The Asian rich are already wealthier than their European counterparts, and are expected to catch up with the North Americans soon. As a result, many private banks plan to expand their business in Asia.
Yet, despite the rapid growth of wealth in the region, the talent pool of relationship managers (RMs) has experienced a cumulative increase of only 15% to 20% over the past decade in Hong Kong and Singapore, the two primary offshore hubs in Asia. Even professionals already working within the banking industry often find it tough to make a career change into relationship management.
There are many aspects to becoming a successful private banker in Asia – here we highlight a few, based on recent conversations with RMs in the region.
Work around the clock as a private banker
Private banking relationship managers have a very unique job. As the name suggests, the role is about building life-long relationships. RMs are expected to possess more than just market insights and banking knowledge – they must be ready 24/7 with their outlook.
A few years ago, there was a corporate banking RM who worked in a regional bank for a decade and then became an RM in a Swiss private bank. He was a professional banker with in-depth banking knowledge and was experienced at advising hundreds of clients (some of whom were high-net-worth individuals themselves) from small and medium-sized companies.
He recently recalled to us: “As a banker, I’m confident and capable of providing market insights and explaining how different investment products are structured. One day, as I was having lunch with a prospect, a client called me for my views on a piece of political news announced 15 minutes earlier, and how it impacted the FX market. I understood his urgency because the currency had dropped by a few percentage points. But I was very sure I would pick it up after lunch, and could share my opinion with him then.
However, although the banker had explained to the client, politely and professionally, that he was having a lunch appointment and could not give him an instant response, the client felt shunned and thought the banker was placing less importance on him. This client eventually left the private bank, and so did the banker.
Know the languages of your clients
Speaking English well does not necessarily lead to effective communication, especially in Asia where local languages and dialects are the keys to unlocking strong relationships. Some corporate bankers are used to working with their clients in English, which is perfectly sufficient in the “business world”. However, private banking is a “human business” – language be a differentiator, especially when breaking the ice and communicating with senior HNW individuals.
A Hong Kong private banker shared with us that early in his career he once greeted a new Taiwanese client in fluent Mandarin, but did not manage to have an engaging conversion the first time they met. A Taiwanese friend later advised him how to overcome the cultural divide and taught him a few words of Hoklo (a Taiwanese Hokkien dialect) as well as stories from the Taiwanese culture.
From then on, the banker used this knowledge to break the ice with his Taiwanese clients, who were often impressed by his efforts to develop the relationship. His efforts also create a sense of trust, which was further strengthened by the banker’s sophisticated investment knowledge and commitment to treating his clients' assets as his own.
Understand local cultures
Local taboos can be very tricky in Asia. Socialising with clients, wining and dining with them, is very common for RMs in the private banking industry – more so than in any other banking job.
A Canadian-born Chinese RM quoted his experience when meeting a Chinese client: “Despite spending 15 years in Canada when I was growing up, I am still Chinese and know enough about Chinese culture. It’s commonly known that the dining setting in Chinese culture is a 'sharing style', while it’s an individual style in Western culture. So naturally, I was nervous the first few times I had to share a full fish, a full chicken, and a full whatever with a client. I had to learn the skills of sharing food, and more importantly, sharing the right parts of the food with a client.”
Whether it’s China, Japan, Thailand, or another part of the world, clients in different markets come with different needs. To be a successful RM, you need to understand the expectations of each client and work around language and cultural differences to create strong relationships that last.
Pathik Gupta is the head of the Asia Pacific wealth management practice for Scorpio Partnership and McLagan (business units of Aon Hewitt). He is based in Singapore and provides advice to wealth and asset managers in the region. Alice Choi is a manager in the wealth management practice, based in Hong Kong.
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