Home Banking Interview with Mrs. Judith Forth Blake, Group Chief Customer and Brand Officer, VM Building Society (VMBS)

Interview with Mrs. Judith Forth Blake, Group Chief Customer and Brand Officer, VM Building Society (VMBS)

by internationalbanker


Jamaica’s VM Building Society (VMBS) has been serving customers since 1878, when a group of clergymen founded the mutual society to “meet the needs of the deserving thrifty”. VMBS was devoted to using all means possible to enable members to fulfil their dreams, especially for housing, regardless of their economic status. Through the strength of mutuality, the economically marginalised could pool their financial resources, save and buy homes. This ideal of working together has positioned VMBS to be a steady and reliable support to its members, who effectively own the Society.

Over the years, the organisation has expanded its product offering beyond savings and mortgage loans to serve the changing needs of its members. Today, the rebranded VM Group abides by its strategic mission: “We are a mutual organisation whose purpose is to empower our Members globally to achieve financial well-being through home ownership and innovative investment solutions delivered across multiple channels by an expert and caring team.” The VM Group operates in several financial areas, such as savings and loans, business banking, wealth management and financial advisory, real estate and commercial-property management, money transfer, pension administration and investment management. It also provides general insurance products. This varied portfolio of services is offered through its innovative strategic business units (SBUs): VM Wealth Management Limited (VMWML), VM Pensions Management Limited (VMPM), VM Money Transfer Services (VMTS), VM Property Services (VMPS), VM Innovations Limited (VMIL), VM Finance Limited (VMF) and its affiliate companies, British Caribbean Insurance Company (BCIC) and Carilend. VM has expanded its branch network within Jamaica and operates representative offices in the United Kingdom and the United States to serve the needs of Jamaicans living overseas.

While emphasizing the power of mutuality, VM Group holds its individual members in high esteem.  The Group values not only successfully performing financial transactions but building mutually beneficial relationships.

International Banker spoke with Judith Forth Blake, Group Chief Customer and Brand Officer of VM Group, to delve into the Society’s latest initiatives.

Mrs. Forth Blake, welcome, and thank you for your time….

Mrs. Judith Forth Blake, Group Chief Customer and Brand Officer, VM Building Society (VMBS)

The concept of being a VM Building Society (VMBS) member sounds particularly interesting. What are some of the key differences between a member and an ordinary bank customer? And how do you incentivise customers to become VMBS members?

As a mutual, VMBS is not owned by shareholders, as is the case with most major financial institutions in Jamaica. It is owned by our customers, who are members of the Society by virtue of them opening accounts with us. It means that each customer is a ‘shareholder’, so to speak, and, therefore, has a unique and special relationship with us, versus the type of relationships they typically have with other financial institutions that are shareholder-led.

In lieu of dividend payments, we generate value for members in a number of ways, including by ensuring that they get higher than average industry rates on their savings and lower rates on their mortgages. In addition to more attractive rates generally, we also offer other benefits, such as no or low fees as well as discounts on services offered by other businesses in the VM Group.

One of your core values is: “Excellence—Service excellence is the foundation upon which our success is built. Our creed is to deliver only the best to our Members and our staff.” What is the single most significant way in which you ensure VM Group maintains service excellence at all times?

We take our commitment to service excellence very seriously. Back in about 2018, we took time out as an executive team to determine how best to operationalise this. We determined at that time that the single most significant way in which we need to serve our members is by providing them with financial education borne out of genuine care and commitment to help them realise their potential.

VM genuinely cares about the financial well-being of our members and clients and prioritises the support we provide to help them achieve their financial goals. Educating our members about the financial options available to them, making things as simple as possible to understand and actively helping them to remove roadblocks along their journeys are, I think, the most significant ways that we serve them.

Instead of just being transactional, our goal is to establish long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with our members and clients.

As part of the mutual’s brand-transformation strategy, the new VM brand’s launch was initiated on November 1, 2021. What was the main reason for your initial decision that this new brand was required, and what are some of its key features?

VM Building Society has had a long and distinguished history of over 140 years in Jamaica. During that time, the business grew and expanded well beyond the building society through a series of acquisitions, which today has resulted in VMBS having 100-percent ownership in seven strategic business units (SBUs) covering the areas of wealth and pensions management, remittance services, property services and specialised lending in the UK market. The Society also has part ownership in two affiliate companies, British Caribbean Insurance Company (BCIC), a general insurance company, and Carilend, which offers online, unsecured consumer lending.

Based on our various brand surveys, it was obvious that despite the expansion that VMBS had undergone over the years, many people still associated the VM brand predominantly with the offerings of the building society only. The brand transformation is an effort to ensure that  everyone is aware that VMBS has actually evolved well beyond our initial offerings of mortgages and savings into a formidable group of financial and non-financial entities with a vastly expanded product range and a global footprint based on our locations in the United Kingdom and the United States and our customer base in Canada.

One of the key features of the brand transformation is a change in our visual identity, our logo, to give it an updated and much more prominent look. Also very important is the move to greater integration and cohesiveness of the entities within the VM Group to ensure that all SBUs have the same look and feel and that both internally among our team members as well as externally for our members and the broader public, there is a shift away from the view that each entity is a siloed operation, to one in which all services across the SBUs are seen as part of a cohesive whole under the umbrella VM Group brand.

The first VMBS overseas representative office was established in the United Kingdom, followed by offices in Canada (which have since been closed) and the United States. What products and services are available in these overseas offices, and what main purposes do they serve?

