From fixed to floating: why Kiwibank has had to start thinking like a tech company

Fintech startups are popping up like mushrooms, the big tech players are all eyeing up your money, and customers are demanding better digital experiences from their banks. Kiwibank is all too aware that disruption is looming, so it has had to start, as the famous Facebook mantra goes, moving fast and breaking things. 

Leigh MacDonald, Kiwibank’s general manager of direct channels, describes the way the tech team works now – fast and agile – as being “at opposite ends of the Earth” from a couple of years ago, when it would have taken them a whole year to roll out a new mobile app. 

The tech team has had to adapt quickly as the rate of change in banking technology has dramatically accelerated, particularly in the last three years, he says. Banks have increasingly found technology companies snapping at their ankles to provide services banks would traditionally have dominated. 

Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported technology companies had raised a massive £1 billion to challenge British banks, with an Accenture report warning banks would lose “the battle for customer relevance” if they didn’t work with fintech companies and invest in technology.

Kiwibank has appeared to embrace the chance. Nowadays, work is performed in ‘bursts’, using a ‘sprint coach’. MacDonald talks just like a tech founder when he says fast failure is at the heart of what they do. As with the new Kiwibank app, technology companies are brought in as partners, not competitors. Plus, new technology doesn’t have to be rolled out in one, complete package. 


Customers are savvy enough to update their apps regularly with new features, and Kiwibank has become used to chatting with its customers on Twitter and through the app about what they want to see next. Kiwibank also recently launched web chat, the first bank in the country to do so, after finding that younger customers preferred chat as a way of communicating with their bank.

MacDonald says the launch of the chat function has been “incredibly successful”. The service level means Kiwibank can respond within 45 seconds.

Another coup has been the native speech ‘virtual agent’ recently rolled out to the call centre – it’s smart enough to have a conversation with customers and direct them to the exact person they need to speak to.

Rather than thinking 'what's the latest cool tech?' and building the next flying car, we think 'what will customers find useful right now in their everyday lives?'

“Now that’s not necessarily a new technology, but why I’m so proud is the contact centre has been under pressure for a long time … but we went live and after three weeks, it had doubled the customer experience service level,” MacDonald says. “It’s that self-fulfilling prophecy of putting customers at the heart of what you do – it’s had a really positive effect on our customers and on our people as well.”

Working like a tech company is even more important in New Zealand, where Kiwis are early adopters of technology and a high proportion use online banking and are effectively cashless, MacDonald says. 

Recently he presented at a banking conference in Bangkok and was surprised to find he was the only one talking about digital disruption. That’s why Kiwibank tends not to look to other banks for its inspiration, but to its customers and to other companies doing exciting things in technology: “Rather than thinking 'what's the latest cool tech?' and building the next flying car, we think 'what will customers find useful right now in their everyday lives?'”

While MacDonald’s team isn’t quite at the point that it has matching Chuck Taylors, or a foosball table in the office, the leadership team is working hard to create an environment that encourages organic innovation.

“We don’t have a slide yet,” he says, “but we have a digital neighbourhood, which is our version of an innovation sandpit, where we take business problems and pull in the right people from around the business.”

This story is part of a content partnership with Kiwibank.

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