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Indian banks will have to adapt rapidly to the disruptive changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic through greater data-driven decision making and digitization in day-to-day functioning, said Arundhati Bhattacharya, chairperson and chief executive of Salesforce India. In an interview, Bhattacharya said that as digitization becomes pervasive, flexible banking will emerge in a big way, and employees and customers will increasingly become location-agnostic in the way they do business. Edited excerpts:

Can you help us map what the next 6-12 months will look like for the economy and the Indian banking industry?

The banking industry was facing a number of challenges when the pandemic hit. Obviously, problems are going to multiply. That being the case, I think in the next few months, what banks need to do is how they are going to get ready for the future. The future is going to be different from anything we have seen in the past. Banks will have to look at how they approach the entire customer journey—whether they want to be distribution-heavy and branch-light or whether they want to be asset-light, liability-heavy and transaction-heavy. But one uniform thing among all banks will be the fact that they have to be data-driven and more digital. All of these have to be delivered in an omni-channel manner and you have to allow everybody to work from anywhere they choose to, whether it be employees, customers, vendors or service providers. You will have to make those arrangements so that this can become a reality. Disruptions will keep occurring but your business cannot stop. This is one of those rare moments when people do really need to pivot because if they don’t, you are looking at an uncertain future.

How do you view regulatory forbearance at a time when balance sheets are stressed?

India experienced a similar event when demonetization happened. All businesses had to change the way they were doing businesses. Of course, the fact remains that at that point of time, we didn’t have uncertainty about when the problem would end. We knew that there was a finite time of 2-3 months. We know a number of businesses did go under, but a year down the line, people were recovering. The fact is that the Indian economy is resilient because of its demography, the number of people we have and the demand we have. Lot of demand emanates from the bottom. This year, agriculture is doing well. There will be money in the hands of farmers. Money will flow into rural areas. The government will also fund Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. There are several things being done to put money in the hands of the people. One big problem is when do we see things getting back to near normal. In another way, it is also a good time because people are realizing it’s necessary—digital is necessary. People will work even if you are not peering over their shoulders. There is no need to get them to sign the register. Much of the work can be done from anywhere. That will ensure that our productivity goes up, efficiency goes up.

What are the things you wish you knew as a banker that you now know as CEO of Salesforce India?

Today, I’m discovering cloud offerings, I didn’t have an understanding as a banker. We went about it intuitively. Thank God our intuition was right. That is why SBI today is a digital bank. But today, there are so many things such as data analytics, robotics and automation tools that are available. When I was at the bank (SBI), I used to wonder whether banks will be technology companies and I’m increasingly becoming aware of this. There is a lot of flexibility now which will help improve productivity. Also, another thing as a banker was the importance of education—how to educate staff and keep them updated about all master circulars. We also need to be able to understand four or five industries which are impacting us closely.

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