Robots, smart watches, fintech partners: How HSBC's Jeremy Balkin is innovating

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It says a lot about his stature in the banking industry that Jeremy Balkin was nominated as American Banker’s Digital Banker of the Year not by a colleague, but by a competitor.

In the application, the competitor said that Balkin, the head of innovation at HSBC USA, deserves recognition for taking chances that others in his position won’t.

On his watch, the $170 billion-asset unit of the global giant HSBC Holdings last year became the first bank in the world to deploy a customer-facing robot in a branch. It provides visitors with basic information about products and self-service banking options, and alerts employees when customers have more in-depth inquiries. HSBC USA also says it is the first bank to use wearable technology — a Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch — to modernize how branch employees communicate with each other. Neither of these initiatives is just for show; the purpose is to better assist customers.

Balkin — selected as a 2019 Digital Banker of the Year finalist — is “single-handedly moving our tired, boring, conservative industry forward in terms of cutting-edge innovation,” the competitor wrote in the application. “I wish I could work for him and his team.”

That’s high praise and Balkin, who joined HSBC USA in 2015, seems genuinely humbled by it. Still, he points out that the investments in robotics and wearable technology will take some time to pay off. The robot, built by SoftBank Robotics Group and given the name “Pepper” by Balkin and his team, is currently roaming the floors of just three branches, in New York, Seattle and Beverly Hills, Calif., and will need to be deployed in many more locations before it can have meaningful impact on branch operations, he said.

Ultimately, Balkin envisions lots of Peppers being stationed in busy areas where HSBC has no physical locations — think shopping malls and commercial districts — promoting the bank’s credit cards, deposit accounts and other products to noncustomers. “What you’ve seen with Pepper is not even what our vision is,” he said.

But he's seen early promise in Pepper already. Thirty days after Pepper's launch in the New York branch, Balkin noted that the top inquiry was about credit cards. Based on that, the bank integrated technology that enables the robot to text a link to a consumer so they can learn more about credit cards or even apply for one.

“As we’ve seen the glimpse of the credit card application through Pepper, what about in the future when you can ask Pepper about a loan and apply for it through a text, or download the mobile banking app?” Balkin said.

Balkin's technology efforts at HSBC are about more than just a robot, of course.

HSBC is just scratching the surface in its use of wearable technology. At the moment, the smartwatches are being used only by front-line staff at HSBC’s three-floor Manhattan branch, but since the technology was first put to use in November, Balkin has been traveling to branches worldwide to tout the benefits. The idea behind the pilot is that smartwatches can modernize how branch staff members communicate with each other so that they could better assist customers.

An HSBC branch in Saudi Arabia will be the next location to roll out wearable technology to employees.

“I’m amazed that wearables haven’t taken over corporate America” for this use case, he said.

HSBC is also working closely with several fintechs. The bank is using Avant’s Amount platform to offer loans as much as $30,000 with terms up to five years. Consumers can apply for the loans in minutes and receive funding in their accounts within a day.

Balkin said the Avant partnership enables HSBC to expand its reach to areas where it lacks a physical presence. HSBC announced the Avant partnership just a week after unveiling a robo-advisor partnership with Marstone. The bank and Marstone developed HSBC Wealth Track, a software based investment advice platform that gives clients the ability to create a portfolio for both retirement and nonretirement accounts.

Balkin knows the future may be challenging, but he’s faced tough times before. Not long after joining HSBC, Balkin was told by an executive that it could be difficult to convince the bank to innovate. “Banking is a tough industry,” the executive said. “If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to need body armor and stamina.”

Ironically, Balkin has some armor in him already, after a mountain-climbing accident resulted in surgeries on his left arm and left ankle.

"In hindsight, it was the right advice from them, and I had the right preparation,” Balkin said.

Just ask his competitors.

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