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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Metro Bank digital chief Alex Park on biometrics and digitising branches

When Alex Park joined Metro Bank as head of digital 16 months ago, the company was already investing heavily in digital, and this has continued in the months since his arrival.

The bank, which was founded by Vernon Hill in 2010 as the first challenger in 150 years to the UK’s high street banking giants, recently rolled out an option for customers to open up a current account online, without having to go into a branch.

The company said that people could apply for the account with a ‘selfie’ (on a camera with more than 4 megapixels), in addition to an e-mail address, mobile number, photo ID and three years of address history.

This is just one of the company’s digital initiatives – and the ‘selfie’ part of the process is an area that Metro Bank has been focusing on specifically.

“We’re looking to get the best-in-class authentication using biometrics consisting of facial recognition and behavioural metrics that enable us to understand how our customers hold their phones and how they type,” says Park, adding that all of these things are a form of a signature that can be used to provide more robust authentication for customers.

The company has already decided what it wants authentication to look like and considered the trade-off between security and usability.

“We’ve already mapped out our processes and have our designs created, now it’s about going ahead and building that,” Park explains.

The bank will need the help of a third party because biometrics is an area in for which it doesn’t have expertise in-house. It has already shortlisted vendors and a final decision is imminent.

But will customers have to use these different types of biometric authentication methods to access or use Metro Bank’s application?

“It’s about customer choice, we’re not going to force anyone to do anything. For example, if our customer was setting up a new beneficiary, we have numerous mechanisms to check if it is the right user, and equally we can do that with facial recognition,” Park states.

Metro Bank has asked its customers what they think too; Park says that the company’s research unveiled that some customers would welcome biometrics, believing that the technology was already mainstream but that others were not quite ready for it.

“There were varying degrees of readiness for facial and voice, but if you look at the trends it’s going to mature. The launch of the iPhone X [which comes with Apple’s Face ID technology] has helped to make customers more aware,” Park says.

Making bricks and mortar digital

Park suggests that Metro Bank is in an enviable position.

“You have major banks which have branch networks that are mired with legacy systems that are hard to move quickly and built at a time where economics have moved on, and they’ve had to scale back and reposition at stores, then you have fintech companies that don’t have stores and just have online offerings,” he says.

Metro Bank sits somewhere in the middle – it has 55 retail banks now, and it has plans for this to grow to 110.

But Park says that the organisation wants to do “something different” with these stores – by making them more digital.

“The bricks and mortar world is making a comeback; customers are getting saturated by digital-only experiences,” he claims.

Two years ago, Metro Bank’s co-founder Anthony Thomson, who set up rival Atom Bank, took a swipe at his old company’s vision to build more branches, saying that “the world has moved on”.

But Park believes that Amazon’s chain of retail bookstores dubbed Amazon Books, along with the tech giant’s foray into grocery stores with Amazon Go, suggests that customers want a combination of digital and physical experiences going forward.

“People tend to look at branches or stores and think about all of the processes that can be digitised and conclude that there isn’t a need for a store, but what they forget is that stores in ten years’ time will be different to what they are today,” he says.

He adds that when something such as asking for a balance or standing order in-store becomes commoditised, something else becomes valuable. People – both employees and customers – can then spend their time doing other things.

An example, and somewhere that Metro Bank could eventually look to invest in is in small business banking.

“There is a demand for small businesses and sole traders who need information, so I see a world where we have some regional hubs tailored for small businesses, where staff are better educated about businesses and their needs,” he says.