Innovator Q&A: The customer experience is at the core of fraud strategy with Mary Ann Miller of Varo

Mary Ann Miller is Advisor and previous Fraud Strategy Leader at Varo, a mobile-only FDIC-insured banking app that is highly rated not only for no-fees checking and high-yield savings but outstanding customer service as well. Miller, who in previous positions executed complex, large-scale fraud and risk management strategies for enterprises all over the world, says customer experience is always at the heart of what she does.

She talked about this obsession and why it’s so critical to business success today with Mike Sasaki, leader of the Mitek Systems global customer success team.

You really stand out, Mary Ann. I don’t usually hear experts in fraud and security management talking so knowledgeably about customer experience. Is there a side trip into marketing hidden somewhere in your resume?
Mary Ann: I probably am atypical, but make no mistake, I’m a techie, with a career-long focus on technology strategy and execution for fraud and security management. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to work on the cutting edge, with AI technologies like neural networks and machine learning. Fraud management was the first area to deliver practical business benefits from AI. Now it’s really exciting to bring it to account onboarding and a much broader range of online consumer interactions.

What has enlarged my perspective beyond tech is that I’ve developed financial services, retail, e-com, and alternative payments systems for use by consumers throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia Pacific, and Africa. So cultural considerations— how people want to interact with systems—are always top of mind for me. At the end of the day, the technology is serving a fundamentally human experience, which is managing our money. So I’m always thinking about not only usability but how the experience feels to the consumer. And as a consumer myself, I’m always doing field research.

So I’m guessing you would say that customer experience is just as important as security, right?
I’d prefer to avoid setting them up in comparison. There’s too much talk about frictionless experience and security being a tradeoff. Why should consumers have to choose between security and ease? Why should having more of one mean having less of the other? My job is to find innovative ways to make security disappear into and permeate an easy and enjoyable customer experience.

I know you’re particularly focused on identity verification for onboarding. Why is that so important?
Well, at Varo, we’ve done so many things to remove friction for our customers— like eliminating minimum balances and fees for overdrafts, transfers, and foreign transactions. We also promise “happy, human, and helpful customer service.” But all of that has to start with the very first interaction. Otherwise, we may never get the chance to fully deliver. My favorite customer comment was when someone said “It’s been one great surprise after another.” And the first great surprise is easy and secure onboarding.

Okay, while you’re probably not going to share your secrets, can you give us some broad outlines for how you do that?
Sure. I follow two principles: The first is that security needs to happen naturally, built into the flow of the mobile app. Customers should feel they’re being asked the right questions and guided to take actions at the right time. And the app has to give them the right responses, giving them appropriate feedback at each step, and then letting them know when they’ve been approved. My second principle is that security should be as invisible as possible, working in the background without even being aware of it. I’m a big fan of passive security technologies like the army of AI bots Mitek uses to check tiny little details of a consumer’s ID document in an instant.
How do you see the future of onboarding?
Well, technology and market needs are always changing, but I think in the foreseeable future we’re going to see onboarding become a really natural process. When you think about it, a decade ago most people were physically depositing their checks at banks. Today, we don’t think anything of snapping a photo of our checks to make mobile deposits. I think identity verification for onboarding new accounts is about to become just that easy and widely adopted.