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Bull Session

Kitty Chen: The Little Lady with Many Questions

July 08, 2019
 Kitty Chen, senior vice president and director of consumer and business banking at East West Bank
Kitty Chen, senior vice president and director of consumer and business banking at East West Bank

East West Bank’s consumer and business banking executive shares what she thinks success looks like.

Consumer and business bankers lead the way and shoulder much of the responsibility for a bank’s profitability, image and reputation. Overseeing hundreds of employees in branches across the country, and with more than 35 years of experience, Kitty Chen, senior vice president and director of consumer and business banking at East West Bank, has a lot of advice to share about the front-lines of the banking industry.

“It takes more than just a sharp mind to be a successful banker,” says Chen. “You have to treat others the way they want to be treated, and make sure you treat the bank like it’s your own business.” As a veteran banker and someone who oversees the bank’s retail branches, Chen shares a glimpse into the many judgment calls, decision factors and negotiation strategies that bankers use on a day-to-day basis to ensure that customers are happy and that the bank shows healthy growth margins.

What do you need to be an effective leader?

Possessing a curious nature is very important. My Chinese nickname when I first started working as a banker used to be wen ti shao nü, which means “the little lady with many questions” in Chinese, because I always asked a lot of questions and I am always trying to learn new things. As a banker, you have to make sure you get the answer that you need. If you get an unclear answer from someone, or still don’t understand, then go ask another person. Ask until you understand because once you get the logic behind the answer, you’ll be able to better assist your customers and work more efficiently.

Transparency is also crucial, especially in this day and age. We may not be able to give the highest savings interest rates, for example, but we can be upfront about it and offer the best quality service instead. A good banker will forge a great relationship with the customer and focus our value proposition on the quality of our service and not simply on rates.

I had a customer who left our bank because they wanted a better loan rate from a different bank, and within a year, they came back to East West Bank. I guess the accounting manager missed me a lot (laughs) because she told me that she missed my voice. Every time she called the other bank, they kept referring her to a 1-800 number. Our customers understand the value of our relationship, especially when it comes to trust in handling financial matters.

How do you measure success and motivate your team of consumer and business bankers?

I like to look at the overall relationship our bankers have with our customers. I try to motivate my team to say “yes” to the customer, even if it means a little more work on their end to meet their needs. Understanding the art of negotiation rather than saying “no” is very important, and we try our best to gain and retain our customers. We share the performance and progress of our team at each of our branch managers’ meetings, and this is where we discuss ways to improve our negotiating skills. I lead these meetings and like to showcase examples because instead of just telling our bankers that a rate of 2.5 percent is too high, they should understand the impact of these numbers. I like to show the math behind interest rates, give examples of performance efficiency and help bankers find ways to improve the overall customer experience.

I actually try to stay away from comparing rates because it’s just a commodity. Our competitive advantage, really, is our unparalleled service because you really can’t quantify that. Lately, we’ve been giving out exclusive, customized and unique gifts to customers to show how much we appreciate them. We collaborate with Marketing to choose our gift items carefully to make sure they are sophisticated and can add value. The feedback we’ve received from our customers is that we have exceptional gifts and even more exceptional customer service.

My job is to keep everyone engaged with the same goal, which is constantly aligned to our bank’s goals and strategies. I think that a lot of executives and branch managers at other banks focus on two numbers: how many new deposits were made and how many accounts were opened in a given period of time. But you have to ask yourself, does this really align with the bank’s direction or strategy? Perhaps indirectly. But I like to take it one step further. I’ve added another metric in addition to those baseline numbers, and that is to measure the net gain and net growth of our bank deposits. Why? Because this number shows real results. We don’t ever want to encourage a Wells Fargo situation where employees feel pressured to simply churn out big numbers without achieving the actual goal of the bank. The net growth is transparent, and the numbers can’t be easily manipulated. So, I find it very helpful to focus on our bank’s overall net growth.

How did you enter the world of banking?

Well, the very simple answer is that this was all an accidental career (laughs), but the detailed answer is this: I moved from Hong Kong to the U.S. in the 1980s and knew that there were two things I needed to do right away. The first was to find a college to attend, and the second was to find a part-time job. My late uncle had advised me to find an entry-level job in banking, since I had a keen interest in accounting. He told me that a bank position signaled professionalism and would provide an opportunity to open doors for a financial career.

I joined East West Bank in 1995, about four weeks after we became a state-chartered commercial bank. I still believe that my move to East West Bank was the most important career decision in my life.

Given how busy you are in your leadership position, what are some things you do outside of that role?

I really don’t have much time outside of work and being a full-time mother. But whenever I do find time, I love to cook for loved ones. I love eating out at restaurants, tasting a dish and replicating it in my own kitchen. The other day, we ate pasta with pink cream sauce, so I challenged myself to replicate it, and I did, using a tomato bisque soup mixed with ketchup to get that pinkish color. I love hosting parties at my house and really finding any occasion to bring people together and share food. I’ll let you in on another secret. I have two daughters who are big into BTS (Korean K-pop), so I enjoy listening to BTS too! It makes me really happy when my daughters call me the coolest mom.

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