Customer experience is everything: How GTBank catalyzed the explosion of digital payments in Nigeria

Everyone who has played a role in payments in Nigeria can attest to the fact that the current upswing in the adoption of digital payments started around the middle of 2014 when the trio of GTBank, Fidelity, and Zenith Banks pushed out their USSD banking products.

Consequently, the number of us going to banking halls to do transactions has been falling each day precipitously. The 2017 KPMG BICSS showed that mobile banking penetration In Nigeria jumped from 20% coverage in 2015 to a vertigo-inducing 48% in 2017.

Some people, including those who talked to KPMG, call USSD Banking Mobile banking but then who cares? If customers can use a service to meet their payment and financial needs, Hallelujah!

Many reasons have been given for the sudden rise. Many experts and thought leaders (whatever that means) have adduced this as evidence of innovations from banks and Fintechs. Others feel it’s a natural progression of things.
Armchair pundits, especially my humble self, think that the ubiquity of USSD, the simplicity of use and the cost of access were significant factors for the transformation. And em, cough, the branding, and money GTBank poured behind *737# Simple Banking ensured that even the dead heard about it. It was a winner from day one.

Some even feel because of the biting and nasty recessions, tellers and customer service officers earn less to buy makeups. Nobody wants to waste money on a trip to banks just to see ugly girls. I digress.

But I was wrong. Or maybe not 100% wrong.

I was fortunate to have been a part of this game for the last five years, but I now have a contrary opinion of what made the change to happen. While I would give credence to the value of innovation in payments and other digital thingamajigs, the fundamental products being pushed weren’t inherently new (many apps wear pretty faces though with poorly applied lipsticks).
The most significant reason has been the customer experience when getting on with the services.

I have spent my life railing against sadistic banking processes that prioritizes “Control and Compliance” over customer experience. Get me right; I’m a stickler for control, processes and risk management. But many of our control and compliance procedures appear to provide cover while in fact, they hurt customer acquisition and when the real attacks come, they can’t even cover the banks’ backsides.
So how did this happen?

Before 2014, most services by banks require a visit to a branch, completing a form and hoping it gets done on the system. Usually, your password never gets to you, and the processes were just full of pain and misery.
GTBank led the pack by daring the gods of control and compliance. They designed the USSD banking process to have you input your bank account and then use your last four digits of your card number as the PIN. It was daring, maybe a little foolish but it was groundbreaking regarding customer experience.

Signups exploded. The market noticed.
Luckily the transaction types were simple, and transaction limits were truly limited. Being able to get on a digital service without worshiping an idol at the local branch was a boon.

How GTBank influenced digital payments
The rapid and immediate success of GTBank’s *737# Simple Banking made it difficult for other banks to offer something “more secure” for the onboarding process and their approach was a justification for hapless product managers to force approval of comparable products at the copycat banks. At Fidelity Bank, my “village” sense wouldn’t allow me to implement last four digits of PAN though; we settled for good ‘ole PINs.

One of the large banks waited years before launching their USSD Banking because of “risk,” but in the end, the market forced their hands to do self-service USSD and live with the risks. Unfortunately, they lost out on the massive income they could have made between 2014 and 2016.

Alat is transforming the next wave
Wema Bank, despite facing branding and perception headwinds, launched Alat Digital Bank into the market last year (2017). The Naysayers are already adding pepper and sauce to their words in anticipation of making a meal out of them – the service has been very successful. Unconfirmed figures point to about 200K users in 8 months with deposit north of N1B.
The curious thing is, Alat offers nothing more than a standard savings account with 10% interest but with everyone broke in Lagos, that can’t be the most important reason.

What Alat has done well is the ease at which anyone can open a full-fledged Tier 3 account and even have the debit card delivered (free as of the time I did mine) without touching a sheet of paper or visit a bank branch.

That ease and experience are what the other banks, who started online account opening a million years before Alat/Wema Bank, have not been able to pull off. Ask any bank how many accounts get opened online, you will be very embarrassed for their CEOs.

There are bears in the wood
I would be very foolish to say that there are no risks to self-service in banking. Banks and hapless customers get shafted by the day, and a bank that isn’t vigilant could get cleaned out.
However, the smart banks have figured out that a well-designed process flow and fraud monitoring can thwart an average fraudster. Even with SIM cloning, the most dangerous digital evil on the prowl, customers can be easily protected when intelligent backend analytics are applied to customer transactional behaviors.