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Mashreq is the oldest privately owned bank in the UAE – but that’s about the only thing that’s antiquated about the company. Since it was established in 1967, the bank has been an IT pioneer in Dubai – from installing the Emirate’s first ATM, to being the first to issue debit cards and consumer loans.
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Last year, it became one of the first banks in the world to integrate with Apple’s Siri for voice-powered payments and was the first in the UAE to introduce a homegrown artificial intelligence (AI)-powered customer service chatbot.
Aref Al-Ramli, vice-president and head of digital banking and innovation at Mashreq, has spent 14 years with the bank. He described himself as half-techie, half-banker.
“I love the fact that it’s a hybrid job,” he said. “It keeps me busy. Technology is changing very fast and I need to be up to date.
“In this role, I’ve never done the same job for more than three months. It’s the change that keeps me excited.”
The UAE is an especially fast-moving market for technology as the country has smartphone penetration rate of 78%, one of the highest rates in the world.
Mashreq also faces competition from non-banking players, such as peer-to-peer lending apps and crowdfunding sites. “Every year, I send all of my team to an innovation expo that has nothing to do with banking,” said Al-Ramli. “We look at innovation best practices in general.
“The most challenging part of my job is keeping up with the industry. Banking is no longer the conventional banking industry as we know it. A lot of industries and stakeholders are trying to enter the sector, such as Facebook, Apple and Samsung.
“There are also companies that are getting really creative with their product launches. These are usually bankers who are trying their luck with running their own businesses and they focus on one area. They can launch products that eventually will compete with us banks.”
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To engender a fast-paced innovative culture, Al-Ramli does not hire only bankers. “I try to hire people that are outside the banking industry so they have fresh ideas and aren’t aware of the the boundaries that banking has,” he said.
Al-Ramli currently runs a team of six developers and 20 IT support staff. “They are good at innovating and this works for us,” he said. “I have 13 different nationalities in my team. I try to get either entrepreneurs or people who have worked in internet startups.”
Many of Mashreq’s innovations stem from his team’s ability to keep on testing and learning. “We measure performance by adoption,” he said. “Is the customer adopting it? Is it improving customer service? What is the feedback? We measure scores every quarter for each channel.”
Another technology performance metric is return on investment, which is realised when the bank can shift the work of human staff to digital channels, said Al-Ramli.
As Mashreq embarks on what Al-Ramli describes as an “aggressive innovation plan” to coincide with its 50th anniversary, he is grateful for the total support of the bank’s CEO and founder, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair.
“All these innovations are pushed down from our CEO,” he said. “He is very futuristic in his thinking and he even gets involved in the testing phases, and so on. I feel blessed.
“We are taking the anniversary as a theme for us to continue innovating and improving the bank. We have a lot of proposals for this – some will be regional and global firsts.”
The bank, which posted a full-year turnover of $2.2bn in 2015, will plough a large slice of its revenues into innovation and research to continue to optimise and streamline its customer service channels. Last year’s release of Mashreq Bot, an AI agent or chatbot, is a sign of things to come at the bank, said Al-Ramli.
The chatbot has been programmed by in-house developers to simulate an intelligent conversation with users. Customers can use the chatbot to display banking products and perform cardless cash transactions, low-ticket local transfers and inquire about balance and recent transactions on an account. The bot will be integrated into all the bank’s digital platforms, making it easier to access account information from different locations using one password.
“We will keep on enhancing our AI capabilities and have a roadmap of products and services to be integrated with the chatbot,” said Al-Rami. “As we built the chatbot in-house, there is even a chance that we could sell the technology to others.”
In another AI push, Mashreq has integrated its digital banking functions with Apple’s Siri for voice-powered payments. To transfer payments, users simply tell Siri how much they want to send, to whom, and confirm the transaction using either their PIN or touch identification. Transfers can only be sent to registered contacts in the phone and the limits are low, keeping it anywhere between AED1 and AED500.
“The focus in the next five years will remain on digital,” said Al-Ramli. “We will look at technology not only for customer-facing services, but also to streamline our technology and processes and make us more efficient.” He said the bank would look at big data, in particular, to enhance the general customer experience and cross-selling opportunities.