Wells Fargo Tries to Make Logging In as Easy as Blinking

Register now

At an internal Wells Fargo conference a few years ago, a commercial customer panelist unloaded the contents of his pants' pockets onto the table.

Among the stuff were tokens, objects the size of a thumb that generate a code customers need to execute higher-risk transactions digitally, such as wire transfers.

To the customer, the tokens for his various bank accounts were a nuisance. To Secil Watson, head of wholesale Internet solutions for the San Francisco bank, the nuisance was an opportunity.

"The harder the problem, the more excited I am," said Watson, who has six direct reports and a total of 172 team members.

The problem, as she and her team saw it, wasn't just the tokens, it was the whole login experience for commercial clients. They needed to input the name of the company, their username and a password. For higher-risk transactions, they also needed to enter a pin code and the code from the token.

"It's two things to remember and many, many things to type in," Watson said.

This summer, that list will be reduced to just one thing: an eyeprint. Commercial customers will be able to use the iPhone's camera to identify themselves via the veins in the whites of their eyes, getting them into Wells' CEO Mobile app much more quickly.

The planned rollout is among the reasons why Watson is a Digital Banker of the Year finalist and is symbolic of what pumps Watson about her career: solving puzzles that help save her customers time.

"If I can save people five minutes every week, that adds up to a lot of human resources and effort across the country," said Watson.

With the eyeprint authentication, Wells is taking a process that typically takes 30 second down to a few seconds. In fact, the authentication method was so fast that Wells slowed down the process to address customers' suspicions that arose during the pilot. Now, the eyes must follow a green target to access the mobile app. (Customers can still login the old way, too.)

The biometrics work comes as banks worldwide continue to try to find alternatives to usernames and passwords — a process that's even more convoluted for business customers.

"There are so many things about using tokens that can be problematic," said Shirley Inscoe, a senior analyst at Aite Group. For instance, the token's battery could die or the customer could break it.

Its commitment to biometrics should give Wells Fargo a competitive advantage, said Inscoe.

By and large, she believes ever-more biometrics will be used to ease the login process for consumers and businesses. "Passwords have long outlived their usefulness," she said.

Other financial services companies like USAA and MasterCard are using facial recognition to ID customers — an experience requiring comparable actions of customers.

Solving authentication issues is a quickly evolving area — even Wells changed course midway through its pilot.

Watson said Wells had planned on letting customers login to the app using voice and facial recognition technology. But after listening to customer feedback and watching the eye biometric technology become less awkward and get a higher hit rate, Watson's team did an about-face.

"You can't be too dogged about it," Watson said about how she and her team approach innovation. "You need to be open to feedback and changing course."

It also helps that the eye login technology was already being fine-tuned under the Wells' umbrella. EyeVerify, the company that supplies the biometric technology Wells uses, participated in the bank's tech accelerator.

Exploring nascent technology well in advance of a launch is one of the most important things banks should be doing, Watson said.

Watson, who reads New Scientist magazine to learn about new technology, says it's critical to catch the demand at the right time — an endeavor that requires for her to plan at least two years ahead of commercializing something because innovation often takes longer in banking.

That's perhaps even truer for commercial innovation, which has lagged consumer innovations.

In this, Wells' Watson has an advantage: Before she led oversaw digital products for commercial customers, she oversaw the the bank's digital retail products.

"The experience was informative," Watson saud. "Fifteen years is a long time for the Internet."

She says commercial customers are now asking for more features; they want their commercial experience to be similar to their personal experience.

Besides the eyeprint, Wells Fargo has most recently been testing an Apple Watch app for commercial customers. Whether business users want to use a smart watch to interact with a bank is to be determined, but the only way to find out is to test it and collect customer feedback.

Cody Mamone, treasury manager at Nuverra Environmental Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., was among the Apple Watch pilot customers.

One day while playing golf with a banker, Mamone, who logs into online banking two or three times daily to get a balance, recalls saying he wished Wells Fargo had an app for the smart watch. To his surprise, the bank had a prototype built for him to test. Now, he hopes to pilot more technologies that aim to make mundane tasks breezier for commercial customers.

If digital banking "wasn't up to standard, I would go to another vendor overnight," Mamone said.

Watson says Mamone's expectations are on par with others. She says commercial customers are now asking for more features; they want their commercial experience to be similar to their personal experience.

"The demand is there," she said. "Consumers' expectations are changing and corporate customers are consumers in their day-to-day life."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Mobile banking Authentication Biometrics Digital banking