Sberbank has developed a powerful virtual reality tool called Empathy for its staff. With a use of headphones and Samsung VR headset, a young branch associate can actually “become” an elderly client of her own bank. The bank worked with a team of psychologists and doctors to understand how a seventy-year-old person may perceive the world, given his (or her) poor health condition and declining motoric skills. When inside the program, you have the visual and sensory experience of an elderly person. You have to orient yourself inside the bank’s branch office, seek advice from a not-very-friendly Sberbank associate, figure out how to punch the numbers on the self-service payment kiosk. At the same time, you battle blurry vision (due to eye disease), noise in the years (due to high blood pressure), hands that lost their dexterity (due to arthritis) and occasional bumps into younger customers who don’t understand why you stand in the middle of the branch looking for help. The experience is extremely powerful and helps branch office employees to develop empathy towards seniors’ frequent inability to understand the technology and they become more willing to help. As a positive side effect, this experience helps young bank associates to feel more empathy for their own elderly relatives as well.

What about younger customers who tend to think of Sberbank as a boring place where their grandparents go to open savings accounts and pay their bills? Russia now has a few brunch-less banks targeting digital natives and Sberbank needs to change its perception of being a traditional bank in the eyes of this customer group. 2016 was a year of Pokemon Go and a small team of Sberbank’s executives decided to use the game to attract millennials to its branch offices. In 3 days, the team created a new insurance product called “Sberbank Go”. Every Russian citizen who hunted for Pokemons could sign up for insurance that covers medical costs in case of an accident. That is, if you walk into a street lamp pole while looking for Pikachu and hurt your leg, Sberbank insurance will help you pay your medical bill. In addition, Sberbank put Pokestops inside some of its branch offices to attract virtual eggs and Poke Balls. This helped game’s fans to capture more Pokemon if they visited Sberbank.

While this initiative sounds a bit silly, the objectives were very serious: increase awareness among the younger customers about the bank’s insurance products, its loyalty program and mobile payment solutions. The project was run in 27 branch offices across Russia. The results were very good. There was huge buzz in the Russian social networks about the campaign and the TV channels run stories about it. This was free publicity. At the end, 130 million individuals have heard about the initiative, journalists and bloggers wrote about 10 000 articles, the dedicated website ( received 70 000 visits and the bank issued 6500 insurance policies to customers with the average age of 24 years old. In addition, 12 out of 27 branch offices with Pokestops experienced visible increase in physical traffic during the month of July, i.e. the period when traffic normally decreases due to the vacation lull.

How to make your company more open to digital transformation? Sberbank’s answer lies in raising awareness of opportunities among senior executives and empowering lower level employees. The bank’s CEO German Gref and his top management team became aware of the Virtual Reality’s potential to teach empathy while visiting the Virtual Human Interaction Lab in Stanford University. The CEO and his team realized the importance of agile approach in developing new products, and they created the organizational culture inside Sberbank that allows for small scale experimentation. This helped the emergence of SberbankGo and many similar digital initiatives. Ultimately, the embrace of digital technologies helps the bank to better service the elderly while appearing hip to the young. 

Shorter version of this article was published in French by Les Echos