It is said that more Jamaicans reside outside of Jamaica, in the diaspora, than live in Jamaica. Since our mission is to empower Jamaicans globally, there are no geographic borders or limitations for those Jamaicans overseas who want to save and invest here in Jamaica through the products and services that VM provides. In line with that, most of the products and services available here in Jamaica are also available to Jamaicans overseas.

That said, we do, however, offer specialist property finance products in the UK, where we provide property finance to established property professionals. Additionally, we are an approved mortgage intermediary regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, licensed to arrange, advise and bring about regulated mortgage contracts with a panel of lenders which includes several High Street and Challenger banks in the UK.

Perhaps most significantly, VMBS differentiates itself from its peers through its extensive efforts to provide financial education to its customers and members. Can you briefly outline some of the main ways through which such education is currently disseminated? And what are some of the principal benefits for the customer and VMBS of maintaining such an intense focus on financial education?

There are several ways in which VM provides financial education to our members and clients. One way is through the one-on-one consultation that is done with our frontline team of qualified experts, who are trained not only on our product and service offerings and how to conduct needs assessments, but also schooled in emotional intelligence, which helps them to relate to members across diverse backgrounds and provide sound financial information while demonstrating the sensitivity and care for which VM is known.

Another way in which we provide financial education is by executing a robust annual calendar of financial-education initiatives, which includes a mix of webinars, podcasts, newsletters and expos covering a wide range of financial topics that deliver content relevant to our members and clients across several channels.

The recently launched VM Express Video Banking sounds like an exciting new digital service. What does this innovative offering enable customers to do that was previously impossible? And do you see this solution experiencing increased adoption over the long term or being temporary whilst the pandemic restricts branch banking?

The Video Banking solution was conceived initially in response to the pandemic and was developed primarily to enable our members and clients to verify their identities without needing to be physically present in the branch. For our overseas members, for example, the ID-verification process in some instances requires them to engage the services of a notary public, since it is impossible for them to come in. This solution can replace that need. Also, as we transition to an online customer-onboarding solution, it is envisioned that those customers who choose fully remote onboarding may also choose this channel as an option for remote ID verification.

Additionally, it will help with other types of remote engagement with our members, such as more complex sales and investment conversations that could substitute for in-branch, face-to-face meetings, should that be the members’ or clients’ preferred option.

As I understand, you have intensified the implementation and promotion of your digital self-serve channels, such as the Online Mortgage Portal for mortgage applications, VM eLoan in partnership with Carilend for online unsecured loans and Approved Retirement Scheme (ARS) Online Dashboard for pension products. How do such channels improve upon what VMBS previously offered in these areas? And in terms of customer satisfaction, what has been the feedback from customers who have used these channels?

The introduction of these digital channels is intended to provide our members with easy and convenient access to information on their accounts and portfolios whenever they need it—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—as well as give them remote access to some of the products and services offered by VM. This reduces the necessity for our members to call to speak with a service representative to get that information, as was previously the case. Given the busy lives that most of  our members lead, we know that having the digital self-serve channels as an option is something they appreciate.

As an organisation, we continuously track our Net Promoter Score (NPS), which indicates customer satisfaction across all our client-facing channels and specifically digital channels. So far, our scores have been generally on target, and in  a few areas where we are below it is mainly because  our current users are demanding even more features and functionalities.

As part of its digital-transformation strategy, VM Group embarked on the Customer Experience Transformation Programme (CETP). Can you briefly outline the aims of this programme and what it involves?

The Customer Experience Transformation Programme (CETP) was born out of VM’s digital-transformation strategy. The CETP operates very much like a programme-steering committee in terms of providing oversight and governance to the digital-transformation initiatives that directly impact our members, including tracking and monitoring the performance of these initiatives and the feedback received from users to ensure that they are not only delivering on the business objectives but, more importantly, our members’ needs and the customer experience.

What is the Member Loyalty Index, your Net Promoter Score (NPS)? And how does this index help VMBS improve performance and customer service?

The Net Promoter Score (NPS) measures customer loyalty based on how likely it is that members or customers will speak positively about their experiences with VM to their friends and family and actually go as far as to recommend VM as a place to do business. Each year, we set new and higher NPS targets for each VM subsidiary (SBU) and digital channel to ensure that we always strive to deliver exceptional service. We conduct ongoing post-transactional online surveys, with real-time results available to all business owners, to allow them to act quickly whenever an alert is received that a customer is not satisfied with any aspect of our service.

Detailed reports on the Group’s overall performance, with insights into the main drivers of satisfaction and dissatisfaction during the period under review, are produced quarterly by our market research team and monitored from the executive level. The customer insights provided by these reports are taken seriously and are used to influence business decisions and priorities.

Does VMBS have a formal process to determine which new product and service ideas will be approved and developed and which will not be? And how do you typically go about generating such new ideas—is it a case of simply responding to customer feedback or improving upon what the competition offers?

At VM, we have a very structured product-development framework developed with the input of various internal stakeholders, which has evolved over time to adapt to the needs of the dynamic and growing organisation that we are today. Based on this framework, ideas for new products can be generated anywhere, either internally from our business leads—who interact with our members on the frontlines and understand, based on the feedback they receive, what gaps we need to fill in our service offerings—or directly through customer suggestions.

All suggestions go through a prioritisation process, which considers key business imperatives, such as strategic alignment, market trends and consumer demands, benefits to be realised, competitive advantages and complexities to implement. Typically, new products with a high degree of complexity and capital investment are addressed within our project-management framework.

VMBS is certainly a model of successful cooperation. Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Mrs. Forth Blake.

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