All in the wrist: Smartwatches centerpiece of HSBC branch pilot

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At HSBC’s flagship branch in Manhattan, tellers speak into their watches like secret agents in movies.

The Samsung Gear S3 smartwatches are part of an experiment by HSBC to see if the devices could help front-line staff at the three-floor location be more helpful to customers visiting the branch.

“This is cool,” said Kenneth Klomberg, the branch manager at the Fifth Avenue flagship. “We’ve received comments that we’re the 007 of banking.”

With banks’ efforts these days focused more on improving the digital experience for customers, HSBC says little has been done to modernize how branch staff members communicate with each other.

This pilot could set the tone for how HSBC and other banks use emerging technologies such as wearables.

“Obviously, we spend a lot of time on the consumer side, but what about the branch personnel?” Jeremy Balkin, head of innovation at HSBC, told American Banker at the flagship branch, on Fifth Avenue. “How can this technology enhance efficiencies and optimize communication between staff?”

But not everyone is on board with the idea, arguing wearables are more gimmicks than essential items for bank employees.

“It’s hard to argue with any of HSBC’s intent in using the smartwatches to enhance team efficiency and effectiveness, but all of the options they describe are already available through smartphone apps and functionality,” said Emmett Higdon, director of digital banking for Javelin Strategy & Research. “Does having it on a watch make it more efficient or effective? Hard to see it benefiting the customer more based on delivery device alone.”

But Balkin says wearables do have advantages over phones.

“Let’s face it, picking up a [smartphone] in front of clients is not professional,” he said.

The bigger question might be why enterprise-level technology is not ubiquitous across “corporate America” and not just banks, Balkin added.

Such technology has had fits and starts over the years. Google Glass never caught on like the technology sector had hoped. Microsoft HoloLens’ mixed- reality technology is still too niche for corporations to use in a meaningful way. But smartwatches might offer potential uses, particularly given their size.

Julie Godfrey, who leads the financial services solutions and innovation division at Samsung, said a smartwatch is better for in-branch communications than a smartphone or tablet.

“In this case, the watch is about getting discreet information delivered to you in a hands-free environment,” she said.

A bank staffer can easily glance at their wrist to read a notification from a smartwatch instead of staring at a smartphone or tablet screen. HSBC chose the flagship location for the pilot because the branch’s unique three-floor layout makes it difficult for staff to communicate.

“Traditional communication here has not always been the best,” Balkin said. “For example, it’s not uncommon for cellphones not to work downstairs.”

The branch’s downstairs consists of ATMs and traditional tellers. The main floor houses the lobby with some areas reserved for one-on-one client interaction, as well as two giant digital screens. Pepper, HSBC’s popular 4-foot-tall, white, artificial intelligence-enabled robot, also is located on the main level. The third floor consists of staff offices.

A staff member can communicate with a colleague in a couple of ways, either through a preset text message or voice call via the Gear’s built-in speaker and microphone. American Banker observed a voice call inside the branch and the receiving party could be clearly heard through the Gear’s speaker. Godfrey described how Samsung tweaked its smartwatches over the years to the point where the HSBC pilot is possible.

The Gear S3 is 4G LTE-enabled, which means the device doesn’t need to be tethered to a smartphone to work. Samsung added that capability in 2016.

Last year, Samsung introduced the ability for multiple smartwatches to be updated at once through a mobile device management platform. Previously, software updates had to be done on each device individually through Samsung’s app store.

“There were a couple things that had to happen to get use to where we are from a technology standpoint, and then to enable us to work with a partner like HSBC to be able to bring this to market,” Godfrey said.

She envisions similar partnerships for Samsung once HSBC gets its program out of pilot. Godfrey said there’s interest across retail banking to use wearables for in-branch communications.

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