Mukund-Venkatesh

Fintech is going to rise in a big way in the next 20 years

Here is a UK fintech major that has been adopting many technology advancements but the way it picks and prioritises them has nothing to do with technology. Mukund Venkatesh, Managing Director India, Gain Credit, an alternative lending company with operations in North America, Europe, and Asia, explains this new fintech formula for IT investments that he has been following for juxtaposing ‘Tech’ with ‘Fin’ at the right angles.

How tough is it to be a fintech player today when your topmost proposition has to be speed and simplicity; and at the same time, you cannot afford to turn a blind eye to compliance, customer data privacy, and security?

For the last eight years, we have been a leading alternative digital provider of credit in the UK market. Our entire operations and customer experience are seated online. We aim to serve those segments that struggle with access to credit; and sometimes, the speed of decisions has to be as minimal as we can manage. So, yes, customer experience and simplicity are tenets that we thrive on.

When you are dealing with people’s finances there is a heavy (and rightfully expected) degree of regulation too. But before we think about technology, we think of other aspects – customer experience, regulatory frameworks, fairness, and positive outcomes. Technology can then come in and solve the problems for these areas.

You have recently rolled out major IT changes like the virtual contact center or chat-bots or the cloud-side investments. Did the COVID-19 crisis trigger these decisions or were they already building up?

We had been looking at AWS for quite some time and were excited about expanding the infrastructure. When the pandemic hit the world, like many other companies our goal condensed to one word – quick recovery. This recovery entails the right balance of government permissions and customer experience.

When we looked at these solutions from AWS, we felt encouraged to turn on the recovery buttons and offer faster service options. The COVID-19 situation catalysed and accelerated existing plans and intentions. We are happy with the speed of deployment.

What specific circumstances did you solve with these efforts?

Our tech and engineering teams are based in India, and we had to close contact center operations in Gurgaon for a brief period as a result of the lockdown that was announced in India. The company’s on-site call center was in a payment card industry (PCI) zone.

That means that contact center agents needed to come into the office to connect with customers, but this was not feasible once the lockdown began. Gain Credit’s (GC’s) customers started experiencing limitations in contacting GC’s agents through calls or chats and had to depend more on the email channel.

After seven days, GC was able to upgrade its remote operations when it deployed secured cloud-based customer operation applications and Amazon Connect. We implemented AWS services to build a virtual contact center with Amazon Connect.

This is how we continue to be able to provide customers in the UK the core services of providing loans for people whose credit scores do not usually allow them to borrow from traditional financial institutions.

Did you evaluate any other options? What were your evaluation criteria?

Yes, for the call center initiative, we considered other options. What appealed to us about AWS was the fact that a lot of our infrastructure is already in AWS. To expand it in these new areas was, hence, a natural choice. We also liked the self-service nature of the solution. Another good part was that these solutions needed limited training. We could also build additional services on top of AWS technology.

How well has this worked?

Within a week of moving to secured cloud-based customer operation applications and deploying Amazon Connect, GC restored 40 percent of its incoming interactions from customers. The deployment happened in one week and we immediately began handling thousands of interactions per day.

Since then we have added continuous enhancements to the system. We are able to better serve customers and provide them with solutions to their queries. During the rollout of the system and the rapid growth in interactions, GC was able to scale easily with less effort.

Is your move towards machine learning with Textract a way to balance compliance with speed?

Yes, we adopted Amazon Textract, as it is a fully managed machine learning service to automatically extract text and data from scanned documents. It goes beyond simple optical character recognition and addresses many physical customer documents in three days.

All the services and steps we are moving towards are better ways of serving customers – with adequate security and speed factors. With Textract, we have the benefits of doing something in an automated way, avoiding intensive manual labor (that can be put in other priority areas), increasing compliance strengths – everything.

With better search algorithms we can flag customer issues, deliver services efficiently and do it all in a scalable way. This was not done, particularly, from a compliance stand-point but yes it does serve that purpose in a good way.

Are these solutions more than the unbox-and-slap category of IT? Did you get any ramping help or other support here? What was your team’s role here?

AWS has a really strong support capability. They helped in getting a peek into how a solution would look in our context. They provide enough resources and room to play around. Such partners are not looking at just signing a contract and moving on. They want to sit and solve a problem. That’s the kind of partners we need too.

While AWS has a good suite of chat, voice, and bot services, an off-the-shelf chat application (user interface) tailored for GC’s needs was also needed. That’s where the geeks of GC’ stepped in. They whipped up a cutting-edge chat application that is highly customisable and configurable for GC’s digital lending customer support needs.

This chat application easily integrates with AWS Connect. It is strong enough to enable an end-to-end fully digital financial services customer support chat-bot experience in just a few days. The chat-bot and voice-bot that we built collectively handled close to 75 percent of incoming customer queries.

What spurred the move towards Lex universe?

Lex is from the Alexa lineage and we are excited to replicate what Alexa has done on the consumer side of voice assistance. The remote working situation which began in late March meant that GC had an increasing number of customer queries. That’s why we implemented Amazon Lex. There is a lot of promise stored for the future and we could build more and more services that are intelligent, cost-effective, and collaborative with other platforms.

Any other imminent IT investments that you can talk about?

At the heart, we are a technology company. We have a 300+ strong team in India which is working non-stop to improve digital experiences via smart channels. We are working on improving the back-end side of loan management, predictive risk models, technology for credit assessment, and risk-management algorithms.

As to the recent call-center initiative, with AWS as a reliable partner, we strive to strengthen the self-service part – which is what customers actually want at the end of the day.

Do you think fintech disruptors can retain their technology-driven edge when everyone from legacy institutions to technology giants is getting in the fray now, using digital powers?

I think it is a space large enough to accommodate all kinds of players. There are so many experiences to create and so many customer pain-points to solve. It is a vast area to dive in to – be it a large player, a new-age lender, a technology company, or an API developer.

There is space for everyone here. The core focus should be on improving customer experiences. Our edge in the UK is in alternate customer segments and you need time to refine your models. We do not look at our edge from a technology view but from a customer view. We have invested a long time in understanding the customer. We have honed our models and technology to help them.

Fintech is going to rise in a big way in the next 20 years and we will see leap-frog moments like the recent Open Credit Enablement Network (OCEN) progress in India.

Any advice to other CIOs who are still hesitating on the kind of solutions you have invested in?

I am excited about innovation and infrastructure providers like AWS in the BFSI space. You can come up with really cool things if you look at technology in a fresh way. People are coming to us to ask about our experiences with these solutions, and other lending companies are asking – tell us more about what you did. Companies like AWS are there to support us in building what we want.

They are good partners. Most lenders do not have the kind of IT teams they might need. We are ready to help. Technology will power the next decade of fintech and I am excited about creating cool customer outcomes. The current crisis has been a silver lining.

It has catalysed and pushed forward digitisation. That said, we think of compliance, security, and ease before we think of technology. I would say it is better to go slow and build lasting value than to rush at things. The heart and focus must always stay on customer outcomes.

By Pratima Harigunani

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